If you’ve been watching baseball the past decade, Jason Vargas is a name that probably rings a bell. Vargas is a career journeyman, spending time with the Marlins, Mets, Mariners, Angels and currently, the Royals. Between 2010-2014, Vargas had 3 2.0+ WAR seasons and averaged nearly 190 innings a season. While nobody classified him anywhere near Ace status, he developed a reputation as a solid 4/5 starting pitcher in the league.
After having Tommy John surgery in 2015, Vargas missed most of 2015 and 2016 season. Fast forward to 2017: Vargas is leading the league in ERA, ranks third in FIP*, and is Top 10 in BB%. So, what’s new? This must be a fluke, right? Wrong.
While Vargas likely won’t sustain a sub 1.50 ERA (he dropped it to 1.01 this week!), there are signs that indicate he can have continued success, even after missing two full seasons.
Per PITCHf/x, Vargas has been throwing his 2-seam fastball nearly 12% higher than his career average and 22% higher than his last full season. When used effectively, the 2-seam fastball can result in a high volume of groundballs. With an effective defense, this is a highly desired tool. His Groundball rate is up 4% from his career average, and with a Top 5 defense behind him, it is no surprise to see improved numbers here.
Vargas has also been throwing his slider again; The last time Vargas threw his slider was in 2011. He is not only throwing it again, but throwing it well. Having an effective slider in your repertoire allows for a change of pace pitch and usually serves as a “strikeout” pitch.
When it comes to his repertoire, the true improvement is the return of his changeup. It currently ranks as the second-best pitch in baseball, behind Chris Archer’s slider (which, by the way, is worth its own article). Vargas has always had a great changeup in his career, usually ranking anywhere from Top 5 to Top 20, but this year is different for two reasons. The first is that he now is effectively throwing his 2-seam fastball; in prior years, there wasn’t much effectiveness on the fastball front. But the second, and more important, is seen in the two graphs below.
The above graph is Vargas full last season (2014) and the below graph is 2017. You can instantly tell how much tighter the strike zone is in 2017; he knows exactly what spots he likes to hit. Can we talk about how difficult of a pitch that is to hit for RHB on the outside corner?
Vargas not only has managed his pitching selection significantly different than previous years, but has also been striking out more hitters than ever all while walking less hitters than ever. I’m not great at math, but even I know how impressive of a change that is at age-34. Vargas has been extremely effective this year at making hitters miss in the strike zone. His Swinging Strike % and Z-Contact % are both significantly better than career norms.
That doesn’t mean that Vargas isn’t due for some bad luck. His HR/FB rate is 6% below his career average at 2.6%, an unattainable full season number. The positive here, is that Vargas’s fly ball rate is 5% lower than his career average and his hard contact rate is 2% below career averages. While I expect a slight regression, I don’t envision a mid-season implosion.
Another potential downfall that needs to be mentioned is that Vargas will most likely be traded at the deadline. If the team that trades for him is not as skilled defensively as the Royals, we could see an uptick in his numbers with the way that he is currently relying on the 2-seam fastball.
I didn’t write this article to convince you that Jason Vargas is as good as the current greats. I wrote this article to show that this might not be a fluke of a season and that he might be better than old-Jason Vargas. Tommy John surgery is a funky thing. Some pitchers never recover; other pitchers find themselves and come back as strong as before (cc: John Lackey).
Vargas was 32-years old with $24 million in career earnings when he had Tommy john surgery. Instead of hanging up the cleats, he has put together a heck of a comeback season. Now let’s see if he can sustain it; judging by the numbers, my guess is that he will.