Thursday, May 19, 2011

If Jason Vargas Were Beer

You will do my bidding
When I think of Jason Vargas, I think of the sixer of Red Hook that someone inevitably left in my fridge after entertaining. It's always kind of there, I don't really want to go to it if I don't have to, every time I open the fridge, I pray there are better, stronger, options for my taste buds. And yet, about once a week because of scarcity, I go to it, reluctantly. And then it's usually not half bad and I sometimes even think about another. But then I go to the store, buy some Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA, Ninkasi Total Domination IPA, or maybe some BridgePort Hop Czar and I forget about my Red Hook for another several days.

That's Jason Vargas.

And yet, inexplicably (well, hopefully somewhat explainable), Jason Vargas is turning into...well, Diamond Knot Industrial IPA? A new local blue-collar-ish tasty option?

To date, Vargas has a sparkling 3.39 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, he's walking fewer batters per start than his career average, and he's striking guys out at a rate well above his career average at 6.33 K's/9 - not to mention the 9 he K'd last night versus the California Angels of the greater Los Angeles-Anaheim-area-go-Disney team. This is something to be pretty excited about, actually. But before I get too jazzed, let's drill down a little into the data to see just what the heck is going on with Vargas and his success.

First of all, Vargas has only been roughed up twice this year - once by the suddenly feared Indians and once by (cough, cough) Oakland. Other than that, he's had 6 either stellar or extremely good starts. That's not even giving him credit for beating Boston in Boston.

One very clear thing is helping Vargas, and that is avoiding the long ball and keeping the ball on the ground at a greater rate. His career ground ball to flyball ratio is .76 and this year he's nearing a one-to-one ratio at .95, seeing his ground ball % go from 36% last year to 41% this year. The important thing here is the concomitant drop in fly balls as his FB% has dipped from 47% to 43.3%, and somewhat related is the drop in home runs allowed per fly ball going from a career 7.8% down to 5.2%.

This may not seem like that big of a change, but for a pitcher not possessing blow-you-away-stuff, these little tweaks are significant. How he is doing it is another story.

Vargas has apparently added a new pitch to his repertoire - the cut fastball. Now, you might not be a pitching coach or have any knowledge whatsoever about what pitches do (other than that really super duper fun looking knuckler!) but the cut fastball is kind of a funny pitch. You take several miles per hour off your fastball, hold it like a four seamer, but if you put all the pressure on the side with your middle finger, and voila - you have a cut fastball. For right handed pitchers, it will move in on left handed batters and for lefties it will move in on right handed batters. Good ones sink a little too. They're effective if you have a decent four seam fastball and good location - because when you throw it, it looks exactly the same and then, whoosh, late movement. The cutter is why Mariano Rivera has dominated for so long.

Watch the highlights from his start here. The second strikeout, which came against strikeout machine Bourjos, was on a cut fastball. Torii Hunter's K was on a cut fastball. Mathis struck out on a cut fastball. Then you'll notice later in the game, he started going to his change away and started really confusing right handed hitters.Why this is so important is this:

.272 batting average, .443 slugging percentage, 1.82 K/BB ratio, 1.14 HR/9, 5.86 K/9, and 4.86 xFIP
.230 batting average, .333 slugging percentage, 2.83 K/BB ratio,  .81 HR/9, 6.90 K/9, and 3.89 xFIP

The top is his career versus righties and the bottom is 2011. He's also been more effective vs. lefties so far but considering they throw mostly right handed hitters at him (180 righties versus 59 lefties in total batters faced this year), how he performs versus right handed hitters is going to dictate his success. Right now, he's doing quite nicely.

We are just 9 starts into the year, and the "book" on Vargas will certainly be adjusted as teams start to figure out his new repertoire and where he likes to throw his pitches, so Vargas will also have to mix things up as the season wears on. But I'll recognize now that Vargas is a big part of any success this might have in the future, and his development as a pitcher has surprised me.

So Jason Vargas, you are no longer that unwelcome Red Hook in my fridge. I'm not sure what you are, but it's high time I start giving you more respect.