Out of the Mariners’ five arbitration cases this off-season, Jason Vargas’ is the most interesting one. This is his final arbitration year, and he will be a free agent after the 2013 season. The Mariners acquired him as part of the very complicated trade between the Mariners, Mets, and Indians in 2008. According to MLB Trade Rumors’ Arbitration Tracker, he is projected to get 7.4 million dollars this off-season. According to FanGraphs’ WAR dollars, he was worth more than this in both 2010-2011. This year, he was worth just 3.4 million dollars according to that formula.
Vargas has a 110 ERA – and 113 FIP – in his career if you include his stints (that were relatively short) with the Marlins and Mets. The left-handed starter has about a 106 ERA – and 113 FIP – since joining the Mariners. That puts him basically in the category of 2012 Edinson Volquez, who is a much different pitcher in terms of stuff and command but gets similar results once you adjust for parks (Volquez obviously pitched in Petco Park in 2012, which is really the only park that is similar to 2012 Safeco Field in run prevention).
Unfortunately we aren’t really able to look at Pitch F/X data of Vargas’ time with the Mets/Marlins because the Mets career has small sample size problems and his Marlins career was before the Pitch F/X era. So instead, we will be looking at his data from his Mariner career. His average batted ball distance since 2007 is 260.371 feet and it was a little worse in 2012 with a 262.585. This is better than the worst full time pitcher in 2012, Ervin Santana (267.638) and Edinson Volquez (264.187) though not nearly as good as Erasmo Ramirez (245.77, which better than King Felix by about 5 feet!) or even Blake Beavan (258.547, 256.251 in the second half, so there was a slight improvement).
He gets slightly more swings on pitches that are out of the strike zone than an average pitcher, but also gives up more contact than average on those swings. He gives up more contact than league average and fails to get swinging strikes even close to a league average rate. While there is now a strikeout in about 1 to 5 MLB at-bats, Vargas strikes out just 15% of the hitters he faces.
The move of the fences at Safeco Field affected Vargas more than I think it will affect Smoak or Montero. To me, it seemed that Safeco turned a pitcher that couldn’t make it in the Majors with the Marlins and the Mets, into a servicable pitcher that looked really solid at times. It would seem that Vargas’ success was more about the ballpark than Vargas, and now the ballpark has changed. You could see the difference in HR/FB % in home and away just this season, as he had a 14.8 % on the road to a 9.2 % at home. The Mariners team pitching staff at home had a 8.2 HR/FB %. So even at home, he was more homer prone than most Mariner pitchers. His career splits are very severe. At home, he has a 3.45 ERA with a .370 SLG against (Michael Young, possibly the worst full time starter in baseball, had a .370 SLG in 2012). On the road, his ERA is 5.24 with a .472 SLG against (Nick Swisher had a .473 SLG in 2012).
Vargas had the 9th lowest average fastball velocity out of the 85 qualified starters in 2012. He threw just harder than the guy I am convinced is his long lost pitching brother in Tommy Milone, but just .1 MPH slower than Jered Weaver, considered one of the best pitchers in the game (career 77 ERA -). So if Weaver can have that kind of success with that kind of velocity, then why can’t Vargas? Having a harder cutter, along with a slider, and a slower curve certainly helps. Subjectively, in just watching the two, I would say that Weaver has better pitchability (mainly just having better command) and has much more movement on his pitches than Vargas. It also helps to look at maximum velocity. Weaver can run it up there when he wants/needs to. Vargas simply cannot. Weaver has thrown as hard as 96.8 MPH on his fastball, while Vargas’ max velocity is just 91.2 MPH (which is actually league average average fastball velocity. The hardest Vargas has ever thrown a fastball in the Majors is average). This is usually something that commentators love about Justin Verlander. He has that “extra gear”. While being able to strand runners is not necessarily considered a skill by statisticians, it is something Weaver has been able to do exceptionally well. League average LOB % was 71.5 % this year. Weaver’s career average is 77.1% (Vargas has a career 71.2 LOB %). FanGraphs estimates that Weaver’s ability to leave runners on base has already given him 2.1 extra wins (or saved 21 runs) in his career. FanGraphs WAR had Vargas worth 2.1 wins over replacement in 2011.
Along with the fastball, Vargas also throws a sinker and a cutter. He is throwing more 4-seam fastballs than he did earlier in his career, and he likes to throw both the sinker and the cutter more to left-handed hitters. I found this somewhat surprising, as you would expect that a pitcher would throw a cutter more to hitters that have the platoon advantage on them. Cliff Lee does throw the cutter more to fellow lefties, but the split is less dramatic than Vargas’. Dan Haren is a right-handed pitcher that throws more cutters (as a percentage) than any other qualified starter in baseball. He throws his cutter much more to righties than lefties. So it would seem that the common wisdom of “pitchers throw cutters more when they don’t have the platoon advantage” (at least this is something I have always heard) is at least somewhat of a myth. Vargas’ cutter is pretty soft, sitting at 84-85 MPH which is one of the slowest cutters in baseball (Wei-Yin Chen has an interesting big difference in velocity between his cutter and fastball, I bet his is actually a slider, much like C.C. Sabathia’s and Madison Bumgardner’s). According to run values (and hitters have been hitting it well this year), Vargas has one of the worst cutters in baseball (but Cliff Lee has the worst cutter in baseball, something I simply do not believe). Experience shows that it is a pitch that he has missed in the middle of the plate far too much with.
Vargas’ best pitch is his changeup, a pitch that can he can go to again and again when it is working right. He threw it over a quarter of the time in 2012, his second most used pitch behind his 4-seam fastball. In velocity, Vargas’ change is most similar to Weaver’s and former Mariner (who couldn’t get anyone out in Safeco) Ryan Rowland-Smith (if you just look at this year, it is between Patrick Corbin’s and Clay Buchholz). As far as horizontal movement, the changeup is elite, 3rd best out of qualified pitchers this year behind 2 very good pitchers in Chris Sale and Matt Moore. In vertical movement, it has some good company, as it is similar to Doug Fister’s and Tim Lincecum’s. That change is why Vargas is a big leaguer, and whether or not his change is working usually the determining factor as to whether or not he is good that night.
Vargas also has a curve that is not a very good pitch. He threw the pitch just 7% of the time in 2012 and it was worse than league average at getting hitters out according to wRC +. His velocity average fits in between Chad Billingsly and Tim Hudson, a couple of good names. It has some of the least horizontal movement in the MLB, similar to Tom Milone and Ryan Vogelsong (Joe Saunders and Matt Moore are also in the general area). In vertical movement, it is similar to Will Smith (someone the Mariners hit hard this year) and Mike Minor. He gets exactly the same amount of whiffs per swing on the pitch as Tom Milone and gets slightly less ground-balls than average with it, giving up a lot of line drives (you will never guess who is similar to him in that category, Tom Milone). In Vargas starts I have watched, it seems that he has a real problem in getting the pitch to stay down.
Before moving in the fences, I would have suggested that the Mariners go after (in trades) a couple of pitchers with low walk rates and high home run rates in hitter friendly parks. This would include guys like Phil Hughes, who struggled this year in New York with a 121 FIP – and has a 4.63 ERA for his career at home. His problem has always been the long ball, and he would struggle pitching in the Ballpark of Arlington when the Mariners play the Texas Rangers, but pitching in Safeco and the Oakland Athletics stadium would benefit Hughes immensely. Joe Blanton and Bronson Arroyo also fall in this category (like Vargas, they are pitchibility guys with stuff that wouldn’t stand out in a major college) , as both had big home run rates, but didn’t walk hardly anyone. I am not sure how the new Safeco will play, perhaps it will still be a pitcher friendly park. However there is some mystery surrounding how 2013 will look, and that makes the Vargas case really difficult.
You would hate to non-tender Vargas, get nothing for him and lose him. However, you would hate to pay 7.4 million dollars for a pitcher that could really struggle. Dave Cameron recently compared Vargas to Joe Saunders, who was non-tendered and then re-signed by the Arizona Diamondbacks before the start of the 2012 season. The comparison is interesting, but Saunders throws a little bit harder and has better numbers (98 ERA – and 108 FIP – for his career). Saunders pitched in 2012 for 6 million dollars on a one year deal. Could the Mariners take the approach the Diamondbacks did with Saunders? Possibly. One would think that there would be even less interest and less final money involved because Vargas simply isn’t as good. A rather interesting and unorthodox approach might be to non-tender Vargas and sign Joe Saunders (I will look at some possible starting pitching candidates for the Mariners in a future post).
He probably wasn’t anyway, but Vargas is not a part of the Mariners medium to long term future now that the fences have been moved in. The Mariners made it clear that they were less worried about the pitchers they currently have than they were worried about the hitters they currently have. I am not saying this is the wrong or right approach, but the Mariners’ pitching was not very good on the road this year. Unless they make serious improvements in their rotations in the off-season, the Mariners will most likely struggle pitching wise. I just don’t think that keeping Vargas around will help things. It seems that the trade deadline in 2012 spoke to the lack of interest in Vargas, so expecting to get anything real in return for him is not realistic. This is why it appears that the best option for the Mariners is to non-tender Jason Vargas and let him become a free agent.