Jason Vargas has pitched his butt off this year, or his boobs as one Jeff Sullivan may say (Vargas really does look like Phil Mickelson in a baseball jersey). Nevertheless, Vargas is amidst his best season by far to this point.
For the record, I started writing this during the pregame show and thought I’d hold off to make sure Vargas didn’t drop the ball last night. Instead, he went out and posted perhaps his best outing of the year, with apologies to his nine innings of shutout ball his last outing.
But the biggest questions that need asking when a player suddenly starts posting better results are: Why? And are the results sustainable?
When Jason Vargas came to Seattle in the J.J. Putz trade, he looked like a sub-Quad-A throw in. A guy who’d had some success in the minors, none in the majors, and below-average peripherals. He’d just missed the entire 2008 season with hip labrum surgery, and had lost velocity since his college days while failing to develop his off speed pitches.
Vargas struggled again in 2009, but then something changed. Vargas went from a guy who threw about 70 percent fastballs and 20 percent changeups to a guy who threw about 60 percent fastballs and 30 percent changeups. Though the results were better, the peripheral stats didn’t really show improvement in 2010. His 4.60 xFIP was nearly equal to his 2009 4.61 xFIP.
Truth be told, it seemed like the only change in Vargas’ game was where he played his home ones. That worked for the Mariners, obviously, as Vargas was cheap and effective. Even if he never fully developed his repertoire, he may be overvalued by some other team and could ultimately still have value to the Mariners in trade once his salary increased in arbitration.
Basically, by throwing the two pitches at that rate, he’d made the fastball a little worse in terms of results but gained it back two-fold on his changeup results. With that, Vargas had gone from being a passable Triple-A starter to an average-to-below-average major league starter who had above-average results.
But perhaps something has changed for Vargas. According to PITCHf/x, Vargas has introduced a cutter this season. This could mean a lot of things. Anecdotally, Vargas has been throwing a cutter for a lot longer. As PITCHf/x improves and evolves, their thresholds for certain pitches become more refined. However, Vargas came into the league as a fastball-slider guy, and PITCHf/x hasn’t shown him throwing a single slider all year. They do have him throwing his cutter 22.6 percent of the time, which even if it had replaced his slider on Pitchf/x (which is nearly equal velocity), is nearly triple the frequency as he’s ever thrown his slider.
Whatever it is, it has been far more effective to this point than either his fastball or slider have ever been, good for 2.75 runs above replacement for every 100 times he throws it.
Last night may be the ultimate display of keeping hitters off balance for Vargas, as he threw 34 four-seam fastballs, 33 cut-fastballs and 32 changeups. There was a total of 7.4 mph difference in average velocity, 3.6 between the four-seamer and the cutter and 3.8 between the cutter and the change.
What this has led to, in whatever capacity one believes, is that this year Vargas has struck out more hitters, kept more batted balls on the ground, while posting what amounts to a career-low in terms of walk rate.
So when considering an extension during arbitration years, the Mariners have a few tough questions to ask themselves: Is Jason Vargas as good as his results indicate? Will he be in two years? Is a prospective discount worth the risk of guaranteeing Vargas two or three years? How much of his success has to do with Safeco Field, and how replaceable is Vargas? And how have Vargas’ contemporaries fared on the free-agent market?
The first two answers are highly debatable and fluid in nature until when the Mariners truly examine Vargas’ viability.
The rest of them may be due for some perspective. Vargas is making $2.45 million this year, he’ll have two more years of team control when the year is done, including two more trips to arbitration. If we subscribe to the 20-40-60-80 rule, Vargas would be due about $3.5 million in arbitration with equal production to last year, but a better 2011, which appears likely, and he’ll be headed for a much greater pay day. If we assume that Vargas compiles a full season better than 2010, which is probably the only outcome that leads to an extension, he’d probably be looking at about $5 million.
If we presume an accelerated $5 million mark for the “60” portion of the value schedule, we can assume that he’d be looking at about $6.5 million in 2013, the year before his first shot at free agency. Last year, Vargas was worth 2.6 WAR, or $10.4 million according to Fangraphs. He appears to be en route to much greater value this year, already compiling 1.1 WAR in 2011. About a quarter of the way through the season so far, it isn’t inconceivable to see Vargas post four wins this year, which would put his value around $20 million. If that happened, presuming a three-year deal which would buy out Vargas’ arbitration years and one free-agent year, you’re probably be looking at a contract range of $15-25 million.
Is any part of that a comfortable range? Vargas has essentially been good for the past about 250 innings, with only about 60 coming with supporting peripherals.
One of the major criticisms of Vargas is how heavily aided he is by Safeco Field. He’s pitched well at the home-ball park and not so well on the road. Though this year’s splits are much less defined (in a tiny road sample), there may be reason to believe that the gap between Vargas’ home FIP and xFIP, as well as ERA, are sustainable, as it logically makes sense for Vargas’ HR/FB to stay low in the power-sapping Safeco Field.
The hardest thing for Vargas to sustain, and ultimately the deciding factor for the viability and size of an extension, is his success on the road. So far this year, Vargas has a 47.8 percent ground-ball rate on the road, compared to a 35.5 percent for his career. If the cutter is doing it, there is something presently-unquantifiable that the Mariners may be able to look on as a building block for future success, but if it isn’t when Vargas regresses back to his mean, and his newly-found increased ground-ball rate go away, so will his positive results.
There really hasn’t been a great market set for pitchers like Vargas’ in the past couple years. His low walk and strikeout total are unmatched by the likes of Ted Lilly, Randy Wolf and Jorge de la Rosa. Each averages more strikeouts and more walks, while being skewed toward a fly-ball propensity. Each entered actual free agency, which Vargas won’t see for two more years. And each signed a three-year contract worth close to $30 million.
The best comparable is Wandy Rodriguez. He finished his fifth year of service time last year, a year that saw him make $5 million after a four-win season, which followed a $2.6 million season that was sparked by a 2.6 win season. Rodriguez posted a 3.6 win season last year, and at the age of 32, with one more year of team control, signed a three-year, $34 million deal.
The Mariners have a very tough decision to make with Jason Vargas, and on smell test alone, he doesn’t seem to meet the $10-plus million per year price tag. So if the Mariners want to extend Vargas ever, they should do it this season or offseason, otherwise, they’ll be paying a premium for highly debatable value.