Vargas On Vargas
First of all, I’m glad to be back writing for USS Mariner this season. I think this site is great, and I love the insight Dave and the other posters offer. I don’t pretend to be smart enough to break down the statistics the way Dave does, but I am lucky enough to have access to the clubhouse. So, I’ll try to offer the occasional look from a player’s perspective. You can agree or disagree with my conclusions or with the players’ point of view…just try to remember that we often see the game differently than they do.
In 2009, his first year in Seattle, [Vargas] threw 69% fastballs. Last year, he threw 60% fastballs. This year? 49% fastballs. It looks like he’s relied on his slider a lot more frequently in his first three starts, and he still throws a ton of change-ups – his best pitch by far. Given that his fastball is 87 without a ton of movement, throwing it less often seems like a pretty good plan to me.
The analysis makes sense. But I wondered if Vargas was even aware of the change, let alone if there was a reason behind it. So I asked.
“Really?” he asked me. “Huh. I’m not surprised but it hasn’t been intentional. I guess I would wonder what counts I’ve been in. I think I’ve been ahead of more hitters so I have been able to go to other pitches.”
He’s right. Amazingly, without reading my notes, Dave noticed the same thing. A week later (on April 23rd), he wrote that Vargas had a “big jump in first strike percentage (69.8% so far this year), allowing him to pitch ahead in the count and allocate most of his whiffs to two-strike situations where they’ll result in a knockout.”
Seems pretty simple. Case closed, right?
I also asked catcher Chris Giminez about the fastball dropoff and he had another theory.
“He’s been throwing a ton of cutters,” Giminez told me after catching Vargas against Oakland. “We used it against both right handed hitters and lefties. It’s an in-between speed so it might not show up as a fastball or a breaking ball.”
“We used it against righties to go front door for a strikeout looking,” Giminez continued. “Actually, we might have thrown 25 or 30 of them in the game. Or, versus righties we also went ‘fastball away, cutter away, changeup.’ It was all to set up the change for strike three. Honestly, his changeup is so good though, that we even tripled up on it.”
So why does the cutter work so well with the changeup?
The answer lies in the secret to a good changeup. Whereas most of us were taught that the change’s success depends on using the same arm angle, delivery and arm speed of a fastball, Vargas believes that isn’t enough to fool major league hitters.
“Most guys are paying more attention to the spin on the ball than anything else,” he explains. “The changeup has to spin like a fastball to be truly effective.”
As it turns out, his cutter “looks the same to righties as the changeup,” so he has been able to use it as a set-up pitch. But it has a nice fringe benefit as well.
Vargas likes to use the cutter to saw off he lefties inside or to get righties to hit it off the end of the bat.
“I think I am getting a ton of ground balls off that pitch,” he believes.
Survey says? True again.
According to Dave, Vargas is inducing groundballs 42.4% of the time this year compared to 36.3% last year and 35.2% for his career. The league average is ~43%, so he’s been basically an average groundball pitcher in 2011, despite being an extreme flyball pitcher for his career.
It remains to be seen how this will affect Vargas’s numbers. He has had some success since coming to Seattle, especially considering the way he has used Safeco’s dimensions to get flyball outs. But as players constantly remind me, success in the big leagues is all about adjustments. It’s not like he was a Cy Young candidate before, so adding to his repertoire seems like a great move to me.
I told Vargas about the change in his groundball/flyball ratio and he was not surprised. The next question, I suppose, is whether he will use that information to help him pitch differently at different parks.
“Honestly, my approach changes according to the lineup,” he told me. “Against a line drive hitting team like Oakland, I try to keep it on the outside corner.”
But that wouldn’t work against a home run hitting team like the Blue Jays.
“No, against them I tried to go inside early. I had to. You just can’t let them get their arms extended.”
Of course, Vargas is 1-2 this year with an ERA over 5. So maybe it’s time for him to throw more fastballs! Or maybe, we should let him work his way through this adjustment. Only time will tell.
Also, Matthew Carruth wrote about Vargas’ rising ground ball rates over at Lookout Landing today. Keep in mind that the slider and cutter are often tough to distinguish between, so what Matthew is calling a slider and what Vargas is calling a cutter is likely the same pitch.