Jason Vargas: The Model of Consistency
After another terrific performance at Safeco yesterday, Jason Vargas‘ traditional numbers make it appear as if he’s having a career year. After all, he’s set a career high with 14 wins, is almost certainly going to set a personal best in innings pitched, and with a few more solid outings, he could even post the best ERA of his career. While his season will be described as a breakout by some, his last four years are actually a case-study in amazing consistency. In the core statistics that measure the things most under a pitcher’s control, Vargas’ numbers are strikingly similar from year to year.
Yes, if you just look at the raw stats, his strikeout rate and ground ball rate are both up, which looks like good news. But strikeouts are up all across baseball, and relative to league average, Vargas’ strikeout rate is actually down slightly from last year, and pretty much in line with his career norms.
Basically, Vargas is this year what he has always been – a solid middle-of-the-rotation starter who gets a large benefit from Safeco Field, and whose results fluctuate based on factors that he doesn’t have total control over.
Interestingly, the key to Vargas’ success the last two years – home run prevention – has mostly escaped him this year, as he’s posting a 13.5% HR/FB rate, the highest mark he’s put up since joining the Mariners. Fly ball lefties in Safeco don’t generally have home run problems, but Vargas has been especially homer prone on the road this year, making up for — and then some — the home run suppressing abilities of his home park. Instead, he’s getting a lot of outs on balls in play, which is something he can likely continue at a better than average rate, but probably not at the .253 BABIP he’s put up this year. So, while we should expect him to get a positive bounce from his HR/FB decreasing in the future, the negative regression in his BABIP should counteract most of that, leaving us with a guy whose results actually do tell the story of what Jason Vargas can probably do as long as Safeco remains configured as it is now and he keeps pitching for the Mariners.
So, now the real question for the Mariners will be what they should do with Vargas this winter. He’s got one final crack at arbitration, and based on the numbers he’s putting up, a salary between $7-$8 million for 2013 should be expected. Is Vargas worth $8 million to the Mariners? Probably, given how well his skills line up with Safeco’s dimensions and the fact that the team’s better pitching prospects don’t appear to be big league ready to start 2013. Based just on those facts, offering Vargas arbitration and finding room for his raise in the budget would seem like the right move.
However, pitchers like Vargas don’t do very well in free agency. In fact, the closest thing in baseball to Jason Vargas — Joe Saunders — was in this exact same position a year ago, and he found out just how poorly the market treats pitchers with this skillset.
Last year, Saunders threw 212 innings for the D’Backs and posted an ERA- of 92, meaning that Arizona prevented runs at a clip of 8% better than average while he was on the hill. His peripherals didn’t match the ERA, though, and as a soft-tossing lefty who relied heavily on hit prevention for his results, the D’Backs decided that he wasn’t worth the raise he’d get in arbitration and chose to non-tender him instead. Saunders had made $5.5 million in 2010, so he was in line for something like that $8 million payday we’re projecting for Vargas, and Arizona bet that he wouldn’t get that much in free agency.
They were right. While Saunders hunted for a multi-year deal based on his strong IP and ERA totals, Major League teams decided that he wasn’t a guy they wanted to lock up long term, and he ended up re-signing with Arizona for $6 million, just a $500,000 raise over what he made before he had his “career year”. Saunders predictably regressed this year, and when the D’Backs realized that he wasn’t doing much for them, they shipped him to Baltimore after he cleared waivers.
It wasn’t just Saunders either. The Pirates bought out Paul Maholm‘s $9.75 million option, letting him hit free agency instead after he threw 162 innings with a 97 ERA-. He signed for $5 million for 2012, and gave the Cubs a team option on his 2013 season for $6.5 million that seems likely to be exercised now that he’s had an even better season than he did a year ago. And finally, Bruce Chen (155 IP, 92 ERA-) got $8 million over two years from the Royals with basically the exact same skillset as Vargas.
The market for these kinds of decent ERA/mediocre FIP no-stuff lefties was pretty dry last year, and while the new TV contracts are likely to drive some inflation again this winter, it seems unlikely that Major League teams are going to suddenly crave these kinds of pitchers. In general, an 88 MPH fastball and a good change-up gets you skepticism, and when you throw in Vargas’ extreme home/road splits, that skepticism has some data behind it.
I guarantee you that Vargas and his agent both know the huge gap in performance between his numbers in Seattle and not-Seattle, and I’m certain that his agent is going to look at these same comparisons from a year ago and realize that a non-tender is still a possibility, even though Vargas is superficially having the best year of his career. So, perhaps the best path for everyone here is to just skip arbitration entirely and make a deal that keeps Vargas in Seattle at a price that isn’t a huge raise over what he’s currently making.
For me, that right price is something like $12 million over two years. That’s what Chris Capuano got from the Dodgers in free agency last winter, and that’s the kind of contract the M’s could use to entice other soft-tossing lefties who might be interested in enhancing their numbers by coming to pitch in Safeco Field. If Vargas wanted to aim higher than that, or he was dead set on getting something closer to the $8 million 2013 salary he’d earn in arbitration, then the team could simply use their non-tender option and let him see just what the market is for a pitcher with a 4.84 ERA on the road this year.
Vargas is perfect for Safeco, and Safeco is perfect for Vargas. It’s a match that should continue, but the M’s don’t need to pay a premium to keep him around. Despite his terrific performances, the team has the leverage here, as they can find another strike-throwing, pitch-to-contact, low-velocity hurler easier than he can find another park where his fly balls won’t go sailing over the wall so often.
I’d like to see the M’s keep Jason Vargas around. History suggests that they don’t have to overpay him to do it, though. Don’t be fooled by the wins and the ERA – Vargas is the same guy he always has been, and these types of pitchers don’t require big contracts.