Jason Vargas: The Model of Consistency

Dave · September 3, 2012 at 11:07 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

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.

Season IP BB% K% GB% xFIP-
2012 184.2 6.3% 15.5% 40.7% 106
2011 201.0 6.9% 15.3% 36.4% 110
2010 192.2 6.7% 14.3% 36.3% 110
2009 91.2 6.2% 14.0% 36.6% 104

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.

Source: FanGraphsJason Vargas

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.


12 Responses to “Jason Vargas: The Model of Consistency”

  1. Slats on September 3rd, 2012 11:39 pm

    Vargas at home in 2012: FIP = 3.39/xFIP =3.69
    Vargas at away in 2012: FIP = 5.87/xFIP = 4.90

    Massive differents in splits between home and away.

    On a side note: What are the chances of the fences being moved in at Safeco?

  2. justinh on September 4th, 2012 12:04 am

    I just wonder how this situation will play out if, and when the M’s brass decides to move the fences in a the Safe.

    Whereas two or three months ago I thought it was a given the fences would be coming in, with the increased productivity at home and the fact your current number 2 starter is a 1b at home will make it a little more interesting.

    We all know LCF is where the fences would be brought in. However, if the M’s are forced to stay with Vargas as the number 2 it maybe worth waiting another year. If the fences are going to be brought in I don’t think I’d want to see the FO and Vargas go to arbitration. Regardless I’d like to see the Iwakuma situation take president over Vargas but in an ideal world I’d like to have Vargas on board for 2/12 as well.

  3. wabbles on September 4th, 2012 12:16 am

    Well Dave, to quote Ronald Reagan from his 1980 debate with Jimmy Carter, “There you go again.” Another brilliant post. Usually the discussion is about buying out somebody’s arbitration and/or free agency years. The idea of bluffing on his arbitration and then resigning him is brilliant. I dunno. Re-sign Vargas at a reasonable price. Re-sign Iwakuma at a reasonable price. Extend King Felix. Dumpster dive in the free agent market or waiver wires until the kids are ready….It. Just. Might. Work.

  4. Westside guy on September 4th, 2012 1:00 am

    A two year contract makes sense. I wouldn’t want them to go longer than that, though.

  5. Sowulo on September 4th, 2012 1:27 am

    I don’t think that factoring in Vargas’ road record as a single stat tells the whole story. Yes, when he is bad, he is horrible. But of his 17 road starts this season, he has given up 3 or fewer runs in 10 of them. A starter who can dominate at Safeco and give the M’s a quality start on the road 59% of the time seems to be more valuable than one who gets hammered on the road and does well at home such as the article suggests.

    Interesting enough. Vargas has the same number of quality starts on the road this year as he has at home. He is 10 of 12 (83%) at home.

    Furthermore, if you just remove 3 road starts where he surrendered 4,5, and 10 runs in fewer than 5 innings and you’ll see that he has only surrendered 36 runs total in his other 14 road starts. 2.57 runs per start is a formula for a lot of chances to win road games.

    2 bad outings and one horrible outing out of 17 road starts should not be earning him the amount criticism his road record gets.

  6. wabbles on September 4th, 2012 1:38 am

    “Interesting enough. Vargas has the same number of quality starts on the road this year as he has at home. He is 10 of 12 (83%) at home.
    Furthermore, if you just remove 3 road starts where he surrendered 4,5, and 10 runs in fewer than 5 innings and you’ll see that he has only surrendered 36 runs total in his other 14 road starts. 2.57 runs per start is a formula for a lot of chances to win road games.”

    Right. But that’s exactly why we shouldn’t overpay for him. It’s the whole randomness, unpredictability thing. Yeah, it’s not cut-and-dried that he’s horrible on the road and great at home. But as a soft-tossing lefty, he always has that potential to either dominate, home or away, or get lit up, home or away. Ergo, let’s squeeze him a bit and sign him to a reasonable mid-term deal.

  7. Sowulo on September 4th, 2012 1:57 am

    Interestingly enough Vargas has allowed 5 or more earned runs in a game 5 times all season. Felix? 4 times. Regardless of how hard he throws, Vargas has shown a pretty consistent ability to give his team an excellent chance to win. He’s not worth the $20 mil Felix gets but I do think he’s established that he’s not your run of the mill soft-tossing lefty either. $16 mil for two years seems very reasonable to me.

  8. maqman on September 4th, 2012 2:42 am

    I agree with Dave’s analysis.

  9. djw on September 4th, 2012 4:16 am

    Yes, when he is bad, he is horrible.

    No. When he’s bad, it’s generally because of luck and factors beyond his control. See also: when he’s really good.

    There are pitchers who seem to show up with different stuff on different days. Vargas has never appeared to be one of them to me. Regardless of results, he seems to be throwing the same stuff. I’ve never really grasped the talk of “good Vargas” and “bad Vargas”.

  10. Dave on September 4th, 2012 7:09 am

    Quality Starts is a completely arbitrary and useless statistic. It means nothing.

    Evaluating a pitcher by the number of runs allowed he gives up is a bad idea. You shouldn’t do it.

    Deciding to selectively throw out data that doesn’t fit your conclusions is silly. Don’t do it.

  11. goat on September 4th, 2012 9:52 am

    A few weeks ago I was thinking the M’s should offer Vargas something like this based off of nothing other than it’s similarity to what they offered Jack Wilson a few years ago to buy out his option year. Glad to see that Dave has a similar idea, and with better data to back it up.

  12. goat on September 4th, 2012 10:12 am

    Given the skillset of Vargas, it is not at all surprising that he would have three road games in which he was terrible compared to the other road games. But then again, it would be not at all surprising if instead of three, that had been one road game, or five road games, or seven road games. Not being surprised by something doesn’t mean that you can expect to have the same results consistently going forward.

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