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At 34 Years Old, Jason Vargas Finds His Inner Ace

Vargas's pitches haven't changed, but by making small tweaks around the margins, the Royals' journeyman starter has become one of the best pitchers in baseball.

by Rian Watt
Jun 19 2017, 6:44pm

Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

At some point we all come to accept that we are, fundamentally, who we are. Maybe it's at 20, maybe it's at 50, maybe it's on our deathbeds, but we all reach the conclusion that this, this wrinkly and blotchy and disappointing and tired and beautiful vessel, this mind, this soul, is the one that we have.

For baseball players, who skip straight from an immature adolescence into a premature senescence, that realization often comes early, and brutally. Jason Vargas was old before he was 25, washed up and trying to find a third team after posting three disappointing big-league seasons. He had to know then, nearly ten years ago, that he was who he was: an extraordinary baseball player in the context of humanity, but not in the context of Major League Baseball.

Vargas journeyed from the Marlins to the Mets to the Mariners to the Angels and finally to the Royals. Today he is 34, and one of the five best pitchers in the American League.

How? Fourteen years into his career, and just two years removed from Tommy John, Vargas hasn't learned any new tricks. He hasn't really changed much of anything about the way he throws any of his three bread-and-butter pitches. His fastball still sits in the high 80s. His changeup still sits about six or seven miles an hour below that, and his curve ball another six or seven miles below that. His arm slot has moved a little bit, sure, but it's always been on the move. Now it sits about where it did back in 2010, when he was a solid pitcher but not yet elite.

And yet, the numbers. His ERA, at 2.10, is lower than anyone else's in the game save Dallas Keuchel; if it holds, it would be the best mark he's ever put up in a full season by more than a run and a half. His 3.24 FIP speaks to a little bit of good luck there, but it's also still 12th best in the game. And he's striking out one out of every five batters he sees. In this moment, at least in terms of simple brute measures of runs allowed, Jason Vargas is better than Clayton Kershaw.

He isn't actually better than Kershaw, of course, but right now he's pitching like he is. Which raises, again, the question of how. And that, it turns out, is an interesting question, because it raises the tantalizing possibility that, even when we know who we are, and even when we can't change that, we can tweak ourselves just a little, around the margins, and make ourselves something more than what we have been.

Here's the thing: Vargas's pitches are all the same, but the rate at which batters are swinging and missing them is not. After allowing contact between 80 and 90 percent of the time for much of his career, Vargas is now allowing contact just 75 percent of the time—and just 60 percent outside of the zone. He has dropped by over 20 percent the share of his strikeouts that come looking, which means he's getting an awful lot more swinging third strikes than ever before. All this without changing the speed or arm angle with which he releases the ball.

Three things have changed, two of which seem likely to last. First, as Sam Isenberg noted over at Fangraphs, Vargas has, post-surgery, demonstrated an improved his ability to spot his changeup exactly where he wants it, which is on the bottom corner of the strike zone. That, presumably, has both generated a few more called strikes than he's used to getting and saved him the ignominy of having mistake changeups hammered out of the park. That's thing one.

Second, he has allowed a much lower percentage of home runs per fly balls (5.9 percent) than he ever has before, and lower than anyone else in the league's top 20 in ERA. Some of that is just part of his profile—you don't survive long in this league as a fly-ball pitcher if you give up a ton of gopher balls—and some has to do with that changeup command, which is probably saving him a home run or two, but some of it is, one imagines, just plain old good luck early in the season. This is the thing about 2017 Jason Vargas that is least likely to last.

Vargas has benefitted from throwing three pitches from the same arm angle. Photo: Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports
Vargas has benefited from throwing three pitches from the same arm angle. Photo by Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

There's one more change to his profile that's making everything else play up, including that changeup (which, incidentally, has likely been the most valuable pitch of its kind in the entire league). Remember how I said that Vargas's arm slot has been on the move his whole career? There's a corollary to that statement: the movement is always in unison. Vargas has always thrown all three of his pitches from the same slot, and that's still the case. What's changed this year is that he's throwing his curve ball about 33 percent more often (to 20 percent, up from 15) than he ever has before.

That, in turn, means that hitters expecting an off-speed pitch now have a lot more to think about than they did before. Whereas in some previous seasons, Vargas was going to his fastball about 60 percent of the time, his changeup about 30 percent, and his curve for the remaining 10, this year the split is more like 50, 30, 20. That's a huge change in approach, and it has given Vargas options at the end of the count he didn't have before. It also helps to explain the rise in swinging strikes and the decline in strikeout rate, and suggests that at least some of the drop in Vargas's superb HR/FB right now might be sustainable, as hitters fail to time him up.

Vargas didn't have to change anything about who he fundamentally is to do this. He just had to put a different part of himself forward, slightly more often. Jason Vargas isn't Clayton Kershaw. Never was and never will be. Well past the halfway mark in his baseball life, however, he has found a way to pitch like Clayton Kershaw while remaining Jason Vargas. That's something special, even if it doesn't last all season.