I’ll come back as a fan and bring my kids to the stadium… Most of the players play until [someone] takes their uniforms off. For me, it’s not the way it should be… I love my family and I love my kids, and I want to be there with them. I want to see them growing up. And if I don’t, when I’m 50, I’m going to regret that, and I don’t want to regret that. I’ve seen it too many times.
This isn’t the first time that Vazquez has talked about retirement, but it’s the most explicit he’s ever been. Back in August, he told reporters that he and his family had come to a decision, and he would announce it after the season. It’s not that he doesn’t have it any more: he’s been simply brilliant over his last 18 starts, with a 1.91 ERA and a sparkling 106/19 strikeout to walk ratio in 117 2/3 innings. But the man is 35, he has three kids (ages eight, six and three), and as Craig Calcaterra writes: “The guy has made around $92 million in his career… If he truly wants to retire now, let no man say that he hasn’t earned the right to do it.”
Vazquez has earned the right, and he’s earned the money, but he has also left a lot of fans disappointed, most notably in New York. He’s famous for underperforming his peripherals: over the course of his career, his ERA is 4.23, but his FIP is 3.91 and his SIERA is 3.65. A week ago, Eric Seidman wrote that Javier Vazquez’s success was generally a function of his fastball velocity and his inability to strand runners on base (his career strand rate is just 70.8 percent).
Just how far from the norm has Vazquez’s performance been? Of all 30 pitchers in baseball history with at least 2500 strikeouts, Javier Vazquez has the highest career ERA, by nearly half a run. In second place is Chuck Finley at 3.85, and third is Mike Mussina at 3.66. He also has the fewest career wins of any 2500-strikeout pitcher, just 164, 30 fewer than second-place David Cone, thanks in part to spending nearly half his career in Montreal. Vazquez was one of the best strikeout pitchers in baseball history, yet his results were too often mediocre. Other writers have asked why. Now that he’s near the end, the time has come to take a good look at what he did, not what he didn’t.
Vazquez only made the All-Star team once, in 2004, though it wound up being one of his worst seasons, as he finished with a 4.91 ERA (4.78 FIP), chiefly because of an appalling second half when he posted a 6.92 ERA in 14 starts. He only received a single solitary Cy Young vote, in 2009, when Keith Law by himself gave Vazquez a fourth-place finish because every voter but two used their three votes for Tim Lincecum, Chris Carpenter, and Adam Wainwright. Vazquez essentially had four other very good seasons: his ERA- was below 90 in 2000, 2001, and 2003 with the Expos, and 2007 with the White Sox. During every other season of his career (except for his awful rookie year in 1998, and his bad 2010), he was between 90 and 110, between 10 percent better and 10 percent worse than the league, and he finished with a career ERA- of 96.
He never succeeded on the biggest stage. He gave up 18 runs (including six homers) in 15 2/3 playoff innings, including Johnny Damon’s grand slam in the seventh game of the 2004 ALCS that effectively put a nail in the Yankees’ season. When he returned to the Bronx in 2010, the fans were none too willing to forgive and forget. Will Leitch even went so far as to suggest that their bile was contributing to his poor results. Vazquez was never shy about expressing himself, though: in 2002 in Montreal he wrote a letter to the editor that was printed in the Montreal Gazette calling out columnist Jack Todd for criticizing the team.
He never loved the spotlight, and he won’t mind leaving it. He once told the New York Times’s Jack Curry, “I’m the kind of guy that likes to be under the radar.” During his career, he nearly always was. And he probably would have preferred to fly under the radar in New York, too, rather than be subject to constant criticism for not living up to expectations. It clearly won’t be difficult for him to leave the game that pays his bills. But he certainly will be going out on his own terms. The reluctant ace is leaving no doubt that, at this moment, he is one of the best pitchers in the National League. “It’s a blessing, and I just thank the Lord for helping me finish the season strong like this,” he told the Miami Herald. “I’ve said this a thousand times, if I do retire the decision won’t have anything to do with the way I’m pitching.”
Alex is a writer for The Hardball Times, and is an enterprise account executive for The Washington Post.