Ildemaro Vargas Makes Contact and Signs a Contract

Ildemaro Vargas
Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports

While most of the baseball world was focused on the playoff race, the Nationals got an early start to their offseason on Wednesday, avoiding arbitration with veteran utility man Ildemaro Vargas. The terms of the contract have not yet been announced, but it’s safe to presume the journeyman will earn a raise over his $975,000 salary from the current season. He set a new career high in plate appearances this year, playing in 84 games at five different positions. What’s more, the 2023 campaign marked the first of his career in which he wasn’t optioned, traded, or designated for assignment; apart from a three-week stint on the injured list and a few rehab games at Triple-A, he spent the entire season on Washington’s big league roster.

I’ll be honest: when the Nationals first broke the news about Vargas, I didn’t think it warranted a full write-up. Still, I wanted to do my due diligence, so I began my typical process of cursory player research. First, I checked his FanGraphs page. A 77 wRC+ and -0.1 WAR? Sure, sounds about right. Next, I went to Baseball Savant. 16th-percentile xwOBA? Yeah, that tracks. Then, I looked on Baseball Prospectus. A 144 DRC+ and 2.0 WARP? Okay, nothing out of the… wait, what?

After refreshing the page a couple dozen times and checking to make sure there isn’t a second Ildemaro Vargas out there, I realized this guy might be just a little more interesting than I initially thought. DRC+ is only one metric, and like any metric, it’s vulnerable to small sample size trickery. Be that as it may, I can’t ignore the fact that DRC+ ranks Vargas as the fourth-best hitter in the National League; it goes Ronald Acuña Jr., Mookie Betts, Juan Soto, and Vargas. He’s ahead of names like Matt Olson, Luis Arraez, and Freddie Freeman. Small sample size or no, this is a player who deserves our attention:

Top Ten Hitters by DRC+
Player DRC+ PA
Ronald Acuña Jr. 176 727
Yordan Alvarez 165 484
Shohei Ohtani 162 599
Aaron Judge 161 449
Corey Seager 151 524
Mookie Betts 148 681
Kyle Tucker 148 661
Juan Soto 144 698
Ildemaro Vargas 144 280
SOURCE: Baseball Prospectus

I’ll leave it up to the folks at BP to delve into the specifics of DRC+, but something tells me this has to do with strikeouts — or, more accurately, a lack thereof. In 2023, Vargas has struck out only 20 times in 280 trips to the plate. That’s good for a 7.1% strikeout rate, the second-lowest figure in the game (min. 150 PA). The top spot, as you might have guessed, belongs to Arraez, the only hitter in baseball who puts the ball in play more often than Vargas:

Just Put the Ball in Play
Player PA SO+BB+HBP Rate
Luis Arraez 616 11.9%
Ildemaro Vargas 280 14.3%
Nick Madrigal 294 14.6%
Will Brennan 452 17.3%
Keibert Ruiz 547 17.4%
Luis Campusano 174 17.8%
Luis García 471 18.0%
Mauricio Dubón 488 18.4%
Miguel Rojas 420 18.6%
Pablo Reyes 177 18.6%

Vargas has always been a contact hitter, but he has reached a whole new level in 2023. In just over 600 plate appearances between 2017–22, the switch-hitter struck out 13.4% of the time — still excellent, but not exactly noteworthy. Even in his minor league career, he still struck out in 8.8% of trips to the plate. But this year, in his first real taste of semi-regular playing time (and his first full-year job with a single team), his plate discipline has never looked better. He is one of only two players, along with Arraez, to go 13 consecutive games without a strikeout. On top of that, his walk rate is up, too; he’s walking 6.8% of the time, compared to a 4.3% career rate entering the season. The only players with a higher walk-to-strikeout ratio this year are Arraez, Acuña, Soto, José Ramírez, Alex Bregman, and, um, well… Tony Kemp. Still, if your list of comps includes five Silver Sluggers, you’ve got to be doing something right.

It goes without saying that such a low strikeout rate will be hard to maintain. Even Arraez has struck out 7.6% of the time in his career, and no other active player has a career rate below 9.5%. On the other hand, strikeout rate tends to stabilize pretty quickly, and Vargas has been consistent in his approach all year. He hasn’t had as much as a 30-game stretch with a strikeout rate above 9.6%, and since he took on a regular role after the trade deadline, his strikeout rate has stood at 7.5%. What’s more, the fact that he cut down on strikeouts and upped his walk rate is an encouraging sign of new and improved plate discipline. He’s chasing a little less but making more contact on pitches both in and out of the zone. It’s not a brand new approach, just a refinement at the margins. He already had most of the tools he needed to make contact at an elite rate; he swings less than the average hitter and rarely misses when he does.

Avoiding strikeouts is a great skill. By putting the ball in play, a hitter gives himself a fighting chance to reach base or advance a runner. That said, it’s not as if every low-strikeout slap-hitter is a great ballplayer. Indeed, Arraez is an outlier for a reason. Of the four players with a single-digit strikeout rate this season, Vargas seems to have a lot more in common with Nick Madrigal (83 wRC+) and Kemp (77 wRC+) than the NL batting champ (132 wRC+). And yet, at least in one respect, Vargas has them all beat:

Slap Hitters, Hard Contact
Player maxEV 90th-percentile EV HardHit% xwOBA
Ildemaro Vargas 111.0 104.3 30.4% .300
Nick Madrigal 106.9 101.2 27.5% .294
Luis Arraez 104.0 99.9 25.2% .353
Tony Kemp 103.0 98.8 20.1% .297
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

Vargas doesn’t hit the ball hard, but he makes significantly harder contact than his contact-hitting compatriots. His maximum exit velocity would rank in the 44th percentile among qualified hitters. No one is calling that good, per se, but it puts him in a whole different category than guys like Kemp and Arraez, who rank last and second-last, respectively, among qualified batters in maxEV. That means something, even for a hitter with a .245/.299/.354 slash line, because hitting the ball hard is one of those skills you can’t really teach, especially to a guy who’s already on the wrong side of 30.

Thus, Vargas has proven himself to have two of the most important tools in a batter’s toolbox: He makes a ton of contact, and he hits the ball harder than the other guys that do the same. Even better, we can be pretty confident these skills are legitimate, even in a small sample size. It’s hard to fake bat-to-ball skills or exit velocity. He might not be a good hitter — not now, and not ever — but he’s a little closer to reaching that level than you might think.

So what does Vargas need to do next? Easy: just fix his launch angle. We’re in the middle of the launch angle revolution, right? Anyone can do it.

All kidding aside, it’s true that Vargas hits way too many groundballs. Like, way too many. Even though he hits the ball harder than Madrigal and Kemp, his xwOBA falls in the same range because he just can’t lift the baseball. A whopping 57.5% of his batted balls have been hit on the ground, and nearly half have had a negative launch angle. Meanwhile, his line drive rate is a measly 16.3%, and his sweet spot percentage is 26.3%; league average is 20% and 33.1%, respectively. As Arraez has demonstrated all season, high-contact/low-power hitters need to thrive on line drives to succeed. Indeed, Vargas has a 400 wRC+ on line drives this season, even better than Arraez’s 361 mark, but the latter has hit four times as many liners in just over twice as many trips to the plate.

Unfortunately, Vargas has never demonstrated much control over his launch angle. The standard deviation of his launch angle this season (and for his career) is significantly higher than league average, and a higher standard deviation (a.k.a. less “tightness”) can be a sign of poor bat control. At the same, it’s fair to presume a certain degree of regression going forward. Line drive rate can take a long time to stabilize, and entering the season, Vargas had a much more reasonable 20.7% line drive rate in his career.

Groundball rate stabilizes more quickly, but still, a 57.5% rate is just so high. The only active players with a career groundball rate above 57% (min. 500 PA) are Johnny Cueto and Clayton Kershaw. And yes, I double-checked that I was looking at the batting leaderboards. It’s hard to believe Vargas won’t get that number down with more plate appearances. For reference, his career rate entering the season was 51.3%.

Presuming the same results on balls in play but with his average batted ball distribution from 2017–22, Vargas would have, approximately, a 93 wRC+ this season instead of 77 — a 16% jump. If he also had a league-average BABIP on groundballs (instead of his .187 figure), we might be looking at a league-average hitter overall. Yes, I’m cherry-picking the numbers by suggesting his batted ball distribution will regress and his strikeout rate won’t, but that’s kind of the point; I’m looking for upside here.

Vargas has excellent bat-to-ball skills and a tad more power than you might think. He’s also a switch-hitter, another factor that works in his favor, since pitchers induce fewer groundballs without the platoon advantage. The skill he’s lacking is a big one, but, in theory, it can be learned. And even if he never learns to lift, he might still have league-average upside. Package that with average sprint speed and a plus glove at multiple infield positions, and you’ve got a pretty valuable utility man.

Vargas is used to beating the odds. Never more than an honorable mention on a top prospect list, he was released by the Cardinals in 2015 after nearly seven years in the organization. It took a short stint in the independent Atlantic League for him to earn another chance with an MLB club, and it took another two years in the minors after that before he earned a call to the show. At long last, in June 2017, nine years after he signed as an international free agent, Vargas made his big league debut. Since then, he has played in each of the past seven MLB seasons. He’s already had a far more impressive career than most unranked prospects and former independent league players, and next season, he’ll finally earn his first seven-figure salary after 16 years of professional baseball.

In all likelihood, Vargas has already reached his ceiling, and his 144 DRC+ is little more than a mirage. Still, he’s more than just your run-of-the-mill bench player, and he’ll be a guy to watch in 2024.

Leo is a writer for FanGraphs and MLB Trade Rumors as well as an editor for Just Baseball. His work has also been featured at Baseball Prospectus, Pitcher List, and SB Nation. You can follow him on Twitter @morgensternmlb.

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Petey Bienelmember
7 months ago

Vargas started most every day in August after the Candelario trade, which coincided with the Nats “one of these things is not like the other” hot streak of a 17-11 record. Then he went to the bench as the Nats wanted to see Carter Kieboom, Jake Alu, and Luis Garcia most every day. That coincided with their worst month of the year. In truth, it coincided with Stone Garrett getting hurt, as well as several pitchers wearing down going more innings than they had in recent years and injuries. That said, his defensive utility really helps his starting pitchers by giving away fewer outs. His offense is mostly gravy, but his contact skills have been useful in some pinch-hitting situations when the Nats simply need a ball in play late.