Jason Vargas and The Legacy of Not Winning in Philadelphia

On September 15, Jason Vargas threw a pitch that ended the Phillies season. Maybe not mathematically, but spiritually, the Phillies’ 2019 campaign sailed over the fence with the grand slam Vargas served Christian Vázquez of the Red Sox in the top of the third. It was the ninth start of Vargas’ Philadelphia career, and the ninth straight game he didn’t win.

The Phillies are the only team to have a winning record for the entire season, but after their loss on September 15, their playoff odds sat below 1%. They’ve managed to maintain an 8-8 record against a superior Braves team, yet can’t stop getting their clocks cleaned by the Marlins, against whom they’re 7-9. On a team defined by relentless mediocrity, Jason Vargas’ lack of a win is a notable statistical spike. But you will be unsurprised to learn that in Philadelphia, it is not without precedent.

We must travel back to 1992 to find it, a(nother) period of disgruntled upheaval in the city. Von Hayes never had as good a time in Philadelphia as he did leaving it. When word came down that the once celebrated outfielder had been traded to the Angels in 1991, Hayes couldn’t be reached for comment by the Inquirer, but they surmised the situation as best they could:

“…you didn’t need to hear him to know that he had seen about as much of Philadelphia as he ever wanted to see. And Philadelphia had seen as much of him as it wanted to see, too.”

Hayes was dealt to the Angels for a pair of young players: One was Ruben Amaro Jr, a former Phillies bat boy, who would be a part of the teams’ unlikely 1993 NL pennant-winning squad and go on to inherit the GM job, helping the team win three straight division titles from 2009-11.

The other was Kyle Abbott. He would lose 26 games and move to Japan.

In Abbott’s defense, which is more defense than the 1992 Phillies were typically able to provide, he didn’t benefit from a barrage of run support, with the lineup offering him only eight runs in his first nine starts. During the early July start that saw him get his coveted tenth “L,” he gave up a single, a triple, a wild pitch, and a walk to let the Expos take control of the game while manager Jim Fregosi had a series of aneurysms in the dugout.

“It was a do-or-die situation,” Abbott said, per Jennifer Frey of the Philadelphia Daily News, “and I died.”

But Kyle Abbott did not die, and instead seemed to have an unkillable impulse for taking the loss.

The thing about those first nine Abbott starts (Abbott actually wouldn’t be a part of any wins at all until his 14th game with the Phillies) was that you were never quite sure how you were going to see him lose. He never lasted fewer than five innings, but also never went more than seven. Four of those nine starts were quality starts. Three times, he gave up no home runs. One time, he gave up three. He never hit a batter, but he threw a league-high eight wild pitches on the season. He had seven or more strikeouts three times. He had one or fewer strikeouts three times. On June 21, he faced 25 batters and allowed 17 fly balls and five groundballs. In his next start, he faced 25 batters, and allowed 17 groundballs and five fly balls. One night, he was beaten by two home runs hit by the Padres’ Tim Teufel, which wound up being a third of Teufel’s 1992 home run total. Another night, after giving up only a run to the Giants, he was beaten by a gust of wind at Candlestick Park that kept a John Kruk home run from leaving the stadium.

For every reason possible, Abbott just couldn’t get a win. And no one would have ever thought about any of this at all, ever again.

Until this happened.

The Phillies made some adjustments this year at the trade deadline, and by acquiring Jason Vargas from the Mets, they found one of their best starters of the season.

But being one of the Phillies’ best starters in 2019 isn’t that hard. Their pitching numbers are indicative of a team that’s just a little worse than aggressively average: 498 walks (major league average: 489), an 4.54 ERA (major league average: 4.52), 237 HR allowed (major league average: 210), an 4.92 FIP (major league average: 4.53). So the Phillies, in an effort to do something, did something, and brought in Vargas.

The Mets, at times famous for “Mets-ing,” a term used to describe the verbal, emotional, or statistical terrorism committed by a franchise that occasionally could be confused with a haunted carnival, appeared to be doing something objectively good: They traded for pitching talent in Marcus Stroman, they refrained from trading away pitching talent in Noah Syndergaard, and they sent their then least necessary pitcher, Vargas, to a divisional rival. By doing this, the Mets seemed to have Mets’d the Phillies pretty good.

With New York, Vargas started the season by setting a series of small fires, never going deeper than 5.1 innings in a game until May 30, and in that time frame logging a 5.22 ERA. To his credit, from April 2 to July 28 when he was traded, his 4.01 ERA was lower than everybody else on the staff except for Jacob deGrom’s. But he also had the highest walk rate (9.8%) and the lowest strikeout rate (20.3%) in the rotation. He was the only starter who to give up grounders less than 40% of the time (39.2%) and fly balls over 40% of the time (42.9%); and with an RS/9 of 5.72, he was allowing more runs to score every nine innings than every starter save Syndergaard (5.82).

But that was enough to make him appealing to a trade partner that, say, didn’t want to trade any top prospects or spend a lot of money, but also didn’t want to appear to have done nothing to improve themselves. So in late July, a desperate and confused Phillies team kicked the door in, threw catcher Austin Bossart at the Mets, and left with Vargas in a duffel bag.

Vargas’ 1.2 WAR generated from April 2 to July 28 was fourth best in the Mets rotation, but would have made him the second most valuable pitcher in the Phillies’ starting five over that span behind only Aaron Nola. In Vince Velasquez, there was somebody on the Phillies who actually allowed fewer groundballs (35.2%) and more fly balls (45.3%) than Vargas. Vargas’ 4.01 ERA was now the second best on the team and his 14 HR allowed were the fewest allowed by any Phillies starter. He may not have jumped much higher (and in fact sunk lower) in the standings. But his individual standing among his peers shifted greatly from the Mets to the Phillies.

So hot dang! The Phillies had a new starting pitcher who was, in the context of how lame they’d been, an improvement, in exactly the sort of way Gabe Kapler loves: marginally.

Now all Vargas had to do was get a win! Any win.

He did not. And he still hasn’t.

Pitching wins are, of course, meaningless, but that doesn’t mean we’ve stopped counting them. So, there remains an empty column in Vargas’ Phillies pitching stats; one that, sure, may not matter at all, but as it grows larger and larger, becomes more noticeable, even if it, again, means nothing.

Unlike Abbott, the Phillies have actually won games in which Vargas has pitched (they have a 3-6 record when he starts). Part of that is run support. Part of that is missing his spots. Part of that is giving up grand slams with down-and-away 72 mph offerings that scream “FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, HIT ME!!!” at Christian Vazquez.

Further context exists between these bookends of Philadelphia pitching futility: Vargas is 36, presumably nearing the end of his career. Abbott was a 24-year-old rookie who, as his losses entered double digits, tested the patience of those waiting for him to figure things out, including his manager.

Abbott could do nothing without his offense backing him up; when they scored two runs or fewer, he had a 4.30 ERA. He could also do nothing when they squeezed out a few runs for him, as in the 23 innings that season he pitched with his offense having scored 3-5 runs, his ERA actually jumped to over 7.00.

Like Abbott before him, Jason Vargas just isn’t getting the wins, and just as in 1992, neither are the Phillies. There’s a chance he was more at home on the Mets, where he, a mediocre hurler, could hide in the rotation among superior arms, even with Syndergaard having a down year. On a team that was, until that grand slam, clinging to the fringe of a Wild Card race, it’s been a little more noticeable.

As the Phillies season comes to its spiritual conclusion, we can point to a variety of factors that contributed to their end. Acquiring Vargas may not have helped them make the kind of history they hoped for at the start of 2019, but some history came of it regardless. For a team that found a way to take a step back for every step forward, and then an additional step back just to be safe, we can point to poor Vargas’ winless Phillies career, and all the factors that created it, as one of the statistical darts that brought this team to its knees.

And somewhere on the ramparts of Citizens Bank Park, the ghost of Kyle Abbott’s career* nods approvingly at his legacy being upheld.

*Kyle Abbott himself is very much alive.

Justin has contributed to FanGraphs and is a contributor to Baseball Prospectus. He is known in his family for jamming free hot dogs in his pockets during an off-season tour of Veterans Stadium and eating them on the car ride home.

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Mean Mr. Mustard
Mean Mr. Mustard

Seems he can’t knock any bros the f___ out after all.