The Mets are giving Jason Vargas a two-year contract worth $16 million. The Orioles are giving Andrew Cashner a two-year contract worth $16 million. The Blue Jays are giving Jaime Garcia a one-year contract worth $10 million, and what’s funny about that is Garcia is probably better than Vargas and Cashner, but, reasonable people may disagree. Clearly, reasonable people do disagree. And, I don’t know, maybe Garcia badly wanted to play for Toronto. Everyone operates under different circumstances, and of the three pitchers, only Vargas was a 2017 All-Star.
Vargas, I guess, was an All-Star in the classic sense, in that he was literally on the All-Star roster. But Vargas isn’t an All-Star in any other sense. He doesn’t have a track record of being an All-Star performer, and very few people would recognize him were he just walking down the street. The Mets aren’t signing Vargas because they think they can put him between Noah Syndergaard and Jacob deGrom. They know what he is. Everyone knows what he is. Vargas himself would understand he belongs at the back of a big-league rotation. That’s his talent level, and it always has been.
That’s not a criticism. The league needs back-of-the-rotation starters. The Mets in particular need reliable back-of-the-rotation starters, given their health problems, although it’s curious that Vargas is considered so safe even though he recently had Tommy John surgery on his elbow. All forms of pitching are dangerous. But anyway, Vargas is being installed to be a provider of half-decent innings. Let us now recall the season he had.
It would be easy to say that Vargas had a season of two different halves. In the way that, I don’t know, Greg Holland was better in the first half, and Bud Norris was better in the first half, Jason Vargas was also better in the first half. That’s how he became an All-Star in the first place. The normal numbers are telling enough. A 2.62 ERA before the break. After that, 6.38. It was suggested that Vargas fell victim to late-season fatigue, which makes sense, given the playing time he missed after surgery. Maybe he couldn’t build up his old stamina. He did still find a way to be better in September than in July.
This is more interesting than just first vs. second half, though. This is about April vs. every other month. For all six months — blending September and October — I looked at starting-pitcher performance, as measured by FIP-. Here are Vargas’ monthly percentile ranks.
Maybe Jason Vargas got tired. But, fundamentally, he was always the same pitcher. Fastball — changeup — curveball, heat mostly down in the mid-80s. Vargas was the same pitcher, throwing the same stuff in the same way. In July, Vargas was one of the very worst starters in the game. Yet, in April, he was one of the absolute best. It wasn’t just a mirage, based on something fluky, like home-run suppression. The only better FIP- marks in April belonged to Noah Syndergaard, Chris Sale, and James Paxton. Vargas was fourth. He was incredible.
He was incredible, while he was Jason Vargas. Look at this table of K-BB%. Vargas, over his career, has had 41 individual months in which he threw at least 15 innings as a starter. Here are the top months by K-BB%.
Last April is just way completely out there, separated from the nearest month by 12 whole percentage points. In April, Vargas had a K-BB% of 27%. In no other month last season did he reach even 10%. April Vargas started four games. He allowed five runs in 25.2 innings, with two walks and 28 strikeouts. Vargas wasn’t only missing bats; he was missing bats in the zone. Only Jacob deGrom had a lower April in-zone contact rate. I like that metric as a measure of dominance. If you can miss bats while throwing strikes, you can do almost anything. By the numbers, April Vargas appeared legitimately dominant. He appeared legitimately dominant while being Jason Vargas, throwing Jason Vargas’ pitches between 70 and 88 miles per hour.
All of the numbers love what Vargas was. All of them point to his having been one of the best starting pitchers in baseball. It’s not like that escaped my notice at the time. But I was resistant to write an article, because I couldn’t actually find anything significant, and I didn’t want to write something saying “hey actually this guy isn’t good.” I just could never figure out what was going on, beyond the numbers. Nothing appeared meaningfully different. And as the season went on, Vargas’ numbers gradually stopped looking meaningfully different. Everything caught up, in the way that it does. In the end, it wouldn’t look like there was anything to be written about at all. Here’s a guy with middling stuff and a 4.16 ERA. None of the numbers pop. Vargas turned 35 a couple weeks ago.
In so many ways, this is a boring acquisition. If everything actually goes right for the Mets, they’ll have so many good starters that Vargas will end up in the bullpen. You look at Jason Vargas and pretty much the last thing you consider is upside. But Vargas’ 2017 is symbolic. There’s a message of hope here, for Vargas, for the Mets, for anyone and everyone. At the start of 2017, Jason Vargas was basically what Jason Vargas has always been. He wasn’t different in any way that matters. That Vargas — that Jason Vargas — spent April as one of the most dominant starting pitchers in the world. All the numbers backed it up. Vargas pitched like an ace. Only for a few starts, sure, but what is a season, if not a sequence of a few starts at a time?
It wasn’t about a mechanical change. It wasn’t about a velocity boost. Instead of executing X% of his pitches, Vargas, for some time, executed Y%. Y was greater than Vargas’ usual X. Things just happened that way, and Vargas has pitches good enough to get hitters out when he makes them do what he wants. That’s true of Vargas, and it’s true of every pitcher in or around the majors. You can think of it as being true of hitters, too. Over-performance isn’t an amplification of skills. It’s just performing with better-than-usual consistency, avoiding some standard number of mistakes. Everyone has the talent to be successful some of the time.
Vargas, for a stretch, turned that some of the time into all of the time. The pessimistic message would be that everything caught up to him eventually. Vargas ran off the cliff, and then he looked down. Sure, you can never ignore the power of regression to the mean. But this is spring training, and spring is a time to be hopeful. So I say, forget about the rest of Vargas’ 2017. Jason Vargas had his April. It can never be taken away from him. If Vargas can do that for that long, pretty much any player could. And if pretty much any player could do that for that long, they could do it for a little bit longer. We all know what the odds are going to say about the season. For four starts last April, Jason Vargas beat the odds to hell.
Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.