Miguel Vargas Is Making Waves by Standing Still

Miguel Vargas
Jonathan Hui-USA TODAY Sports

Miguel Vargas couldn’t swing. I don’t mean that in the insulting way that little leaguers sometimes do — “hey batter, you’ve got nothing, you can’t even swing.” I mean that he was medically prohibited from swinging. That didn’t stop the Dodgers from playing him this spring, as Davy Andrews detailed for this very site last month. It did mean, however, that he had to watch every pitch thrown to him, ball or strike, and simply take it. Not exactly the way he expected to enter his first spring training with a big league job nailed down, I’m sure.

The pinky finger fracture that kept Vargas from swinging has healed, but you might not know it from his batting line so far this year, because it seems he took that lesson to heart. Five games into his 2022 season, he’s come to the plate 18 times. In nine of those plate appearances, he’s walked. That 50% walk rate is amazing on its own, and I’ll come back to that, but the way he’s gotten to it is downright stunning.

The key to walking a lot is not swinging at bad pitches, and Vargas is doing that to a fault. Per Statcast, he’s swung at four of the 50 pitches he’s seen outside the strike zone in 2023. That’s the best rate in the majors, which is impressive on its own; 205 batters have seen at least 25 pitches outside the strike zone already this season, and every single one of them has swung at them more frequently than Vargas. We’re talking all the various plate discipline geniuses already enshrined in the pantheon of good eye; they’re all looking up at Vargas’ extreme selectivity.

Some of that is because Vargas doesn’t swing very often overall, but consider this: out of 196 players who have seen 25 pitches in the strike zone, he ranks 166th in swing rate, at 55.9%. In other words, he’s below average, but much closer to the middle than he is on pitches outside the zone. Some of his patience is because he’s just telling himself not to swing, but a lot is because he’s tracking the ball exceedingly well to boot.

You can make a good argument that the zone defined by Statcast isn’t perfectly right, and there are indeed other strike zone metrics available on this website. Per Sports Info Solutions, Vargas has the lowest chase rate in baseball. Per Pitch Info, Vargas has the lowest chase rate in baseball. Hm, I guess I didn’t really need to mention those, did I? The point is that he’s seeing the ball extremely well and is the unquestioned leader, five days into the new season, when it comes to taking pitches outside of the zone.

That 50% walk rate will probably be the best stretch of plate discipline that Vargas ever displays. In fact, there’s a decent chance it’ll be the best stretch of plate discipline that anyone displays this entire year. Since Barry Bonds retired, our database counts more than a million batter games — 1,010,760 to be precise. I took those games and broke them out into five-game stretches. In all that time, 35 batters have managed five-game stretches with at least 15 plate appearances and a 50% walk rate or higher. Many of them overlap: Yasmani Grandal walked 61.9% of the time in the five games ending on May 8, 2021. He also walked 63.6% of the time in the five games ending on May 9, 2021, and 55% of the time in the five games ending on May 5, 2021.

Also on the list multiple times: Bryce Harper, who has the best stretch of the post-Bonds era at 65.2% in the five games ending on May 9, 2016. You might remember that Harper performance, though you’d probably remember it as a Joe Maddon performance; the Cubs simply refused to face Harper in a three-game series, walking him either intentionally or unintentionally whenever they got the chance. In one game, Harper came to the plate seven times without recording an at-bat: he posted three intentional walks, three unintentional walks, and a hit by pitch. Joey Votto appears a few times as well, thanks to a walk binge in August of 2015.

Many of the walk-heaviest performances I could find are like that, keyed by a ludicrous game or two, and you can understand why the Cubs didn’t want to face Harper coming off of his incandescent 2015 season. It’s safe to say that isn’t happening with Vargas, though. He might be the team’s everyday second baseman, but he’s hardly the Dodgers’ best hitter. He’s batted seventh three times and sixth once in his four starts, and while he’s certainly capable of some power, he’s not getting treated with kid gloves.

Some of Vargas’ early on-base hot streak comes down to who he’s faced. The Diamondbacks weren’t walking just Vargas; they walked the Dodgers early and often in their season-opening series, issuing 23 free passes in total. Heck, if I’d looked at four game samples instead of five, Vargas would have peaked at a 61.5% walk rate, with eight of his 13 PAs against Arizona ending in a walk. He only walked one time (pitiful!) in Monday night’s game against Colorado, though he did get hit by a pitch.

Why am I pointing this out? It’s mostly because I love it. He went to spring training to practice not swinging, and then he became the best player in all of baseball at not swinging. That’s some focused practice right there! Watch this sequence against the electric Drey Jameson, and you can see how good Vargas is at waiting for his pitch. Jameson starts him off upstairs, and Vargas lets a borderline pitch go:

Great take, even if it was a strike; that’s a hard pitch to hit, in a tough location and thrown hard. Things got even better for Vargas when Jameson came back with a non-competitive second offering:

With Vargas now in the driver’s seat, he could look for something to do damage; down a run and with two outs in the inning, it was a good time to look for a homer. Naturally, the pitch for that is a fastball. And naturally, Jameson threw him a slider:

That’s just a great pitch. No one is up there looking for a breaking pitch in a 2–0 count, and if you see one, taking is probably the right decision. That one wasn’t hanging; it was thrown to the best place to dot a slider, low and away, and like that opening fastball, Vargas would have a hard time doing much with it unless he was looking for just that pitch.

On 2–1, Vargas still seemed to have the same approach. Again, Jameson executed a perfect pitch:

Even though Vargas hadn’t taken the bat off of his shoulder yet, you can kind of see what he was thinking. He got ahead by being okay letting fastballs go by if they weren’t in good locations to swing at. He used that advantage to force Jameson to hit the corner with some breaking pitches, and Jameson was up to the task. Now it was 2–2, and he couldn’t just tip his cap if another perfect pitch came up next:

Hey, it’s hard to throw three perfect sliders in a row. Vargas surely had the pitch on his mind after Jameson had pulled it off twice in a row, but that one was too low out of his hand, and he easily laid off. That set up the payoff pitch, and unfortunately for my narrative of Vargas making excellent decisions at every turn, he didn’t have a chance to decide much of anything, because Jameson simply overcooked a slider trying to recapture his earlier form:

Why show this plate appearance and its six takes? Because they show a hitter with a good idea of what to do at the plate, and one who seems wise beyond his years. Anyone is capable of walking a lot, but I don’t think it’s easy to take six straight pitches like that, even though every single take was a good decision.

For another display of Vargas’s decision making, let’s watch him work a walk Monday night. First, he fell behind in the count 0–2 after a reasonable take and a marginal swing:

Not a great place to start, and the at-bat could have ended on the very next pitch, because Vargas seemed to be looking up:

Is that a good take? I don’t know. It was a rulebook strike, but just barely, and gets called a strike only about half the time. Regardless, that was a great pitch by Ryan Feltner, and I’m not sure what decision I’d hope for there from Vargas. Probably a defensive swing, because a ball gains him way less than a strike costs, but it was a bad situation regardless.

He was hardly frozen in his stance, though, because when Feltner gave him a more obvious pitch to swing at, he rose to the challenge:

Having seen two fastballs in a row, Vargas might be in swing mode, but he still had the presence of mind to take a slightly overcooked slider and a wild fastball:

Those aren’t automatic takes, but they’re hardly the toughest ones Vargas will make all year. Many hitters are capable of taking those two pitches, even with fastball on the mind on the first one. But you have to make the solid takes to get yourself in position to walk. Pitchers throw roughly a third of their pitches in the chase or waste zones as defined by Baseball Savant; without doing the right thing and taking those, it’s hard to be in position where taking close pitches can give you a walk instead of merely digging you out of a bad count.

In any case, we were up to 3–2 in the Vargas-Feltner duel, and Feltner came back with his best breaking ball, to exactly the location he was trying to throw it:

Look, sometimes you throw the right pitch and the hitter is just good at not swinging. Vargas is absolutely in a swing/take decision zone right now, and he’s forcing pitchers to come to him by ignoring their marginal offerings.

I don’t think it’ll continue forever. I know it won’t continue forever, in fact: his current form is clearly unsustainable. He’s running a 50% walk rate, for goodness sake. I’m writing this Tuesday afternoon, and so that 50% walk rate will almost certainly be lower by the time you read this. But I’m really impressed nonetheless. This isn’t just a random streak that anyone could embark on. It’s tremendously difficult to take so many close pitches without lapsing into complete apathy.

This hadn’t always been one of Vargas’ skills, at least not in a way that was evident in his minor league numbers. He always took his fair share of walks, even if he did play at an advanced level for his age, but last year looked like a step forward in the balls and strikes department. He walked 13.7% of the time at Triple-A and only struck out 14.6% of the time. Those rates are reminiscent of teammate Mookie Betts at his best; double-digit walk rates with strikeout rates that low are only possible if you combine a keen eye with an excellent hit tool.

Now, it looks like Vargas might be applying those skills in the major leagues. He won’t keep walking in half of his plate appearances, but the early returns — small sample and all — suggest that he’s going to be getting on base a lot this year, whether he hits well or not. That kind of production out of the non-stars in the Los Angeles lineup feels unfair — those guys needed more hitters — but what is life if not an exercise in watching the rich get richer?

Statistics in this article are all through games of Monday, April 3.





Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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jh0rt0ne
10 months ago

I thought this article was well executed, but I feel like this can be done for so many young guys that it doesn’t really set Vargas apart in my mind.

frankenspock
10 months ago
Reply to  jh0rt0ne

This is bait, and not particularly tasty bait.