Perhaps no pitcher over the last decade has relied more on his fastball velocity than Javier Vazquez.
He isn’t a pure flamethrower averaging 94-95 mph on the gun and batters aren’t typically mystified by the separation between his heater and offspeed offerings. But when his velocity drops he turns into a pumpkin. Certain pitchers can lose velocity and remain effective. Tim Lincecum loses four or five miles per hour and pitches better
Vazquez loses 1-2 mph and suddenly resembles sub-replacement level dreck. From the beginning of last season through June 2011, his velocity dropped significantly and the results were predictably poor. The narrative that Vazquez had nothing left was perfectly fueled. He wasn’t posting solid peripherals while simultaneously being victimized by the luck dragon. He legitimately pitched poorly and looked washed up.
None of this is necessarily strange except when considering that his velocity somehow returned in the middle of the season. Since that point, Vazquez looks like his vintage self, and doesn’t look anywhere near done.
Having passed the 2,500 strikeout milestone this season, and continuing to pitch effectively, Vazquez might still pitch another few solid seasons and march towards the 3,000 strikeout holy ground. He would become the Johnny Damon of pitchers in a sense, a player whose stats certainly fall in line with previously established Hall of Fame benchmarks, but who doesn’t really feel like an all-timer.
Vazquez is having one of those gambler’s fallacy seasons. The fallacy directs gamblers to avoid thinking that extreme results in one area will automatically result in an extreme set of opposite results, evening everything out. In baseball the topic gets broached with respect to regression. It’s easy to conflate the actual meaning of regression and the idea that a good player stinking up the joint is suddenly going to turn on auto-correct.
But instead of performing at his established true talent level, he’ll go past that to compensate for the suckitude early on. Well, Vazquez’s season resembles the latter more than the former, even though the velocity uptick is directly attributable to the turn-around. Take a gander at the following data points:
Full 2010 w/Yankees: 6.9 K/9, 3.7 BB/9, 5.32 ERA
Through Jun 11 2011: 6.7 K/9, 4.2 BB/9, 7.09 ERA
The ERA estimators all spat at his work as well. This wasn’t the Javier Vazquez of old, whose ERA tends to exceed estimators due to an established and poor track record of success with runners on base. That Vazquez still pitched well. This was a Vazquez who struggled to get batters out, who didn’t miss bats anywhere near as frequently, and who walked batters at an uncharacteristically high rate.
After allowing seven earned runs on June 11 his ERA rose to 7.09, its high point of the season, and the point at which the Marlins organization and fans across baseball wondered when he might call it a career. Then, the velocity returned, and so did positive outcomes. Since that fateful June 11 start, Vazquez has the following numbers: 101 2/3 innings, 8.2 K/9, 1.9 BB/9, 2.21 ERA.
In the same span, Roy Halladay has an 8.6 K/9, 1.2 BB/9 and 2.32 ERA in just 11 more innings thrown. Just some reference for Vazquez’s recent surge.
Per Michael Barr, Vazquez threw his four-seam fastball 40 percent of the time from the start of the season through June 11. The heater averaged 88.8 mph. Last season with the Yankees, it averaged 88.7 mph, but he threw the pitch 53 percent of the time. Perhaps he thought it best to go with more offspeed pitches as the season began to stave off the decline associated with his drop in velocity. It clearly didn’t work.
But what did work was getting that velocity back. Also according to Barr, from June 11 until now, Vazquez threw his fastball 53 percent of the time, and the pitch averaged 91.1 mph, right in line with his career. Velocity returned, results followed suit.
Vazquez serves as another illustration of how easy it is to prematurely render someone finished. Over the last several seasons we have considered David Ortiz washed up and finished at least twice. In the following season — both times — he hit like David Ortiz. And he can still rake. The same for Carlos Delgado, whose .258/.333/.448 in 2007, at age 35, made him appear finished. The following season he hit .271/.353/.518, and followed it up with 26 games at .298/.393/.521 in an injury-riddled 2009 season. His career ended due to injuries, not an inability to hit as many pegged in the Mets’ collapse campaign.
The major difference between Delgado/Ortiz and Vazquez is that the former tandem still showed signs of decent offense. The results weren’t necessarily pretty but the underlying data suggested they weren’t completely done. Vazquez, however, showed absolutely no signs of turning things around. In that regard, it wasn’t really premature to suggest he hang up his cleats. Mid-30s pitchers who lose 2 mph on their heaters seldom get that velocity back. Whether it was the end of a lengthy dead-arm phase, rejuvenated spirits and increased health, or pulling the plug on an experiment reducing velocity to preserve his arm, Vazquez began to throw harder, and by direct extension, pitch better.
Vazquez is one of the most confusing pitchers in baseball history, but at least he gives us an easy puzzle to solve: when his velocity goes, so do his results.