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Jason Vargas, Strikeouts, and What to Expect in 2014

Throughout Jason Vargas’ career, he hasn’t really been known as a strikeout king. Before last season, Vargas had typically posted strikeout rates somewhere in the 14-16% range, and the only season in which he topped that was his 2005 rookie year (18.2%). Between 2005 and 2012, Vargas struck out 15% of the batters he faced. In 2013, his strikeout rate was 16.9%. While that is still below average, a 2 point climb like that is certainly noteworthy, particularly for a steady pitcher like Vargas.

What changed to help Vargas strikeout a higher percentage of batters last season?

Using Brooks Baseball’s Pitch f/x data, from 2007 to 2012, Vargas threw his fourseam fastball about 38% of the time, at an average velocity of 88.3 MPH. In 2013, he maintained basically the exact same average velocity, but Vargas used his fastball over 47% of the time. That’s not the only part of Vargas’ pitch selection that changed, however. Before last season, Vargas threw a sinker about 18.5% of the time, but he cut that percentage in half in 2013. While cutting down on sinkers, he increased the rate at which he threw curveballs, going from around 5% before 2013 to 14.6% last year. Vargas also essentially eliminated his cutter, going from a usage rate of 11.8% all the way down to 1.5%. Finally, his best pitch – the changeup – has remained fairly constant throughout his career, hovering near 27%.

In looking more at whiff rates for each pitch, the data gets interesting. One would think that Vargas’ overall increase in his strikeout rate, combined with increases in his fastball and curveball usage, would have meant he was generating more swings and misses with those pitches. However, his whiff rates on every pitch except his changeup actually decreased from the 2007-2012 seasons to his 2013 season. So how could Vargas’ strikeout rate go up?

His changeup whiff rate climbed from 17.7% before last year, all the way to 22.2% in 2013.

(For reference, James Shields‘ changeup had a whiff rate of 20.6% last year, which is both encouraging for Vargas and worrisome for Shields, but that’s another topic for another day.) 

Vargas was throwing his changeup at the same rate, but missing far more bats than he had in previous seasons. His changeup is a very effective pitch, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the Royals try to get him to use it a bit more frequently moving forward.

In addition to missing more bats, Vargas actually threw fewer balls in the strike zone. In fact, Vargas’ Zone% was the lowest it’s been in his entire career, at 47.9%. To give you an even better picture of where Vargas was pitching, here are his zone profiles from the two timeframes being analyzed. First, all of his pitches between 2007 and 2012:

 Vargas 2007-12

Now, here is the zone profile from his 2013 season:

 Vargas 2013

You’ll notice much more blue and purple in the heart of the plate in the second image, while the first image has more fuchsia and magenta. (You didn’t realize you were going to get an art lesson today, did you?)

It’s fairly easy to understand how Vargas could miss more bats when he’s keeping the ball out of the middle of the strike zone. That’s going to be a big key for Vargas next season if he hopes to maintain his (relatively) higher strikeout rate.

Another fairly significant difference for Vargas’ 2013 season was his BABIP. Being a flyball pitcher in mostly very pitcher-friendly ballparks, Vargas has always been able to maintain a BABIP below the league average. Before last season, the only year in which Vargas had a BABIP above .300 was in a 10 inning stint with the Mets in 2007 (.317). His career BABIP is around .280, but last season that number spiked to .310. I’m not suggesting that Vargas was simply unlucky, as he also allowed a career high 21.3% line drive rate. But, the Angels’ defense, on the whole, was terrible. Only 3 teams were worse defensively in all of baseball, according to DRS. For a pitcher like Vargas who relies on his defense, that was a recipe for disaster. Fortunately, Vargas was able to strand baserunners at an above average rate, which allowed him to post an ERA of just 4.02.

Using all of that information, what can we reasonably expect from Vargas in 2014?

Unless he suddenly finds about 8 more MPH on his fastball or has some kind of Freaky Friday experience with Yu Darvish, I highly doubt Vargas is going to turn into some kind of strikeout machine at 31 years old, but I do think he could hover right around that 16-17% strikeout rate, as long as he continues to mix his pitches effectively. Also, he may be able to generate a few more swings and misses if he leans on his changeup even more, although there is obviously a limit to that. Pitching in front of the Royals defense should help bring his BABIP back near his career average, which will be important since his strand rate will likely regress as well. Both Steamer and Oliver project Vargas for an ERA of around 4.25, but I could easily see a scenario in which he’s closer to 4.00 or just under that, if he is able to maintain his peripherals from last season. And for the Royals, 200 innings with that kind of ERA should be more than acceptable.

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