Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Revisiting Jason Vargas' Strikeout Spike

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In December, I took a look at Jason Vargas and his strikeout numbers. You can read that full article here, but the gist of it is that Vargas struck out 16.9% of the batters he faced, which was almost two percentage points above his strikeout rate prior to last year. I pointed out a few differences in his pitch usage and pitch location that likely led to the strikeout spike, and there were some questions as to whether or not Vargas could maintain it.

We’re now 92.2 innings into the 2014 season for Vargas, and his strikeout rate is 17.4%.

Obviously that number could fall back down closer to what it was before 2013, but for the time being, it certainly appears that Vargas has learned to miss a few more bats. I thought it might be fun to revisit the differences I wrote about this winter to see if they are still present this season, which could help us see what really has caused Vargas’ strikeout numbers to jump.

The first thing I pointed out was Vargas’ increased fastball usage. He threw his fourseamer 47% of the time last year, up from 38% prior to that. In 2014, he’s throwing his fastball about 39% of the time. So maybe that didn’t have as much to do with the increased strikeout rate as I thought.

Vargas also cut down on sinkers last season, but he’s back to throwing them about 18% of the time this year. The one part of his pitch selection change that did stick around was his increased use of his curveball. Before 2013, he threw that pitch nearly 5% of the time, but in the last two seasons that number has been around 13%.

Vargas has also thrown more changeups this year (30%) than he did last year (27.6%), which is a good thing, because it’s a great pitch. No one in baseball has generated more swings and misses on a changeup than Vargas, and that point gives us the first potential cause for his strikeouts. The whiff rate on his money pitch is right in line with 2013, but he’s thrown it more frequently, which has led to more whiffs total, which of course has led to more strikeouts. It makes sense that a pitcher with an excellent changeup would want to throw more excellent changeups, so it’s nice to see those excellent changeups result in excellent things for the Royals.

Another factor I noticed last season was Vargas’ lower Zone%, and that trend has continued this year. He’s thrown pitches in the zone just 45.3% of the time, down from 47.9% last year. Normally, that might be a bad thing, but Vargas is getting hitters to chase more often this season, with a 32.3% O-Swing%, which actually ranks 9th best in the league among qualified starters.

That, of course, leads me to the other major difference I pointed out: pitch location. Here is where Vargas was pitching prior to last season:

Vargas 2007-12

Next, you can see where Vargas pitched in 2013:

Vargas 2013

And finally, let’s take a look at where Vargas has pitched so far in 2014:

Vargas 2014

I think we’ve found a theme.

A pitcher with an 88 MPH fastball can’t make a living in the middle of the plate, and it seems that Vargas has learned that in the last two years. He’s staying on the edges of the zone, where it’s tougher to square up a pitch, if any contact is made at all. Working around the edges has also been effective because of Vargas’ aggressiveness early on. He’s thrown first-pitch strikes to 62.2% of the batters he’s faced, up from his career average of 60.5%. Because Vargas is getting ahead, he’s been able to both throw his changeup more often, and force opponents to expand their zone. Pitching becomes much easier in those situations, particularly when a guy has a devastating changeup  like Vargas’.

To recap, it doesn’t look like Vargas’ overall pitch selection has been the sole reason for his new-found strikeout ability, although throwing more changeups this season has definitely played a part. He’s done a great job working the edges of the plate, much like he did last season, and that has allowed him to get into pitchers’ counts more often. Once in pitchers’ counts, Vargas has been able to rely on his changeup, and even though batters know it’s coming, they haven’t been able to make much contact with it.

There are still three and a half months left in the season, but the above trends indicate this is absolutely sustainable. His swinging strike rate is higher than it’s been since 2005, so as long as he continues to get ahead of hitters early and hit his spots, Vargas should be able to maintain this (relatively) high strikeout rate.

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