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Jason Vargas and One of Baseball's Best Changeups

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When you think about the best changeups in baseball a few names usually come to mind. Felix Hernandez. Stephen Strasburg. Cole Hamels. There are others, of course, but typically, those are the guys many people think about when they think about the best changeups. When MLB managers were polled by Baseball America earlier this month, they voted Hernandez, Max Scherzer, and James Shields as having the best changeups in the AL, and Hamels, Cueto, and Strasburg were at the top of the NL list.

While Shields does get some recognition for having a great changeup, I think it’s fair to say he’s not the Royals’ starter who should be mentioned in the same breath as the above names, when it comes to changeup excellence. That honor should belong to Jason Vargas.

First, we can see that according to PitchF/x pitch values, Vargas’ changeup has been the 4th best in the game, trailing only Cueto, Chris Sale, and Hernandez among qualified starters. This isn’t a new development, either. Last year, Vargas checked in at 4th, among starters with at least 150 innings. He only threw 150 innings, meaning his changeup was actually even more valuable. In 2012, he led baseball in changeup value, preventing 19.9 runs above average. You have to go back to 2011 to find a time when Vargas wasn’t in the top 10 in that category. But that season came on the heels of a 2010 season in which he ranked 4th.

From 2010 to 2014, Vargas’ changeup has been more valuable than any other changeup not thrown by Hamels and Hernandez. Impressive company, I would say.

Vargas has always had a good changeup, but in the last couple of years, it’s been even better. Take a look at his swinging strike rates on that pitch since 2010.

2010: 16.2%
2011: 13.7%
2012: 18.4%
2013: 21.1%
2014: 21.3%

He’s been able to miss more bats, which seems like a good strategy. Part of that likely is due to Vargas getting more sink on the pitch, as demonstrated in this fancy graph.

Vargas Changeup

If the pitch is sinking more, it’s difficult for batters to make contact, even though it only comes in at 80 MPH. That extra movement has helped Vargas generate more swinging strikes with his changeup than any other pitcher in baseball this season. And remember: Vargas missed three starts while he recovered from having an organ removed from his body.

Granted, some of the reason for so many raw swings and misses is that Vargas throws his changeup quite often. Indeed, among qualified pitchers, only Hernandez has thrown changeups more frequently. But consider this: Vargas’ 21.3% swinging strike rate is equal to Sale’s, and higher than Hernanez’s (18.3%), Cueto’s (16.9%), and Scherzer’s (16.1%). It’s a legitimate swing-and-miss offering.

Now about Vargas throwing so many changeups. Everyone should know by now that he throws a great one, and that he throws a lot of them. Here are Vargas’ changeup usage rates in the last five seasons.

2010: 28.6%
2011: 28.0%
2012: 26.9%
2013: 27.6%
2014: 30.0%

As you can see, Vargas has really increased the use of his changeup this season, and it is still extremely effective, even though hitters surely know they’re going to see it. He’s throwing more changeups, and getting more whiffs with his changeup, which is quite impressive.

Even when hitters are making contact with the pitch, they’re not doing much with it. Opposing batters have a wRC+ of 49 against Vargas’ changeup. That’s also the wRC+ of Alcides Escobar in 2013, for reference. Batters are much worse against changeups from Hernandez (25 wRC+) and Cueto (17!), but Vargas is still excellent in that department.

While a changeup tends to be thrown more often to opposite-hand hitters, Vargas has been more effective with it against lefties in 2014. Southpaws are hitting .130 with a .174 slugging percentage, and righties are hitting .198 with a .292 slugging percentage. In other words, lefties may not see many changeups, but even when they’ve seen them, they probably prefer to see something else. Something more hittable, one would assume.

Vargas will throw the changeup in almost any count to a righty, with the exception of the first pitch, as right-handed batters see it only 10% of the time. But after that, Vargas will throw his change at any time. Considering he throws it so often, and that it isn’t coming toward the plate with much velocity, one would think hitters could figure this pitch out, but alas, they have not.

This is only the first year of Vargas’ four-year contract in Kansas City, but the move has been nothing short of excellent thus far. He’s been the team’s most consistent starter, and has averaged almost 6.2 innings per start. That fact has been hugely important in protecting the bullpen. For Vargas, the biggest key to success has been his changeup, which is objectively one of the very best in the game.

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