Tipping Pitches: Jason Vargas is Dominating

Jason Vargas is pitching out of his mind right now. He has allowed just one run in 20.7 innings (0.44 ERA) with a 0.77 WHIP. Perhaps more impressive than the surface results is the fact that he has a 31% strikeout rate powered by a 13% swinging strike rate. His 3% walk rate is great, too, though less surprising given his career 7% mark. Three starts of a 3% for a guy who rarely walks batters isn’t crazy. The rest is just insane, though.

His velocity has always been underwhelming (~86-88 mph) and it’s on the low end this year at 86.6. Vargas is using essentially the same pitch mix, too: 55% fastballs, 30% changeups, and 15% curveballs. By the way, it’s worth noting that this kind of started last year in three late-September as he managed a 2.25 ERA, 0.92 WHIP, 23% K rate, and 10% SwStr rate in 12 IP. So comparing the 32.7 innings from 2016-17 to his 380 from 2013-15, the biggest differences I found were with the fastball and changeup against righties. There’s also a wholesale zone percentage change, up to 51% against a career 45% and sitting 39-41% from 2013-15, which shows up in the fastball/changeup against righties.

He’s putting the fastball in the zone 54% of the time, up from 47% in 2013-15, and he’s working it inside a lot more, which is a sharp change in approach, too. His inner half/outer half split was 38%/62% in 2013-15, but it’s completely inverted at 62%/38% in his six starts since last September. His AVG and OBP hasn’t changed much, but the SLG is way down and K% is way up:

  • 2013-15: .324/.390/.547, 10% K, 9% BB in 538 PA
  • 2016-17: .306/.359/.417, 26% K, 8% BB in 39 PA

His fastball swinging strike rate is up at a career-high 8% this year compared to a career 4%. Interestingly, it’s the outer half fastballs that are garnering more swinging strikes (8% vs. 5% on inner half). Maybe it’s because they see outside and think it’s the changeup?

The changeup has always been his best pitch, but this year it’s just insane, especially against righties. Low and away is the approach and that’s only accentuated more this year:

  • 2013-15: 81% outer half, 67% lower third
  • 2016-17: 90% outer half, 69% lower third

The results:

  • 2013-15: .200/.241/.293, 26% K, 5% BB in 536 PA
  • 2016-17: .120/.154/.140, 39% K, 4% BB in 52 PA

He only has 21 total PA against lefties which is why the entire focus has been on his work against righties. He got nine strikeouts on Wednesday, five on the fastball and four on the changeup. Seven of them were against righties. He froze Joe Panik on a fastball and got Brandon Belt to swing through one for the two lefty Ks.

I don’t really know what to make of this. The surge is certainly supported by skills. Gaudy strikeout rate has an accompanying swinging strike rate, there is a discernible change in approach, and we started to see this in his three starts last year. Of course, even adding last year we have all of six starts from a 34-year old who throws 86 mph.

He’s always been a control artist back-of-the-rotation arm with solid command of his arsenal and a true plus pitch in the changeup. Now he’s displaying elite control and command with a major swing-and-miss component. Obviously, the 94% LOB rate is coming down and the 0.0 HR/9 is headed up, but his .286 BABIP is right in line with the .284 career mark.

I’m inclined to give him some credit here. He’s a 4.11 career ERA guy, I think he can hold a mid-3.00s which would represent a career-best (current best is 3.71 in 2014). Suggesting someone sell high is pretty useless because no one is going to pay top dollar, if they even buy at all. Sit tight in deeper formats (15+ team mixers, AL-onlys) and just keep monitoring him. A bad outing is coming, but it won’t necessarily signify the end of him as a useful arm. I’ll check back in on Vargas four or five weeks down the road.

Paul is the Editor of Rotographs and contributes to ESPN's Daily Notes. Follow Paul on Twitter @sporer and on Twitch at sporer.

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Great stuff — Andrew Triggs next?