Stop me if you’ve heard this before: with an improved pitch, a pitcher has significantly upped his performance. In my last two pieces, I wrote about Bud Norris’s and Mike Leake’s cutters, both of which have pushed them to another level. Today, I turn back to the American League, with a discussion of the Kansas City Royals’ surprising top starting pitcher: Jason Vargas.
Vargas isn’t getting any younger. He’s 34. Vargas is not throwing any harder. His fastball is averaging 86.1 mph; only four pitchers throw a four-seamer that is slower. Despite this, Vargas has a 1.01 ERA in 44 2⁄3 innings pitched this season, with FIP (2.16) and xFIP (3.70) numbers that would be career-bests over a full season. And, it wouldn’t even be close.
Among qualified starters, only Chris Sale has posted a better fWAR than Vargas’s 1.6. So what gives? Why is Jason Vargas pitching like—and currently, even better than—Clayton Kershaw?
Vargas’s changeup is among the league’s best
Similar to Norris and Leake, Vargas has used just one pitch to make his performance elite. But, unlike them, he has not upped his usage of the changeup substantially, though the use of the pitch is still is four percentage points above his career average.
This year, hitters are hitting .138 against Vargas’s changeup and slugging just .200. He has generated 48 whiffs in 663 pitches with the change, tied for third-best in the Majors with Sale. About 7.2 percent of his changeups result in a swing-and-a-miss, putting him second among all Major League starters in this category.
Even when put in play, Vargas’s changeup generates lots of soft contact. No players have “barreled” the baseball against the pitch; just two have made solid contact. Check out the entire breakdown, out of 43 total results.
But Vargas’s excellent changeup is nothing new. Neither is his command. He’s always attacked the outside part of the plate for right-handed hitters, and it has always been the pitch that he has limited the most hits and generated the most strikeouts with. In fact, according to weighted pitch runs above average, it ranked first in the league way back in 2012. This season, it is tops once again, and it is not even close.
Vargas’s release point has changed
While his changeup success has not changed, Vargas’s release point certainly has. Vargas’s horizontal release point is around 2.7 feet from the center of the strike zone towards left-handed hitters. Over the past three years, he has steadily increased his horizontal release point away from the center of the plate in that direction, but Vargas has not pitched enough innings to show its true impact.
However, you cannot discount the 2014 season, either, despite the fact that his release was more towards the center. That year, he posted a 3.71 ERA and was even more effective in the FIP department (3.84). So while Vargas has changed his horizontal release, it might not be the reason why he is dominating; he has had success in the past with a less drastic release.
A look at his vertical release point also shows a distinct change, but once again, 2014 remains an outlier. Vargas is releasing the ball at its lowest point of his entire career. Right now, the release is at about 5.7 feet above the center of the strike zone; in 2014, Vargas’s pitch was around 6 feet above. While these numbers may seem insignificant, every inch is able to throw hitters off and add effectiveness to his pitches. Because Vargas isn’t really seeing any drastic difference on the movement of his pitches—truly, it has been a matter of inches— his release could be an important factor.
Let’s take a look at Jason Vargas’s release, in photograph form.
As seen, Vargas’s release point is both in fact lower and further toward the left-handed batter’s box in 2017 and 2010 than it was in 2014. Does this mean the success should be contributed to the arm angle? I cannot say that. But it is interesting that he has gone back to something that he did back when he was at his best. There’s still no 100 percent definitive proof that he’s been more effective as a result, but there is also no 100 percent definitive proof that the arm slot change is not the reason he’s been more effective. I cannot stress that enough.
One thing I should note, of course, to tie these two arguments together: Vargas’s changeup was not nearly as good in 2014 as it was in 2010 and is again in 2017. So, there’s still the chance that Vargas purposely switched his release point in order to get more from his changeup. If that was his goal, it has been nothing short of successful.
The luck factor
While Vargas’s changeup is phenomenal and his release point is different, he has obviously been lucky too. One does not post a 1.01 ERA without their share of luck, and Vargas has definitely had his. A BABIP against of .264 is 20 points below his career-average. His HR/FB rate is a minuscule 2.0 percent, both six percentage points below his career-average and 11 percentage points below the league average.
So, as time moves on, Vargas will not be nearly as good. The question is: How bad will he get? If his luck continues for a little while longer, he will have almost a quarter of a season under his belt with some excellent results, meaning that he’s well on pace for a career year.
When the hits start falling and the homers start coming, I will begin to worry about Vargas. However, his xFIP—which does account for regression in his home run rate—is still the best of his career. But, there’s a second side of this coin. Vargas’s xFIP is still 2.69 runs above where his ERA currently sits, so “best of his career” doesn’t necessarily mean “excellent.”
But for now, Vargas is cruising with a fantastic changeup and a new (or old, depending on how you look at it) release point.
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Devan Fink is a Featured Writer for Beyond The Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @DevanFink.