It is still early, but it’s looking like Jason Vargas will be a key piece of the Royals starting rotation. That might seem obvious now, after giving up just one run in his first 20.2 innings, but that was no certain thing before the season started.
We all knew that this rotation was better than it had been in years past, but that was heavily centered around Danny Duffy, Ian Kennedy, Jason Hammel and even Nate Karns, to an extent.
Vargas was slated for the rotation but nobody could have expected this.
Jason Vargas hasn't allowed a run in 14 2/3 innings. The Royals rotation's ERA is an absurd 2.07. https://t.co/Oa1fB9yRa7— Rustin Dodd (@rustindodd) April 20, 2017
Along with his crazy run prevention, his 1.1 fWAR is the highest in major league baseball among pitchers, above guys like Noah Syndergaard, Chris Sale and Max Scherzer. His 0.98 FIP trails only Syndergaard as the highest in the league.
Again, it’s early, so these numbers aren’t all that surprising. Everything will even out, and come June, Syndergaard, Sale and Scherzer will all but certainly have better numbers than Vargas.
What is surprising, however, is just how Vargas is getting people out. He is striking out just about everybody. Entering 2017, Vargas’s career high K/9 in a full season was 6.54. After last night’s start, his 2017 rate sits at 10.02. It should also be noted that Vargas has walked all of two hitters in his three starts, none of which spanned fewer than 6.0 innings. So while his strikeout numbers will almost certainly come back down to earth as the season progresses, there is a method to this madness. Meaning, he isn’t just accidentally striking out more hitters.
He is doing so with an absolutely unhittable changeup.
So far this season, Vargas’s changeup has gotten swings and misses 31% of the time, more than a 10% bump from his 20% career mark. He has already gotten 45 swings and misses on his changeup in 2017, 27 more than his other three pitches combined. To give some reference, Andrew Miller’s slider was swung at and missed 27% of the time in 2016, which was a career high for him.
The question now really is whether or not Vargas can sustain this kind of success. As we mentioned before, baseball always has a way of evening itself out and precedent tells us that Jason Vargas isn’t better than Chris Sale.
However, given the state of the Royals offense and bullpen, the success of the starting rotation could wind up being a huge, if not the biggest, factor in whether or not the Royals are able to make one last run to the postseason. And for Vargas, that success has always and will continue to hinge on his changeup. Hitters are hitting just .143 off of the pitch this season with no extra-base hits and 16 of his 26 strikeouts have been recorded via his changeup. This success is nothing new, with opposing batters hitting just .200 against Vargas’s changeup for his career.
We just haven’t seen this level of dominance from the pitch.
Whether or not that is sustainable is a fantastic question. Looking more into his usage information makes this picture a bit fuzzier as well, because Vargas is actually getting less movement on his changeup than he has in years past.
Take that for what you will, but regardless, Vargas is throwing the ball as well or better than he ever has. And it is one of the reasons why one the league’s worst offenses scored just 2.5 runs per game on this last home stand and still went 5-3.
Maybe I should have gotten one of those Tommy John surgeries.