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So what’s changed about Jason Vargas?

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New elbow, new man

San Francisco Giants v Kansas City Royals Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Just the other day was my three-year anniversary of writing here at Royals Review. Over that time I’ve never been known for writing short pieces, particularly ones where I like to dive into numbers. However for this piece, I promise you it will be quick-ish, or quick for me.

Jason Vargas came into 2017 looking for his first full season back from Tommy John surgery. He teased us a bit last year with a few starts at the end of the year and then a full winter to get back into his routine for the upcoming season. Vargas did fare well enough last year during his brief stint with a 2.25 ERA and 3.15 FIP in just 12 innings. We weren’t thinking “Oh, this is the new Vargas” but more along the lines of “Okay he’s back at least, let’s hope for the old Vargas.” Instead of the old Vargas, we were gifted some brand new, cyborg Vargas.

Just for reference, here is where Vargas ranks (among qualified starters) in 2017 in certain metrics as of April 20th:

fWAR - 1st

FIP - 2nd

ERA - 4th

K% - 7th

LOB% - 7th

BB% - t10th

So yeah... new Vargas has been pretty good. Pitchers generally return to some semblance of their previous form after returning from Tommy John surgery. Sometimes they get much worse or they never make it back. Occasionally some get better than their pre-surgery form. It’s way too early to earmark Vargas as that latter type of pitcher, but at least he’s fit that type in his return so far.

So what has changed? The other day I wrote about Mike Moustakas and his changes so far. I’m not sure if I stressed it enough there but it’s April 21st. For Vargas, this is just over twenty innings pitched. It’s not nothing but it’s only 10% of a hypothetical 200 innings benchmark for pitchers. So the things I talk about here are subject to normal small sample size criteria possibly, regardless of the stabilization rates of those respective metrics.

He is getting grounders

Vargas has never been a groundball pitcher. His career groundball rate is ~38%. Among qualified pitchers since he debuted he ranks 472nd overall in groundball rate (80th lowest). The highest he’s had in one season is 40.8% in his injury shortened season of 2015 before he went under the knife. So far (I’m hoping to kill you with a thousand cuts of these two words) Vargas is running a 53% groundball rate.

Here’s Vargas among qualified pitchers this year and their career groundball rates:

Obviously there are going to be some deviations from their averages, but a lot of those guys are that far off. Most are within ~6-7% of their career norms. Then there is Vargas, jumping almost 15% above the career average. In fact, I bet you Vargas’ difference is the biggest in baseball so far...

Alright, full disclosure, I knew the outcome before I made the bet, but it doesn’t change the results. Vargas is suddenly tossing out groundballs like candy at a parade. At first I wondered (beyond just is this a small sample - and it is) what is he doing differently to get these groundballs?

A good way to get grounders is to have a “heavy” sinker (one with a lot of vertical, late sink that causes the bottom of the bat barrel to make contact). Did Vargas maybe change his fastball/sinker to try to get more vertical movement?

Hmm, not really. In fact he’s gotten less vertical movement this year on those pitches. The lowest two dots of each pitch are from 2017.

Okay what if he’s working in the lower half of the zone more? That generally leads to more groundballs.

Bottom Zone% by year:

2013 - 54.9%

2014 - 56.88%

2016 - 58.37%

2017 - 56.18%

That’s not really it either. He has had the same lower zone% basically throughout his career. This leads me to conclude that the GB% just seems to be a mirage. That’s no great prognostication or going out on any ledges (I’m scared of heights anyways), but more so saying that nothing has changed for him in that sense.

He is pounding the zone

One thing that changed Danny Duffy’s career is his newfound confidence in pounding the zone. He enrolled in the “Max Scherzer School of Pitching” where he just told batters to try to hit it, living with the home runs/fly balls that come with such an approach. Vargas must have been impressed enough by New Duffy and adapted that same philosophy.

Zone%:

2013 - 40.8%

2014 - 39.9%

2015 - 38.9%

2016 - 40.2%

2017 - 51.9%

There’s that darn Jason Vargas again among the league leaders in a category, next to some really good pitchers. A high zone% isn’t always a good thing. Hitters hit balls thrown in the zone better than those out of the zone.

He is getting whiffs

If you don’t have good stuff to get whiffs, you probably want to stay out of the zone. Vargas doesn’t really have great, overpowering stuff. After all his average fastball velocity this year is 87 MPH. I’m pretty sure people at carnivals register near that speed in those throwing booth games.

Even though he doesn’t have that Noah Syndergaard stuff, he’s getting whiffs inside the zone at a really high rate:

It’s really nuts to see a guy who averages 87 MPH on his fastball to get whiffs in the zone. You’d expect him to be a crafty guy living on the edges, getting called strikes instead of swinging ones. Not for New Vargas. He’s pounding the zone and getting whiffs at an ace level rate.

One final thing; Vargas is getting a tremendous amount of whiffs on his changeup:

That may be brought on by more opposite arm run on the pitch (the bottom most dot):

Like I’ve said and what needs to be said in any article written in April, we’ll see what continues to happen, but for now Vargas is a Cy Young candidate and those words don’t make sense but I said them anyways.