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The steep decline of Jason Vargas

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What the heck happened?

St Louis Cardinals v Kansas City Royals Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Heading into July, Jason Vargas was leading the league in wins with a 12-3 record with a sparkling 2.22 ERA. He was on pace to throw at least 200 innings and alongside Danny Duffy, formed a one-two rotational punch that might just propel the Royals into the postseason.

That was a long time ago. Vargas’ 3.47 FIP was well higher than his ERA as June came to an end, so regression was predictable. Nobody, however, could have envisioned the cliff that was coming.

Over his last 11 starts dating back to July 5, Vargas is 2-7 with a whopping 8.13 ERA. Over that stretch, he has given up 16 home runs across just 52 innings, which comes to roughly three home runs-per-nine innings. He has also given up less than three runs in just two of those 11 starts, while giving up at least four runs in seven starts.

It has been bad. Really bad. Aaron Judge’s struggles have been obsessed over, with him hitting just .183 since the break with a .355 SLG% (which is just a point higher than Billy Hamilton’s second half SLG%), but even he has a 90 OPS+ in the second half, which is at least mediocre. This is a regression of epic proportion. I don’t even think I used the word “regression” properly in that sentence, because regression is supposed to be progressive and this isn’t progressive.

This is something that we haven’t really seen before. Vargas wasn’t just good in the first half. He was getting talked about as the All-Star game starter. And he hasn’t just been bad in the second half. He has arguably been the worst starting pitcher in baseball since the break.

What the heck happened?

There are several potential factors. We were all worried about his velocity back in June and July, when his average fastball fell to just over 85 MPH. However, that number has jumped back to 87, where he sat in April.

The most obvious factor is that his secondary pitches are getting absolutely hammered. Remember back in April when I wrote this about his changeup? Or when Deven Fink of Beyond the Box Score wrote this about his changeup? Over the first three months of the season, batter hit just .129 against Vargas’ changeup and managed just three extra base hits off the pitch. His curveball netted similar results, with Vargas not giving up a home run against his curveball through June. The last two months have been much different.

Since July rolled around, opposing batters are hitting .319 against Vargas’ changeup and curveball, with six homers, which is good for a .537 SLG%. Oh, and he has given up nine home runs on his “sinker,” i.e., his fastball since July 1. That comes out to a .795 SLG%, which isn’t great.

While you could often attribute this kind of decline to poor execution or location, Vargas actually struggled with command more in the first half than the second half. So this might just be a simple case of pitcher-throws-87-MPH-and-hitters-usually-hit-that disease.

Regardless of the reasons, Vargas has been really bad. And with the Royals pushing for that last postseason spot, he has to be better for Kansas City to have a shot. Without Duffy, the starting rotation is dragging it’s broken limbs to the finish line and Vargas is the only guy in that rotation who hasn’t been terrible all season (not counting the new guy Jake Junis).

I think the Royals still have some magic left, but somebody in the rotation is going to have to step up. Junis has done so, but they need more. Jason Vargas is doing just the opposite and that doesn’t bode well for the Royals chances.