While not always successful, my preference is to look for the good in the pile of negativity. That’s why when seemingly the whole world goes sentimental over a guy whose baseball career died two years ago, my reaction is – rock on. But today’s focus for me is not about that. Instead, let’s look at perhaps the most reviled guy on the team – Jason Vargas. Want to start an argument with somebody? Say that – innings aside – Vargas was just as good, and likely better in 2018 than he was in his All-Star season a year ago.
Yes, absolutely, that innings caveat is a major one. But the guy who after his start on August 7 had an 8.75 ERA, finished the year with an eight-game stretch which the Mets decision makers hoped that he would provide the team all year long. In that closing kick, Vargas went 5-1 with a 2.62 ERA, limited batters to a .606 OPS and had a 4.1 K/BB rate. Few will suggest that those eight games salvaged his season. What they did was bring him up to a replacement-level pitcher for the year, as he finished 2018 with a 0.1 fWAR and a (-0.3) bWAR.
So, how can a year in which he was replacement level be considered better than an All-Star season?
Vargas in 2018 had almost a mirror image of the campaign that he did in 2017. A season ago, Vargas was in the discussion for the best pitcher in baseball through his first seven starts. In that span, he was 5-1 with a 1.01 ERA. But it was a different story the rest of the year, as he had a 5.20 ERA over his final 25 games and 135 IP. Now he wasn’t consistently awful in that stretch – four outings he had a Game Score of at least 60 – but there were six outings where he failed to go five innings and another seven appearances where he went exactly five frames.
It was mostly good pitching in the first half and he ended June with a 12-3 record, which will get you selected to the All-Star games many more times than not. Those wins were mostly earned in the first three months of the year. And he tacked on six more in the second half of the year for a shiny total of 18. But as we learned first-hand this year with Jacob deGrom, wins aren’t always the best way to evaluate a pitcher.
ERA is better and the run estimators are a further improvement. Vargas finished 2017 with 18 Wins, which looks terrific. His ERA was 4.16, which was better than average. His FIP was 4.67 which was below average. And his xFIP checked in at 4.94, which ranked 51 out of 58 pitchers with enough innings to qualify for the FanGraphs leaderboards.
Vargas enjoyed good fortune last year, as he had an elevated strand rate (77.6%) and a depressed BABIP (.289) – which was why his ERA was superior to his FIP. Also, his HR rate was considerably below average, which is why his xFIP was so bad.
This year it’s been the opposite for Vargas. His strand rate is depressed while his BABIP and HR rate were elevated. A year ago it was a steady step down from record, to ERA, to FIP and to xFIP. This year it’s the exact opposite. He has a 5.77 ERA, a 5.02 FIP and a 4.42 xFIP.
To be certain, a 4.42 xFIP is nothing about which to celebrate. It tied him with Gio Gonzalez and Tanner Roark, among others. Those two pitchers, with a full season of innings to their credit, were essentially league average hurlers. The former had a 1.8 fWAR and the latter checked in with a 1.9 mark.
So, stripping away wins, and luck and defense – Vargas had a better year on a rate basis with a 4.42 xFIP in 2018 than he did with a 4.94 mark in his All-Star season. It’s not a slam dunk, as the AL xFIP in 2017 was 4.40 while the NL xFIP here in 2018 sits at 4.09 as we ready for the last day of the season.
Fortunately, we can use “minus” stats to compare the two seasons in different leagues with different run environments. These “minus” stats control for both home park and specific league average, where league average is always set to 100. Every point above or below 100 is a one percent deviation from average . Good pitchers will have a “minus” stat below 100 and worse hurlers will have a mark above 100. So, the lower the number for a pitcher in these “minus” stats, the better.
In 2017, Vargas had a 112 xFIP- and this year he has a 109 xFIP-.
If Vargas was eight years younger, we’d expect him to bounce back and throw more innings next year, hopefully with better results. Of course, there’s no guarantee with pitchers and when you talk about a guy entering his age 36 season, the doubts only increase. Maybe the reason Vargas allowed more hits and homers this year has less to do with luck than it does with a guy that simply doesn’t have the stuff he once did.
Switching to narrative analysis, my preference would be for an older guy who you worry about declining stuff to finish the season strong. One can point to the injuries Vargas suffered earlier in the year to help explain his disastrous results through the majority of the season. Once healthy, he showed that he still had enough stuff to pitch well at this level. That’s not enough to take to Vegas and place a wager but hopefully it’s enough to get you through the winter.