It’s Game Seven of the World Series, the ultimate must-win game. You’re the manager and you need to decide if you should start Seth Lugo or Jason Vargas. In the most important game of the year, who do you pick? Now, is there anything that factors into your decision in this one-game scenario that would be different if you were making the choice for the Opening Day rotation? Maybe there is, maybe there isn’t. My sincere hope is that in the one-game scenario, how much you’re paying Vargas doesn’t come into the equation.
We want things to be merit-based. In an ideal world, who gets to be the Mets’ fifth starter is based solely on who the better pitcher is, not who has the biggest contract or who has the cozy relationship with the pitching coach or who made more starts last year. It should also not be based on a self-fulfilling prophecy on who’s “too valuable” to move from the pen. Why should Lugo’s ability to go multiple innings in the pen – sometimes because Vargas was too inept to get past the third inning – prevent him from being a starter?
Lugo was significantly better last year when used out of the bullpen. That’s not very surprising. It’s hard to imagine that most pitchers wouldn’t be better if they were used for shorter bursts. Randy Johnson could have been the best LOOGY in history. That’s not a legitimate reason to use him in a sub-optimal role. The question isn’t if Lugo is better as a reliever or a starter. The question is if Lugo is a better starter than Vargas.
That question isn’t as clear cut as you might think.
Vargas was beset by injuries last season and seemingly took forever to get untracked. For about two-thirds of the year, he pitched like someone who should have been released. But then in his final eight starts of the season, he limited batters to a .606 OPS and posted a 2.62 ERA with a 0.963 WHIP. You can be the biggest Vargas critic in the world yet you can’t dismiss the work he did in that closing stretch. Included in that span was six shutout innings against the Nationals and seven frames without a run against the Braves.
It’s difficult to say bump Vargas because he’s old and decrepit when he did his best pitching at the end of the year. It wasn’t like he came to a new league and ended up tricking guys who never saw him before but then once word got out about him he turned into a pumpkin. Instead, it seems like once he was finally healthy and finally comfortable in his new surroundings that he pitched like what the Mets hoped he would when they gave him the multi-year deal.
Obviously it’s a small sample. And on top of that, the estimators paint a different picture, as Vargas had a 3.88 FIP and a 3.72 xFIP in this span. Those numbers are still significantly better than what he had done previously in 2018. But they’re not the dominating numbers that his actual ERA and WHIP were. There was definitely some good fortune wrapped up in those last eight starts, specifically a .229 BABIP.
Meanwhile, Lugo was allowed to make just five starts in 2018. In those games, he posted a 3.91 ERA, a 3.86 FIP and a 3.25 xFIP. But that was an even smaller sample than Vargas’ closing kick, as Lugo notched just 23 IP as a starter last year.
Lugo has been in the majors three years and has made a total of 31 starts, right about a full season’s worth. As a starter in the majors, he has 168.1 IP, a 4.06 ERA, a 4.16 FIP and a 4.26 xFIP. Compare that to Vargas’ All-Star season in 2017, when he notched 179.2 IP, a 4.16 ERA, a 4.67 FIP and a 4.94 xFIP. Now, Vargas was pitching in the AL with the DH that season. But his full year numbers last year did not show a ton of improvement, if any.
My opinion is that Vargas is better than his 5.77 ERA in 2018 would indicate. My expectation is that his 2019 ERA will be much closer to his 4.42 xFIP of a season ago. But is that better than what Lugo would do over 25+ starts? It’s like asking which is better – pocket 7s or A-K in Texas Hold’em.
Now, gun to my head, my choice would be Lugo because all things being equal, my choice would be to wager on the guy in his age 29 season rather than the one in his age 36 season. But prior to Spring Training, it’s probably not enough to get worked up about when you hear that Mickey Callaway prefers to keep Lugo in the bullpen.
Still, it’s hard not to notice that the Astros, in need of starting pitching due to the loss of both Lance McCullers Jr. and Charlie Morton, are engaging the Mets in trade talks for Lugo. Houston, often trotted out as a team that others should emulate, sees Lugo as a starter.
And how a team enters the season doesn’t mean that’s how it will end the year. It’s very possible that Lugo begins the year in the pen and finishes the year in the rotation. And if that’s the case, perhaps he can be the answer for who starts that pivotal Game Seven.