Comparing Jason Vargas to other NL fifth starters

Brodie Van Wagenen said that his goal this offseason was to eliminate the “ifs.” Some have wondered if while he was doing this, he should have addressed the rotation and brought in a starter to bump last year’s number five guy to the bullpen. Virtually no one is happy with last year’s fifth starter but how many teams are jumping for joy about the last member of their starting rotation? Do Mets fans have it better than they think? Or are they justified in wanting an upgrade there?

It’s very difficult to determine exactly who the team’s fifth starter is after the fact. Not many teams finish the year with the same five guys in the rotation who began the year in that role. For simplicity, here the fifth starter is identified as the guy with the fifth-most starts on the team. This is far from perfect and you’ll recognize many, many instances where that’s crazy, perhaps nowhere more so than the Cardinals.

But while it’s crazy – is it any more so than finding out who was the fifth starting pitcher of the year for each team and then find out that guy got hurt and only made two starts all year? There are all kinds of wacky scenarios out there and no matter how much we wish, there are some teams where identifying the fifth starter is a fool’s errand. So, simplicity it is.

Here are all of the NL teams, displayed by record by division as presented by Baseball-Reference:

Braves – Brandon McCarthy, 6-3, 4.92 ERA, 15 starts
Fewer than 5 IP – 2X – 13%
Game Score under 50 – 6X – 40%
Why so few starts – Last pitched June 24

Nationals – Jeremy Hellickson, 5-3, 3.45 ERA, 19 starts
Fewer than 5 IP – 7X – 37%
Game Score under 50 – 7X – 37%
Why so few starts – Missed most of June, made just one start after 8/15

Phillies – Zach Eflin, 11-8, 4.36 ERA, 24 starts
Fewer than 5 IP – 7X – 29%
Game Score under 50 – 12X – 50%
Why so few starts – Missed the month of April

Mets – Jason Vargas, 7-9, 5.77 ERA, 20 starts
Fewer than 5 IP – 8X – 40%
Game Score under 50 – 10X – 50%
Why so few starts – Missed most of April and was out from 6-19-7/27

Marlins – Caleb Smith, 5-6, 4.19 ERA, 16 starts
Fewer than 5 IP – 6X – 38%
Game Score under 50 – 8X – 50%
Why so few starts – Did not pitch after 6/24

Brewers – Wade Miley, 5-2, 2.57 ERA, 16 starts
Fewer than 5 IP – 3X – 19%
Game Score under 50 – 7X – 44%
Why so few starts – Missed all of April, out from 5/8-7/12

Cubs – Mike Montgomery, 5-6, 3.99 ERA, 19 starts, 19 relief appearances
Fewer than 5 IP – 5X – 26%
Game Score under 50 – 9X – 47%
Why so few starts – worked out of pen until 5/28

Cardinals – Carlos Martinez, 8-6, 3.11 ERA, 18 starts, 15 relief appearances
Fewer than 5 IP – 5X – 28%
Game Score under 50 – 8X – 44%
Why so few starts – Missed from 5/8-6/5, moved to pen 8/21

Pirates – Chad Kuhl, 5-5, 4.55 ERA, 16 starts
Fewer than 5 IP – 4X – 25%
Game Score under 50 – 6X – 38%
Why so few starts – last start 6/26

Reds – Anthony DeSclafani, 7-8, 4.93 ERA, 21 starts
Fewer than 5 IP – 6X – 29%
Game Score under 50 – 12X – 57%
Why so few starts – missed all of April & May

Dodgers – Ross Stripling, 8-6, 3.02 ERA, 21 starts, 12 relief appearances
Fewer than 5 IP – 8X – 38%
Game Score under 50 – 7X – 33%
Why so few starts – worked out of pen in April, made only one appearance 7/29-9/7

Rockies – Chad Bettis – 5-2, 5.01 ERA, 20 starts, 7 relief appearances
Fewer than 5 IP – 5X – 25%
Game Score under 50 – 10X – 50%
Why so few starts – moved to pen and made only one start after 8/12

D’Backs – Clay Buchholz, 7-2, 2.01 ERA, 16 starts
Fewer than 5 IP – 1X – 6%
Game Score under 50 – 2X – 13%
Why so few starts – first start 5/20, missed 6/24-7/24

Giants – Dereck Rodriguez, 6-4, 2.81 ERA, 19 starts, 2 relief appearances
Fewer than 5 IP – 2X – 11%
Game Score under 50 – 5X – 26%
Why so few starts – made debut 5/29

Padres – Robbie Erlin, 4-7, 4.21 ERA, 12 starts, 27 relief appearances
Fewer than 5 IP – 4X – 33%
Game Score under 50 – 7X – 58%
Why so few starts – moved to rotation 8/2

Vargas finished tied for fourth in most starts, even in his injury-riddled campaign. But his percentage of early exits and below-average performances were near the bottom of the league. His eight games with fewer than 5 IP was tied for the most in the league and only two pitchers had a percentage of below 50 Game Scores higher than Vargas.

But in 11 starts after returning from his second stint on the DL, Vargas was 5-3 with a 3.81 ERA. His percentage of games of 5 IP or fewer dropped to 27% and his percentage of Game Scores under 50 fell to 36%. Both of those totals would put him in the top half of the league for fifth starters.

Do you believe that what Vargas gave the club after his second DL stint is the “real” guy? It doesn’t appear to be a slam dunk either way, but believing that is the case is certainly a reasonable position to take.

Of course the issue is what happens if either that isn’t the “real” Vargas or if he or another starter gets injured and has to miss a bunch of time. Who do the Mets turn to then? Seth Lugo is a strong replacement, although that opens a hole in the bullpen. They also have two internal candidates in Chris Flexen and Corey Oswalt, although neither of those excelled in previous chances. And there’s newly-acquired Walker Lockett, who turned in a strong season last year in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League.

While the Mets have options, they don’t seem to have the depth that they do at, say, second base. With the money that’s already been spent, it seems unlikely that they’ll bring in a pitcher to push Vargas to the bullpen. But perhaps they’ll bring in another reliever who will make moving Lugo to the rotation an easier pill to swallow.

Or maybe we see the “real” Vargas all season instead of just for the last 11 starts and the real worry is if Steven Matz can ever be the guy he appeared to be in 2015-16.

22 comments for “Comparing Jason Vargas to other NL fifth starters

  1. January 21, 2019 at 11:06 am

    I’m team Lugo to the rotation or sign Gio but the Wilpons don’t believe in sunk costs and so Vargas will be the fifth starter if or until he puts up a earned run average of like 7. Nicely researched Brian.

    • jennifer
      January 21, 2019 at 12:49 pm

      Exactly. And I’m sorry if you say the words, “We’re a win now team”, you want to make the playoffs, and you know you might not be able to keep your pitchers in the next 1-3 years, you don’t ever, ever have Vargas as your 5th starter. It should be Lugo or a FA signing. The April games matter. That’s it.

  2. Chris F
    January 21, 2019 at 11:45 am

    I’m curious Brian, what makes you think the “real guy” for Vargas, or Wheeler, or anyone for that matter isnt the totality of their performance (who they “really” are) instead of some cherry picked window of solid performance. The reality is that Vargas is just as much the turd as he is when he started doing better, if all other things are equal.

    • jennifer
      January 21, 2019 at 1:13 pm

      That’s why you have to, at minimum, base performance off of a full season. deGrom is always the example I use. Yes, he had a historic season, but he was consistently good/great all year. Over the course of his career, he’s had bad games, but he’s been consistently good since a rookie. In 2018, deGrom and Lugo are the most consistently good pitchers over the course of the season. I trust their numbers, Vargas, even Wheeler? I need to see more from Wheeler. And Vargas, I don’t want him as my 5th starter on a SP strength team. I want the Mets to accept the sunk cost of Vargas, but they won’t.

    • January 21, 2019 at 1:21 pm

      I don’t believe there’s one magic answer.

      As for Vargas – does what he did in 2007 have any real relevance to 2019? In the last five years (including dismal 2018) he has a 4.18 ERA and a 97 ERA+. And he was better than that if we extend the period to six years. That’s right in the ballpark for what he did in his last 11 starts. By far the outlier was what he did his first nine starts of last year. And there’s a potential explanation as he was injured and didn’t have his normal routine.

      As for Wheeler – there’s a guy who was the #6 pick in the nation who was finally healthy and finally stopped nibbling. If you saw a video of Wheeler from mid May on last year and compared it to the guy we saw on the mound previously – it’s like two different pitchers. Maybe it’s maturity/experience, maybe it’s he learned something new from the new pitching regime, maybe it’s something else entirely. I guess it’s possible that he could pull an Ike Davis and stop using what had been successful for him previously. But I doubt that rather strongly. I think we witnessed it all coming together last year and barring injury, it’s not falling apart again.

      • Chris F
        January 21, 2019 at 2:07 pm

        I definitely see Wheeler as an up down kind of guy. Hes shown repeatedly that he is effected by losing control. He’s also shown moments of brilliance. But to say his last half dozen starts erases years worth of good/bad cycles does not register with me at all. Same with Vargas, except even worse.

        • January 21, 2019 at 3:03 pm

          He’s had elbow pain since high school he was healthy in 2018 and he was a beast.

          • Chris F
            January 21, 2019 at 3:07 pm

            not really. He was a first half, second half guy. His first half stunk in 2018. His second half was great.

  3. John Fox
    January 21, 2019 at 12:46 pm

    It’s interesting that none of the 5th starters spent the whole season in the rotation. They all missed substantial time to either injury or ineffectiveness or some other reason

    • January 21, 2019 at 1:25 pm

      We would get different results if we used who opened the season as a fifth starter. I’m sure there’s someone out there who began the year as a fifth starter but other guys on the staff got injured and he ended up with the third or fourth-most starts on the team.

      No team in the NL had all five starters healthy and (reasonably) productive all season.

  4. Hobie
    January 21, 2019 at 3:26 pm

    I used to think that the “5th Starter” was the guy dropped from the rotation with an off-day (the remaining 4 consistently starting on 4 days rest). Not sure were I got that notion, but it is clearly not the working definition today.

  5. Mike Walczak
    January 21, 2019 at 8:01 pm

    Maybe Hector Santiago could catch some magic. I really dont like Vargas at all. Love to see him go.

  6. January 21, 2019 at 10:00 pm

    4.27 Lifetime ERA…..Injured lots in ’15 and ’16…. tremendous fortune in 2017….Injured in 2018. 35 Years Old. Almost 1500 innings…almost 100 wins. That’s a ton of “Mneh!”, but it adds add up to almost 100 wins!

    I’ve been “Hard Shrug” on this guy for the better part of 15 years. You think you know a guy, but you don’t…he’s even more “Blech” than I thought He was before He became a Met. 8 million bucks…anyone wanna tell me if he’s above or below value?—God Bless America!

  7. TexasGusCC
    January 21, 2019 at 10:26 pm

    We heard from Metsblog in early December that the Mets may use an opener in Vargas’ games, such as Oswalt who was good one time through the lineup. Too, last week we mentioned how 7 of his last 10 starts were good. So, there’s possibilities to address The Vargas Conundrum.

    Not advocating throwing away games or saying April games mean less, I’m just saying that we can give it a chance before we pull the plug on him and take out a valuable member from the bullpen. Too, Lugo is pitching with a bad wing, so we don’t know how much duress it can handle.

    My last point has to do with Vargas’ splits: For the year – no matter how pathetic it was – he had a 3.92 ERA and 1.15 WHIP at home and was slightly better against righties. Also for the year, his third time through the lineup he had a 7% soft contact rate. So, if each lineup spot is 11% of the total lineup, even the pitcher’s spot got in on the action! LOL and sad. When he got at least three runs of support, he was over .500 and a batting average against of .192. Maybe our team leadership from last year, Frazier, Gonzalez, Cabrera, can explain that one?

  8. Metsense
    January 21, 2019 at 10:51 pm

    There were 76 National League Starters that pitched at least 80 innings in 2018. Vargas was ranked 73th in fWAR, 75th in ERA and 69th in FIP. This concerns me and begs an upgrade. I would get another good reliever, promote Lugo to the rotation and put the lefty Vargas in the bullpen.
    The Wheeler skeptics should know that he was ranked at 9th in fWAR, 21st in ERA and 9th in FIP. Those rankings make him #1 starter on many teams but #3 starter for the Mets after deGrom and Syndergard.
    Matz in worrisome because he was ranked 64th in fWAR, 42nd in ERA and 64th in FIP . That would make him a lower #4 starter. I would feel more comfortable if Matz was the Mets 5th starter and he Mets obtained a better starter than him but relievers are usually cheaper than starters. So therfore Lugo should be promoted and the Mets obtain a bullpen replacement for Lugo. That might be more cost effective.

    • TJ
      January 22, 2019 at 6:26 am

      +1

  9. MattyMets
    January 22, 2019 at 7:38 am

    6th starter has become the new 5th starter. Even after teams moved away from the 4 man rotation and began embracing the 5 man, the 5th spot was less important. It was a place to audition kids as the big four were horses counted on for 35 or 36 starts. That would leave only about 20 starts for the 5 slot. These days 33 starts seems to be the max. If a team were lucky enough to have four healthy starters this now leaves 30 starts for #5.

  10. NYM6986
    January 22, 2019 at 7:48 am

    The whole point of bolstering the pen was to weather a five inning start. Let’s not forget that baseball considers 6 innings to be a quality start as hard as that is to believe. For Vargas it’s avoiding falling into a hole after 2-3 innings. If he struggles then throw the other kids to continue knowing you have G-man, Lugo, Familia and Diaz to finish. Too much is made of the fifth starter. I too believe the light bulb finally turned on for Wheeler and Matz avoiding an injury was very huge. Still looking for one more big right handed bat to springboard the offensive that will scare other teams until Ces comes back. When you think of our players who blossomed in the second half – Conforto, Nimmo, Rosario – you realize that we can be a dangerous offensive team. Can’t wait for SP to start.

    • January 22, 2019 at 10:38 am

      Need another reliever or two I’d look at Vincent and Kelley.

    • January 22, 2019 at 11:26 am

      Too much is made of the 5th starter? Despite the DL time, Vargas made 20 starts last year. I’m not willing to minimize a guy with that type of role.

      • TJ
        January 23, 2019 at 6:34 am

        Teams should always focus on areas where they can improve. For a team that is “going for it” this season that has a middling offense at best, they are rather soft in both the #5 and #4 rotation spots. That constitutes 300-400 innings, not insignificant. A challenger to Vargas and another quality pen arm could push them from a mid 80s to upper 80s team. And, unless they bring in Machado or Harper, I’m not sure where they find more wins potential.

  11. January 22, 2019 at 4:11 pm

    Give Vargas a chance and a short leash.

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