Jason Vargas is a nice representation of everything that troubles me about the way the Mets conduct business. They like to reward old guys from other organizations with limited upside and Vargas checks all three of those boxes. That being said, he’s a perfectly fine fifth starter and if the biggest problem on your team is Vargas, well things can’t be too bad.
Last season, Vargas got injured late in Spring Training and perhaps because of that, he got off to a terrible start. Actually, that’s underselling things. He was incredibly lousy for about two-thirds of the time when he was healthy enough to be on the field. And then, his last eight starts of the year, Vargas put up a 2.62 ERA and a 0.963 WHIP, with a 4.1 K/BB ratio.
Yes, his first 12 starts of the year were miserable. But the last eight were numbers that we’re hoping Noah Syndergaard will produce this year. Will Vargas deliver those type of numbers over 25-30 starts? No, there’s probably zero chance that will happen. But will he deliver an 8.75 ERA and average four innings per start like he did in the first 12 games of 2018? Well, there’s probably a non-zero chance of that happening but my opinion is that there’s probably not a double-digit chance that will occur.
Feet to the fire, my take is that Seth Lugo would put up better numbers in a starting role than Vargas would. But the difference would not be huge. And my opinion is that Lugo would put up significantly better numbers in the bullpen than Vargas. Plenty of times in this space, you’ve read me mention that you don’t put people in sub-optimal roles. Is there a contradiction here with my position that it’s okay to use Lugo in the pen? Perhaps. But if you’re a 4.06 ERA pitcher as a SP (Lugo’s lifetime mark) and a 2.38 ERA guy as a RP (also his lifetime mark) – is a bullpen utilization sub-optimal?
For what it’s worth, Vargas has a lifetime 4.23 ERA as a starter and a 5.88 mark as a reliever, although the latter mark covers just 20 games and 41.1 innings.
With his Jekyl and Hyde performance last year, some may think it’s difficult to project what Vargas will do in 2019. Let’s check in on the computer forecasts and see what they project:
ATC —— 9-9, 4.46 ERA, 120 IP, 102 Ks, 39 BB, 18 HR
Marcel – 9-9, 4.65 ERA, 124 IP, 105 Ks, 43 BB, 19 HR
Steamer – 6-7, 4.37 ERA. 105 IP, 88 Ks, 34 BB, 15 HR
THE BAT – 6-8, 4.60 ERA, 113 IP, 98 Ks, 38 BB, 21 HR
ZiPS —— 7-10, 5.08 ERA, 106.1 IP, 92 Ks, 33 BB, 22 HR
Before commenting on the computer projections, let’s take a step back and see what a fifth starter gave NL teams in 2018. Using the FanGraphs leaderboards and setting the parameters to starters and 90 IP, we get 72 pitchers, and while not the 75 necessary for a five-man staff for all 15 teams, it’s close enough. Let’s present the range of what the 61-72 pitchers in this grouping did:
IP – 91.1 to 131.1
ERA – 4.21 to 6.09
K/9 – 6.13 to 7.70
BB/9 – 3.25 to 8.25 (the 71st pitcher had a 5.09 mark, so 8.25 is a real outlier)
HR/9 – 1.21 to 1.95
ZiPS is the most bearish one of our computer models and it projects Vargas for a 7.6 K/9, 2.8 BB/9 and a 1.86 HR/9. It’s hard to look at what the computer models project and see anything besides solid fifth starter. Would it be nice to have Max Scherzer as your fifth starter? Sure. But if Vargas hits 113 IP with a 4.60 ERA – the median of our five computer forecasts – is Gio Gonzalez any upgrade? The median of the same five computer forecasts for Gonzalez is 123 IP and a 4.38 ERA. Steamer projects Gonzalez and Vargas to both produce 0.8 fWAR this year.
The gopher ball seems like it will go a long way to determine Vargas’ success in 2019. Last year he allowed a 1.76 HR/9, his worst mark in any season in which he threw at least 50 IP. In his All-Star year of 2017, Vargas had a 1.35 HR/9, so clearly he’s going to allow some homers. Even in his strong closing stretch in 2018, he allowed 6 HR in 44.2 IP. We have to accept the homers and hope the majority of them are solo shots.
Here’s my totally biased projection for Vargas:
141 IP, 4.40 ERA, 125 Ks, 47 BB, 23 HR
It’s not anything to get excited about. Yet that’s the definition of fifth starter, isn’t it? Some like to live in Lake Wobegon, where all of the children are above average. The Mets are likely to have above average starters in their first two spots. It’s very possible they’ll be above average in the third and fourth spots, too. They can survive an average fifth starter. Should they have signed Vargas last year? With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to say no. Would they sign him if he was available right now? Again, the answer is probably no. But he’s here and he adequately fills the requirements of the position. Use him as your fifth starter, shrug your shoulders and move on.
You’ll have more credibility in the future if you chime in now with what you think Vargas will do this year. Next week, Amed Rosario undergoes the projection microscope.