Thursday, November 21, 2013

For Want Of A Pitcher: Jason Vargas?


It’s been a long time since the Royals made a move of this significance that left me so…underwhelmed. Or left me struggling to come up with a passionate take.

That’s not to say that underwhelming and dispassionate don’t have their virtues. I had plenty of passion about the Myers trade and the Jose Guillen signing, and I’ll take this move over both of those and many others. It’s just that, for what was billed as a “major baseball announcement”, the signing of Jason Vargas to a four-year, $32 million contract is kind of a letdown. It’s vanilla ice cream. It’s a Jay Leno stand-up concert. It’s Brooklyn Decker in a parka and baggy pants.

Let’s start with who Vargas is. He’s a soon-to-be 31-year-old crafty lefty, who averaged 89 mph with his fastball as a rookie in 2005, and 88 mph with his fastball this year. After a promising rookie season, he was ineffective and then hurt for the next three years, before re-emerging in Seattle in 2009, and has been a slightly-below-average starter ever since.

A cursory look at his numbers might convince you that he’s better than average; his ERAs the last four years read 3.78, 4.25, 3.85, and 4.02. But through an amazing stroke of good fortune, Vargas has pitched in the AL’s two best pitchers’ parks in that time, with the Mariners from 2009 to 2012, and then with the Angels last year after he was traded straight-up for Kendrys Morales. (He had previously pitched for the Marlins and Mets; Kauffman Stadium, which is essentially neutral, will be the most hitter-friendly park he’s ever called home.)

So while Vargas has a very respectable 3.96 ERA over the last four years, his ERA+ in that time is just 96, making him 4% worse than average. As you’d expect from someone with his fastball, he doesn’t miss many bats; as a rookie, he struck out 18.2% of the batters he faced, which is the only time in his career that he’s had an above-average strikeout rate. But he’s been reasonably effective anyway, because he has excellent command; since re-emerging in 2009 he has walked fewer than 3 batters per nine innings every season.

Vargas is a flyball pitcher, though not as extreme as he once was. His groundball rate was 40% each of the last two years, but was never higher than 37% before that. The combination of lots of balls in play, and a high percentage of balls in the air, is a recipe for lots of home runs, and Vargas doesn’t disappoint: he’s given up nearly a homer every eight innings for his career, and in 2012 he allowed 35 homers in 217 innings despite pitching in Seattle.

His HR/FB ratio for his career is 9.1%, which is actually a little below average, and is entirely due to his ballparks. This is the scariest stat – I hope – that you’ll see in this article:

Jason Vargas’ career at home: 3.46 ERA, 48 HR in 497 IP, 2.51 K/BB
Jason Vargas’ career on road: 5.17 ERA, 77 HR in 483 IP, 1.78 K/BB

Now, I don’t want to read too much into that; James Shields, you’ll recall, had a home/road split that was nearly as severe when the Royals traded for him last year, and he did alright. (Although again, not as good as people think, because the Royals’ defense made all their pitchers look better. His walk rate jumped 21%; his strikeout rate dropped 12%.) But whereas Shields’ splits didn’t have a good explanation – Tampa Bay plays in a pitcher’s park, but not to that degree – in this case, Vargas’ splits plays perfectly into the narrative, which is that he is a marginal starting pitcher who’s been buoyed by pitching in very favorable environments.

Kauffman Stadium is as difficult to hit home runs in as any ballpark in the league, and Vargas may not notice any change in his home run rate. But as the numbers show, pitching at Safeco and Angel Stadium also benefitted his walks and strikeouts, and I’m not sure how well that well transport to Kansas City.

What will transport well is Vargas’ pitch-to-contact style, given that the Royals had the best defense in the major leagues this year. He’s a below-average pitcher who may get prettied up to average by his fielders.

In that way, he may wind up like Jeremy Guthrie, who signed a 3-year, $25.5 million contract last winter. Guthrie’s career was more notable for quantity than quality, but the Royals thought there was value in security, and in 200 innings. I agreed with them, albeit not with any great enthusiasm.

But whereas I endorsed the Guthrie signing, I can’t do the same with Vargas. Let’s compare the two. From 2009 to 2013, Vargas had a 4.07 ERA. From 2007 to 2011 – I’m eliminating his bipolar, Mile High-tainted 2012 for simplicity’s sake – Guthrie had a 4.12 ERA.

But whereas Vargas has only pitched in great pitchers’ parks, Guthrie pitched in Baltimore, and Camden Yards favors hitters. Furthermore, he pitched in the AL East, for the one losing team in the division. A big part of my case for supporting his signing was that the quality of competition he faced was much better than the average pitcher; I estimated that his ERA might drop 20 points just from the change in divisions. Between that and the ballpark change, I thought Guthrie would give the Royals league-average performance. And he did, thanks to some help from his defense and some help from Lady Luck. (Guthrie's ERA was 4.04, but his Component ERA - what you'd expect his ERA to be based on his hits, homers, walks, etc. allowed - was 4.76.)

I think Vargas might do the same, but here’s the thing: a year ago, the Royals needed 200 league-average innings. They went into that off-season with two starting pitchers under contract: Bruce Chen (5.07 ERA) and Luke Hochevar (5.73 ERA). They HAD to get innings. That’s why I endorsed re-signing Guthrie, and why I liked the trade for Ervin Santana, and I supported the James…no, wait, scratch that last one. They also had a ton of money to spend. They did so, they brought in four starters, and three of them pitched well.

But this year, they have Guthrie, and they have James Shields, and Danny Duffy is back from Tommy John surgery, and Yordano Ventura pitched well in September, and Kyle Zimmer might be ready very soon. They don’t need security – they need upside. Sam Mellinger wrote that “the Royals needed an Escalade, and they bought themselves a Sorento.” I’d phrase it a little differently: the Royals could have spent their money on a used Porsche, and instead they bought a Honda Accord. The Porsche might be unreliable, it might break down, but when it runs it’s a joy to behold. The Accord will get you from Point A to Point B, and that’s about it.

I know we say every year is a critical year, but next year is a Critical Year. Shields can walk after the season. Gordon and Butler would be entering the final years of their contract in 2015. The Royals need to take a step forward next year, and that means paying a higher annual price for a shorter-term commitment. Tim Hudson’s two-year, $23 million contract makes a lot more sense, and granted that according to Dayton Moore the Royals were in on Hudson until the end, they should have gone 2 and $24. Or 2 and $26.

Instead, they gave Jason Vargas a four-year deal, and it’s that fourth year that really sticks in my craw. Four years for any pitcher is a risk; it’s just the nature of the business. Four years for a non-elite pitcher, for a guy whose strikeout rate is below-average when the contract starts, is taking on a lot of risk. And we’re not talking about Mark Buehrle here; Vargas missed six weeks last year with a circulatory problem in his arm, and missed all of 2008 with arm trouble. It might work out; Vargas did make 96 starts from 2010 to 2012, and shows no sign of decline. He doesn’t throw hard and he’s in his 30s, but he’s left-handed; he could well be entering the Bruce Chen phase of his career.

But speaking of Bruce Chen…if the Royals wanted a strike-throwing finesse lefty in their rotation, why didn’t they just re-sign Chen? Look at this:

Since 2009, when Vargas resuscitated his career in Seattle, he has a 4.07 ERA, pitching in great pitchers’ parks. His ERA+ is 95.

Since 2009, when Chen resuscitated his career in Kansas City, he has a 4.32 ERA, pitching in a neutral park. His ERA+ is 97.

Over the last 5 years, Vargas has allowed 1.1 homers per 9 innings, 2.5 BB/9, and 5.8 K/9.

Over the last 5 years, Chen has allowed 1.2 homers per 9 innings, 2.9 BB/9, and 6.1 K/9.

They’re the exact same pitcher. Vargas’ fastball velocity has ranged between 86.6 and 87.9 mph the last five years; Chen’s has ranged between 86.6 and 89.0. Vargas is a modest flyball pitcher; Chen is an extreme flyball pitcher. Like Chen, Vargas’ flyball tendencies allows him to post a lower-than-normal BABIP; Vargas’ BABIP the last five years is .281, compared to Chen’s .287.

The big difference, obviously, is that Chen is nearly six years older than Vargas. But at least in 2013, he was the better pitcher, and this type of player – crafty lefty starters who get by with guile and changing speeds – ages about as well as any class of baseball player. (Jamie Moyer, the dean of Crafty Lefty University, was the oldest winning pitcher in major league history.) And more to the point: Bruce Chen isn’t going to get 4 years and $32 million. My best guess is that he’ll get 2 years and $12 million.

Instead the Royals committed twice as many years, and more than twice as much money, to his younger doppelganger. It might work. If Vargas stays healthy, he will probably earn his money.

But that’s the thing: almost every starting pitcher is guaranteed to break down at some point over the next four years. The risk of injury for Vargas is substantial. That would be okay if it were counterbalanced by the chance for improvement. If there were upside here that Vargas might be a better pitcher than he’s shown so far, that would make the risk worth it. That’s why I like Phil Hughes. That’s why the Royals like Gil Meche, and why their gamble on him almost worked. If you’re signing a free-agent pitcher, you have to be able to foresee a scenario in which, if everything works out, he’s a bargain. Because you can foresee a scenario for any pitcher in which he sits on the DL collecting paychecks all season.

A four-year deal requires upside to counterbalance the inherent downside. The Royals didn’t get any here. Vargas is what he is: a quiet, comfortable, league-average innings eater. He might look a little better than that in 2014, if the Royals’ defense comes through for him – but keep in mind that the quality of a team’s defense can change quickly, and there’s no guarantee the Royals will even have an above-average defense by the last half of this contract. But there’s essentially no chance that Vargas is going to get any Cy Young votes during his four years with the team. There’s a good chance that he’ll be worth what he’s paid, and a decent chance he’ll get hurt and be overpaid, but very little chance that he’ll be underpaid.

For a different team, a team that – like the Royals a year ago – had a huge rotation hole to fill and no good internal options – the security of a #4 starter might make this contract worthwhile. It’s not a bad contract in a vacuum; as David Cameron writes, Vargas might well earn his money back. But given the Royals’ needs, and given their urgency to win in 2014, it’s not a good contract for them. It’s not just that they’re giving Vargas all that money; it’s that they’re giving him a spot in the rotation, preventing themselves from giving that spot to a better pitcher.

There’s one way this signing could work, and that’s if the money the Royals saved by going with Vargas instead of Hughes or Hudson or Garza or whoever, is used to upgrade the offense. But here’s the dirty little secret about the Royals right now: they don’t have as much payroll room as you might think. Even though they won’t be paying Santana $12 million, and won’t be paying Jeff Francoeur $7.5 million, and won’t be paying Bruce Chen $4.5 million, their payroll for 2014 is already higher than it was this year.

Some of that is because of salary increases to guys already under contract. Shields made $10 million this year; with all his contract incentives reached, he’s supposed to make $13.5 million next year. Guthrie’s backloaded contract jumps from $5 million to $11 million. Wade Davis goes from $2.8 million to $4.8 million. Alex Gordon gets a modest raise.

And some of it is because that wave of prospects who arrived in Kansas City in 2011 are becoming arbitration-eligible, and they’re going to get expensive – at least the best of them – very quickly. MLB Trade Rumors has put out their estimates of what players will make in arbitration for next year, and two Royals look to get paid: Greg Holland comes in at $4.9 million, and Eric Hosmer at $4.1 million. (Also, Emilio Bonifacio, who only joined the team in August, is arb-eligible and is estimated to earn $3.3 million.)

Add it all together, and according to my best estimates, the Royals’ payroll was pushing $80 million before they signed Vargas. They’re at over $87 million now, and while they might be able to shed a million here or there by cutting the likes of Chris Getz, they’re not going to be able to make a serious dent in that number unless they make the sensible (and therefore unthinkable) decision to trade Holland or Luke Hochevar.

The Royals were at $83 million last year, and with the new TV money kicking in this year there’s no reason they can’t approach $100 million. But after the Glass family takes their cut, $90-95 million might be all Moore has to work with. In which case the Royals might add a role player, but it’s hard to see how they can break the bank for Carlos Beltran, or even trade for someone like Howie Kendrick.

If the Royals take the $5 million or so annually they saved by signing Vargas instead of a top-tier free agent starter, and use it as a down payment towards an impact hitter, then this deal will look a lot better than it does. But I’m skeptical that they will do that – and even if they do, they could have re-signed Chen for less money and less time than they signed Vargas for.

The Royals could have spent all their money on the luxury option in the rotation, or they could have gone the bargain-basement route with Chen and spent all their money for a bat. Instead it looks like they’re trying to split the baby. That worked for King Solomon. I don’t think it will work for Dayton Moore.


The Royals’ payroll was over $88 million this afternoon, until they announced that in order to make room for Vargas on the 40-man roster, they had designated George Kottaras for assignment.

You don’t need me to tell you how silly this move is, or at least you shouldn’t. Kottaras hit .180 this season, and if this were 1977 and batting average were the only thing that people looked at, you could understand the move.

But it’s not, and you should not. Kottaras had more walks (24) than hits (18) in 2013 – he had more walks than Salvador Perez, who batted more than four times as often – and half of his 18 hits were for extra bases. His .349 OBP was fifth on the team; his .370 slugging average was higher than that of Mike Moustakas. Defensively, he held his own; he threw out 26% of attempted basestealers, which is better than league average.

He’s not a great player, but he’s an excellent backup catcher, and as a left-handed bat-first catcher with a low average but lots of power and patience, he’s the ideal backup to a right-handed Gold Glove winner who hits for a high average but swings at everything – like, say, Perez. They made the perfect combination.

And now, for some reason, the Royals just dropped him. I can’t imagine it’s for financial reasons; he was estimated to earn only about $1.2 million in arbitration. His likely replacement, Brett Hayes, has a career batting line of .220/.266/.374, and is expected to earn $900,000. Hayes is a little better defensively, but he has absolutely no value off the bench. He’s not going to pinch-hit, he’s not going to pinch-run, and with Perez the starting catcher, he’s sure as hell not going to come in for defense. He’s just going to sit on the bench and waste a roster spot 140 times a year. And the other 22 times he’ll hit a lot worse than Kottaras would have.

The Royals can’t find room for Kottaras on the 40-man roster, but last week they found room for Francisco Pena, a 24-year-old catcher who has a career line of .236/.286/.348 – in the minor leagues. Pena just reached Triple-A for the first time this year, and hit .257/.294/.459 while playing in Las Vegas, one of the best hitters’ parks around. There is nothing in his record to suggest he’ll even be an adequate backup in the majors.

But he’s a Pena, son of Tony Sr. and brother of Tony Jr., so of course the Royals wanted him. In their defense, this is only their third-most inexplicable transaction involving a member of the Pena family.

The Royals spent $32 million today, but as it stands right now, they’ve replaced Ervin Santana with Jason Vargas, and they’ve replaced George Kottaras with Brett Hayes. At some point, I hope they make some moves that make the team better for 2014. Because right now, they look worse.