With the first notable move of the offseason, the Royals signed Jason Vargas to a 4 year, $32M contract*. GM Dayton Moore cited things like “he always gives you a chance to win” and that he has a “mindset that [he’s] going to compete”. These kinds of phrases give no real information; if a player makes it to the major league level, he’s a competitor in some way. GMDM always makes these kinds of comments when referring to players, which suggests that he doesn’t value advanced statistics very much. However, when looking into Vargas’ stats and this deal, I think it could turn out to be a good partnership.
First, Vargas does not come with the caveat of losing a draft pick since he did not receive a qualifying offer from the Angels. This is a good start. Second, while the contract is 4 years in length, which is a little lengthy for a non-Greinke/Kershaw/Verlander/etc type pitcher, the average annual value (AAV) is $8M. This is a reasonable price for the type of pitcher that Vargas is. Vargas is a roughly league-average and relatively durable left-handed starting pitcher with a decent track record, which the market tends to value very highly. When looking at the deals for Tim Lincecum (2yrs, $35M) and Tim Hudson (2yrs, $23M), this deal looks OK. There are interesting aspects about Vargas that make him a good fit for the Royals, and why I think he will fulfill the value of his contract.
As I wrote previously, the Royals are focusing on getting fly balls from contact due to their good outfield defense and spacious stadium. Vargas is a fly ball pitcher who doesn’t appear to be hurt by the home run (only a career 9.1% HR/FB). However, his two home stadiums have been Seattle (before the fences were moved in) and Anaheim, which have been known to depress home runs. Kauffman doesn’t limit home runs quite as much as those stadiums have, but Kauffman is not a home run haven either. For his career, Vargas gives up far more home runs on the road than at home. This is a trend we can probably expect to continue.
While Vargas is not a good pitcher on the road, there is an optimistic trend in his strikeout data. Every year since 2009, when he really became a full time starter, his K% has increased. Looking at his plate discipline data, his O-swing% has increased from 2009, and his contact% has decreased each year since 2010. His SwStr% (Swinging Strike %) has increased each year since 2010. Interestingly, his Zone% has decreased dramatically since 2011, but his F-strike% (first pitch strike %) has not decreased dramatically. This paints the picture that Vargas has been attacking hitters with strikes early in the count and then throwing pitches out of the zone later in the count to get hitters to chase, and hitters are chasing more as the years go on. Given the steady increase in his K%, and the plate discipline numbers to back up the increase, it is likely that Vargas will at least maintain his current K% if not increase it. Since Vargas is a finesse control pitcher, he does not depend on velocity as much as command and pitch mix.
Vargas’ pitch mix is fairly standard. He throws a 4 seam fastball, a sinker, a changeup, a curveball, and rarely a cutter. His changeup is excellent, and his curveball was good in 2013. Vargas has a clear plan to attack hitters: he uses the fastball early in the count, mixing in other pitches to be unpredictable, and uses the changeup and curveball when he is ahead in the count. Vargas uses the curveball more often against LHH and the changeup more often against RHH. He is an unpredictable pitcher against LHH, mixing his 4 seam, sinker, and curveball to good effect. Unfortunately, against RHH, he becomes a two pitch pitcher, using mainly a fastball and changeup, but his changeup is good enough that RHH won’t kill him.
Overall, Vargas’ strength as a fly ball pitcher will play well with both Kauffman and the Royals’ outfield defense. Vargas will be an above average pitcher at home and a below average pitcher on the road. If Vargas’ K% can continue to increase with the Royals’ defense limiting his BABIP, Vargas might not be as vulnerable to home runs as he has been and could be a solid replacement for Santana. The Steamer projection system has him pegged for a 2.0 WAR season, for which $8M will be good value, if not a bargain. If Vargas can either maintain his production or follow a normal aging decline curve, the Royals will get the full value of this contract. Welcome to Kansas City, Jason.
*I am extremely disappointed that the corresponding move to make room on the 40 man roster was to designate George Kottaras for assignment. While the Royals seem to have a clear plan with their pitchers, they continue not to know how to build an offense.