I have a friend who likes baseball. Let’s call him – oh, I don’t know – Jimmy.
Jimmy is as big a baseball fan as they come. I can’t count the number of mornings I’ve woken up to a text message from Jimmy about the latest news and rumors or the number of nights we’ve gone out to grab a beer, watch the game, and discuss the inner-workings of the Angels. I faced off against Jimmy in the championship match of our fantasy league last year, and the jerk beat me by 32 points. I swear I’ll never hear the end of it. But I digress.
Jimmy and I often don’t see eye-to-eye when it comes to the Halos. He likes Trout in centerfield; I like Bourjos. He goes with Frieri as our Opening Day closer; I – until recently – had Madson slotted in that role. (High expectations, I know.) But the topic we’ve debated most frequently this off-season has been starting pitching. Like most fans, Jimmy is concerned with the state of the rotation. And, to be honest, I don’t blame him. After staff ace and clubhouse leader Jered Weaver, the rotation kinda takes a nose-dive.
Lefty C.J. Wilson is coming off both a disappointing 2012 campaign and offseason elbow surgery. Tommy Hanson had a similar season to Wilson statistically, but was bothered by back problems late in the year. (This following a 2011 season which saw Hanson miss the final month and a half due to a rotator cuff strain and tendonitis in his shoulder.) And Joe Blanton… Well, he’s still Joe Blanton.
Then there’s Jason Vargas.
Who the heck is Jason Vargas?
Jason Vargas has already picked up some mileage early in his career, and I’m not talking about innings pitched (though he did average over 200+ IP in each of the last three seasons). Vargas managed to make his way around the country and the major leagues since graduating from high school in Apple Valley, CA. The 6’0” 215 lb lefty was selected by the Minnesota Twins in the 43rd round of the 2001 draft, but opted instead to geaux down to Louisiana State and pitch for the Tigers. Vargas was 1-1 with a 3.43 ERA in 13 games his freshmen year before transferring to the baseball powerhouse known as Cypress College. The Tiger-turned-Charger tore up the competition during the 2003 season and earned himself the honor of Southern California junior college player of the year. But Vargas wasn’t done moving. He transferred to Long Beach State for his senior year where he joined the Dirtbags and future major league teammate, Jered Weaver. Vargas fit in well with the proud tradition of Long Beach baseball. He worked hard and it paid off. In 2004, he went 7-6 with a 4.14 ERA in 13 starts while hitting .354 with 14 doubles and 5 HR. He was selected in the 2nd round (68th overall) of the 2004 draft by the Florida Marlins.
Vargas started the 2004 season with the Marlins’ New York-Penn League affiliate Jamestown Jammers where he was 3-1 with a 1.96 ERA and 1.16 WHIP in 41.1 IP. He made his final three starts of the season for the Single-A affiliate Greensboro Grasshoppers, going 2-1 with a 2.37 ERA in 19 IP. His performance was enough for Baseball America to name him the #8 overall prospect in the Marlins organization. Vargas split the 2005 season between the Grasshoppers, the Jupiter Hammerheads, and the Carolina Mudcats earning a collective 7-4 record with a 2.35 ERA and 0.97 WHIP in 108 IP. He got his first taste of major league action on July 14, 2005. Vargas came out of the bullpen to pitch a scoreless 7th inning, giving up a hit and a walk while striking out a batter. (Little known fact: future Angels teammate Ryan Madson would enter the game in relief in the bottom of that very same 7th inning.) Vargas made his first career start on July 18, 2005, going five innings while giving up four hits and three runs – just two of which were earned – on 93 pitches. He would finish the 2005 season going 5-5 with a 4.03 ERA and 1.39 WHIP in 73.2 IP for the Marlins.
Vargas began the 2006 season in Florida’s starting rotation, but soon found himself back in the bullpen after going 1-1 with a 5.40 ERA in his first five starts. His luck in the ‘pen wasn’t any better and, after just four relief appearances, he was optioned down to the Triple-A affiliate Albuquerque Isotopes. In July, Vargas was called back up for his final three appearances with the Marlins. He went 0-1 with a 10.13 ERA, 14 hits, 5 walks, and 12 runs in 10.2 IP and was subsequently traded to the New York Mets on November 20, 2006.
Jason Vargas’ career as a Met was a short one. He made two starts for New York in the 2007 season, going 0-1 with a 12.19 ERA and 14 runs allowed over just 10.1 IP. Vargas was forced to miss the 2008 season after undergoing surgery to remove a bone spur from his elbow in October 2007, in addition to surgically repairing a torn labrum in his left hip in March 2008. On December 10, 2008, Vargas was on the move again, this time travelling from the Big Apple to the soggy Northwest as part of a seven-player trade between the Mets, the Cleveland Indians, and the Seattle Mariners.
Oh, THAT Jason Vargas!
Vargas spent most of the 2009 season with Seattle’s Triple-A affiliate Tacoma Raniers before being called up to the big league roster on September 1st. He would go on to have a rough end of the season with the Mariners, earning a 3-6 record with a 4.91 ERA in 91.2 IP. Despite his performance, Vargas began the 2010 season in Seattle’s starting rotation. After being lit up by the Texas Rangers for eight hits and five runs over five innings and picking up the loss in his first appearance of the year, Vargas wound up going 6-1 with a 2.30 ERA over his next 13 starts. At the All-Star break, he posted an impressive 6-4 record with a 3.09 ERA and .240 BAA in 107.2 IP. The second half of the season wouldn’t be so kind to the kid from Apple Valley. During a stretch from August 21st through September 24th, Vargas lost seven straight decisions while giving up 32 runs over just 41 innings. He would end the 2010 season at 9-12 with a 3.78 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, and 116 strikeouts in 192.2 IP.
2011 season would prove to be a perplexing year for Vargas. While he did manage to set career highs in innings pitched (201), strikeouts (131), and wins (11), he also watched his ERA balloon to 4.25 as he collected 13 losses for the Mariners. However, 2010 and 2011 would not be all in vain. For it was during these two seasons that Vargas truly began to develop his most devastating pitch: the change-up. Fangraphs shows us that Vargas threw his change-up a personal record 28.8% of the time in 2010 and 28% in 2011. He threw it nearly half as often as his fastball and, in the process, mastered what Fangraphs called the best change-up in the game. Don’t believe me? Check out this .gif of Vargas making Kelly Shoppach look like a damn fool.
After signing a one-year deal for $4.85MM in January, Vargas was back pitching in Seattle for the 2012 season. And, boy, did the Mariners get what they paid for! Vargas proved to be one of the most dominant left-handed pitchers in the league, going 14-11 with a 3.85 ERA and 1.17 WHIP over 217.1 IP while striking out 141 and walking only 55 batters. He began mixing his pitches better (throwing his change-up only 26.9% of the time) and relying more on his fastball to compliment his almost unhittable off-speed pitch. Vargas was named AL Pitcher of the Month in July after going 5-0 with a 1.64 ERA in six starts. He finished the year setting career marks in wins, innings pitched, strikeouts, WHIP, and games started. And then, on December 19, 2012, he was traded to the Los Angeles Angels.
How does he stack up against Angels pitchers NOT named Weaver?
Well, now that you know who Jason Vargas is, where do you put him? To answer this question, I must once again turn to my good friend Jimmy.
If you asked Jimmy, he’d say Vargas slots in nicely as the number two starter in the rotation behind Weaver. And you’d be hard-pressed to find an argument that proves him wrong*.
Sure, Vargas is young. (Actually, he’s not that young. At 30-years-old, he’s the same age as Weaver and four years Hanson’s senior.) Sure, he’s untested. (That’s not quite true either. Vargas has 829.2 IP in 150 games over a seven year span in the pros.) Sure, he got most of his experience at pitcher-friendly Safeco Field. (Vargas’ career numbers at Angel Stadium – also a pitcher’s ballpark – are fantastic. He’s gone 3-1 with 2.27 ERA and 1.09 WHIP in 43.2 IP over seven games.) Still, compared to Wilson, Hanson, and Blanton, Vargas might be the most logical choice to step up and fill-in as the second-part of a one-two punch with his former Dirtbag teammate.
I mean, think about it. Wilson is coming off of surgery and a poor season. Hanson says his back is fine, but no one can be sure. And Joe Blanton... Well, he’s still Joe Blanton. Meanwhile, Vargas is coming off of a career performance with the opportunity to pitch in front of his hometown crowd during a year that will ultimately determine his worth on the free agent market this off-season. The incentive to achieve is clearly there for the new Halo lefty. But why stop at expectations? Let’s take a look at the numbers.
Over the last three seasons, Vargas has gone 33-36 with a 3.96 ERA and 1.24 WHIP in 611 IP over 96 starts for an abysmal Seattle Mariners team. Sure, Wilson (44-25, 3.36 ERA) and Hanson (34-28, 3.80 ERA) have had better numbers, but they’ve done so on much better teams. (Case in point: Wilson pitched for the back-to-back AL Champion Texas Rangers in 2010 & 2011 before joining the Angels and their 2012 MLB-leading offense; Hanson’s Braves made the playoffs two out of the past three years and would have/should have been there all three times if it weren’t for the biggest late-season collapse in sports history.) Furthermore, the trends seem to be favoring Vargas. Last season, Wilson put up his highest numbers in losses (10) and ERA (3.83) since becoming a starter. Hanson’s ERA continues to grow each season he’s in the pros (from 2.89 in ’09 to 4.48 in ’12). And Joe Blanton... Well, he’s still Joe Blanton. Meanwhile, Vargas has improved upon his wins, strikeouts, and innings pitched each of the past three seasons.
So, does Vargas actually have what it takes to make it as the number two starter on a club that many consider a favorite to win the division? Will he continue to improve upon the success he had last year in Seattle? Or will he sink under the pressure of a new team and a new city and a new set of expectations? I could answer these questions for you, but then Jimmy and I would have nothing to talk about.
Follow sky-walker, slick talker, and L.A. Angels Insider Senior Columnist, Matthew James on twitter @MattyJay27.
*You have to keep in mind that Jimmy has been on the Vargas Train since last year when the young lefty helped my friend defeat me in our fantasy baseball finals.