Changing up may help Vargas help Royals

jason vargas II

Tommy Rancel is a writer for ESPN Sweetspot Network and TheProcessReport.net. He has also written for Bloomberg Sports, FanGraphs, and ESPN Florida. You can follow him on Twitter @TRancel.

In an attempt to improve, and lengthen, their rotation the Kansas City Royals signed Jason Vargas to a four-year deal worth $32 million. Whether they actually improved – or could have done better had they went in a different direction – is up for debate. Nobody seems to have an issue with the average annual value of the contract. In fact, some within the business predicted an AAV for Vargas around $10 million. Meanwhile, the length has been a hot topic with the consensus being it is too long for the lack of upside Vargas provides.

Vargas’ limitiations and flaws are clear. He is a flyball pitcher that throws in the upper-80s on a good day. He throws strikes, but a lack of stuff leaves little margin for error in missing his spot. Add it up and you have a pitcher that can be more hittable than you would like with home run issues that have plagued the lefty throughout his career although he has pitched in environments that supress the long ball. The Royals, despite these issues, are hoping he can be a league-average starter, capable of helping a rotation that still needs work.

The odds are against Vargas being a viable American League starter when the deal comes to terms. But if you squint really hard in the dark, he might be a bit better than expected in the short term with adjustments in how he uses his limited arsenal.

As mentioned, Vargas “features” a fastball which he traditionally throws around 87 mph. He has increased the use of an upper-70s curveball, but his bread-and-butter offering is a low-80s changeup that rivals new teammate, James Shields in terms of effectiveness. Speaking of Shields, Vargas would be wise to pick up a few tricks of the trade from his brother in off-speed.

Though his fastball is a grade or two above Vargas, Shields has anchored staffs for two organizations on the strength of his secondary pitches with heavy emphasis on the changeup. The right-hander has enhanced the effectivenes of these pitches by utilizing unorthodox ways.

Because he is left handed with marginal stuff, Vargas has cut himself off from the third-base side of the plate. Instead he does the overwhelming majority of his work to his arm-side, staying away from right-handed batters. He is also a strike thrower, tossing a large number of pitches in the zone. This makes his location easy to predict. Vargas also does little to help himself in terms of sequencing. This is especially true early in the count. Last season, he threw a fastball 65 percent of the time on the first pitch. The result? A .407/.407/.685 line on first-pitch fastballs. For reference, the league average is .349/.352/.559.

Vargas first pitch fastball vs LHBs

Shields, meanwhile, likes to mix it up. He started a quarter of his plate appearances with a curveball last season. Among qualified starters with traditional arsenals, his rate of first-pitch heaters ranked in the bottom third. In terms of first-pitch average against only Chris Tillman (.267) produced a lower mark (.267) than Shields (.271). The AL average for all first pitches was .344. Because we know he is going to be in the zone toward his arm-side most of the time, Vargas may benefit from varying his selection on the first pitch in an effort to keep hitters off balance.

Though Vargas can match Shields in regards to changeup quality, he limits the usage based on his opponent. Versus right-handers he threw changeups nearly 35 percent of the time last season. He threw it less than 10 percent against fellow lefties. Luckily for him, rival managers typically ignored the usage and stacked the lineup with righties. This played into his strength and even helped produce a little bit of a reverse split. If the trend continues, opponents would be wise to take away his best pitch by utilizing some more lefties. Vargas can combat this strategy by borrowing another strategy from Shields.

Shields is an equal opportunity user of the changeup. Since 2011, only one starter with a minimum 450 innings has thrown more same-side changeups than Shields. That would be his former teammate, and apprentice, Jeremy Hellickson. Using his best weapon against batters on both sides has rendered Shields nearly free of a split and guarded against opposing managers loading up their lineup with a certain type of hitter in an attempt to limit his use of the changeup.

In summation, how much signing Vargas improves the Royals chances of making the playoffs is up for discussion. However, he does not make them worse and it did not take a substantial amount of resources (modest salary and no draft picks) to sign him. Perhaps the length of the deal is excessive, but it may also be why he chose Kansas City over another suitor. For a team farther from contention the deal makes less sense, but the Royals are in search of important marginal wins that can take from the mid-80s in wins to near 90 in 2014. If Vargas is a quick study of Shields, maybe he can bring them a little closer than we think.