It was my extreme pleasure to be a guest on MLB Network’s show MLB Now this Monday, for many reasons. One among them: it enabled me to give my photo review of the Phillies trading for Jason Vargas live on TV. We had learned about the trade a few seconds earlier, during the commercial break. Please watch for my reaction.
As I said in the tweet, I’m proud of having practically nailed his fastball velocity, despite hedging about the accuracy of that memory. Technically, Vargas’ fastball sits at more like 85 MPH this year, but it’s been 86-87 for the last two years, so I think it’s an excusable mistake. Live TV, after all.
However, I didn’t know at the time what the Phillies might have traded for the 36-year-old lefty. My on-air review may be a bit harsh, and I’m not just gun-shy from the comeuppance I received on my tepid Jay Bruce trade photo review. (Read the bottom of that article for a little bit more background on my photo review tradition, for those who are confused/aggrieved).
Phillies’ Pitching at the Deadline
This is, in fact, a very good trade for the Phillies. As I also mentioned on MLB Now, the Phillies desperately need another healthy, competent starter. Preferably two, if one of them is going to be Jason Vargas.
Because Jake Arrieta is pitching through the incredible pain of a bone spur in his elbow. Zach Eflin, currently moved to the bullpen, has a malady described as a “heavy body,” which doesn’t sound conducive to throwing 103 pitches in 95 degree temperatures, and has seen results to bear that out. Vince Velasquez is amazingly effective…one time through the order.
And Drew Smyly–well, thankfully I believe that I said live on TV on Monday that I am probably rooting for Smyly more than anyone who isn’t related to him, so I was on the record as a Smyly booster before his second gorgeous start in a Phillies uniform. I also had this to say before his first start (neither of which I’ve been able to watch in real time, although both of which I have studiously avoided spoilers about until I could):
But I am not counting my Galapagos gang before they’ve hatched based on starts against two middling offenses in the Pirates and Giants. As noted, I have seriously swooned about Smyly’s dreamy strikeout ability; his elevated fastball can be brilliant. But he’s never been durable, and he’s had a tough road back from Tommy John surgery.
So, his first two starts for the Phillies have been very encouraging. I have sweated/swooned. But even if he’s late 2015/early 2016 Smyly, that’s only one person backing up the superhero that is Aaron Nola, and that is not enough.
Jason Vargas and the 85 MPH Fastball
But here’s the thing I know about Jason Vargas. He has enjoyed periods of effectiveness in recent years (I hope he enjoyed them, sometimes it’s hard to tell) by playing his pitches off of one another, regardless of their average velocities. He throws his 85 MPH fastball just often enough–31.1% of the time in 2019, according to Baseball Savant–to keep batters surprised by the change in velocity between that and his offspeed pitches at 79 and and 71 MPH. Please note that I am aware that the term ‘offspeed’ is kind of hilarious, here.
Also, that changeup, which he uses 37.4% of the time, is a pretty effective pitch. It has excellent horizontal break, and has limited batters to a .190 average this year. 2019 is the first year the changeup has served as his primary pitch, following a trend around the league of using a hurler’s strongest pitch as his ‘establishing’ pitch. In 2017, Vargas ditched his four-seam fastball for his sinker, which I’m guessing contributed to the period of success he saw that season, or he wouldn’t have kept throwing it then. Now that sinkers are tired and offspeed pitches are wired, it seems safe to say that using the changeup so often has helped Vargas achieve…well, what he has achieved. Which brings us to:
Some Jason Vargas Numbers
- 2019 ERA: 4.01. Okay. MLB average is 4.51. So, not terrible. But:
- 2019 FIP: 4.71 and xFIP: 5.77. Suggesting some regression is coming to Vargas. Maybe while he’s wearing a Phillies hat.
- The numbers going into FIP and xFIP appear again in Vargas’ less-than-scintillating 7.73 K/9 and about-league-average 1.34 HR/9.
- Vargas’ fastball speed: 484th out of 484 recorded pitchers in baseball. To be clear, that is last. No active pitcher throws a slower fastball. But:
- Vargas’ average exit velocity: 406 out of 475 recorded pitchers in baseball, which is in the 86th percentile according to Baseball Savant. But that is great–a pitcher wants to induce weaker contact and have a lower average exit velocity.
- Flyball %: 42.9%. League average: 35.4%. So, continuing to induce weak contact will be key for Vargas moving to Citizens Bank Park, considering that it’s a more hitter-friendly park (the term we use instead of pitcher-antagonizing park).
In light of my comment on air that I wonder why the Phillies didn’t show interest in Dallas Keuchel but sealed the deal with Jason Vargas, it occurs to me that the Phillies must be out on groundball pitchers. And, given the nature of their defense–better than last year, but still not great–this makes sense. In theory.
However, passing up two better pitchers in Keuchel, who would have only cost money, and Stroman, whom I would have been happy to get for the prospect cost of someone like Adonis Medina and a high-A pitcher, to settle on Vargas–it still doesn’t make sense to me. The Phillies seem to be doubling down on getting flyball pitchers, despite the ways that allowing home runs have ravaged their club this year (a more complete look at this coming from me soon).
But Let’s Look at that Trade Again
However, as long as we’re on the subject of prospect cost, this trade still makes a lot of sense for the Phillies. Austin Bossart, a catcher hitting .195/ .303/.335 at the Phillies’ hitter-friendly/pitcher-antagonizing AA park in Reading, constitutes exactly the kind of trade chip that is expendable in the Phillies’ wild card hunt. Perhaps Bossart will come back to haunt the Phillies; more likely, he comes back to haunt the Phillies’ AAA Ironpigs.
In this trade, the Phillies took advantage of the fact that the the Mets wanted to ship Vargas. Things had gone south with the organization when Vargas was unrepentant for offering to “knock out” Mets beat writer Tim Healey, after a ranting Callaway had yelled for someone to “Get this guy out of here.”
I’m team Healey all the way on this one, although on one level it could be construed as Vargas’ attempt to back up his coach. Who knows whether this has anything to do with the fact that Kapler has brushed the incident aside, saying “My first thought was that was so out of character for Jason to be involved in anything like that.” Kapler cited the time he spent with Vargas in Anaheim in 2013, adding, “He’s not an overbearing personality at all like that. He’s very popular in the clubhouse with everybody. He’s very likable.”
And as for the Mets, apparently Austin Bossart played at Penn with Bradley Wilpon. Wilpons gotta Wilpon, I guess.
And Now, a Word about Blake Parker
The Phillies also acquired Blake Parker on Monday, after he had been designated for assignment by the Twins. Parker came into the season as one of the closers in the Twins’ ninth inning committee, so the fall from closing to being DFA’d seems precipitous.
But Parker’s stats also represent a significant decline from 2017, when his 2.54 ERA stood roughly in line with his 2.71 FIP. This year, his 5.35 FIP has no solace to offer his 4.21 ERA. He’s giving up more homers than ever before–sound familiar, 2019?–but that seems directly related to a decrease in fastball velocity, which has lost about a mile per hour each year since 2017. His hard hit rate has leapt up 10% from last season.
That said, Parker still has a lot of talent, and when I saw that the Twins had DFA’d him, I hoped the Phillies might pick him up and take a chance on him. Even with Pivetta and Eflin moving to relief duty, the Phillies’ bullpen has been a hospital ward this season. Any move they can make with no prospect cost is worth a shot.
Because despite my varied feelings about the Phillies’ acquisitions of Jay Bruce, Brad Miller and Sean Rodriguez at the moment I learned about them, they have certainly contributed to the club when healthy. Of course, ‘when healthy’ is an important caveat when considering the value of a veteran to a team. Still, in only 244 plate appearances, the Bruce/Miller/Rodriguez triumvirate has a combined 1.4 WAR (FanGraphs). This doesn’t compare too unfavorably to Scott Kingery’s 1.8 WAR in 291 plate appearances.
And to step away from what wins-above-replacement actually calculates, that is, as a human being watching the games, it feels as if these players have cast the winning run or RBI in more than 1.4 games. They feel more impactful than the small, low-cost moves made by the club late in the season last year. The Phillies have found some helpful pieces on the fringe, by making small deals similar to this Vargas trade. I hope the trade deadline has something else in store, but we’ll see what use can be made of Vargas, Parker and Smyly, gotten on the cheap.
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