Jason Vargas Is Hitting His Stride in Kansas City

Leaning on his changeup, which is one of the best in the Majors, Jason Vargas is having a career year for the Royals as Kansas City chases a playoff berth for the first time in nearly 30 years.

Jason Vargas has been a journeyman for a long time, so there was noticeable backlash when he signed a four-year, $32-million contract with the Royals in the offseason. He pitched for three different colleges and four different MLB teams before ending up in Kansas City, where he’s having his best season yet and has helped the Royals to the brink of their first playoff berth since they won the World Series in 1985.

Looking back at Vargas’ journey could help explain how he got to Kansas City and how he has become a serviceable Major League pitcher.

Five Teams in Seven Years

Vargas began his college career at LSU in 2002, where he posted a respectable 3.42 ERA in 21 innings. However, he transferred closer to home to Cypress College for the 2003 season, and he was named the Southern California junior college player of the year after striking out 101 and recording a 3.10 ERA in 107 innings. Before the 2004 campaign, Vargas was on the move again, this time back to Division 1 with Long Beach State. With the 49ers, Vargas teamed with Troy Tulowitzki in the batting order and Jered Weaver in the starting rotation. He hit .354 in 209 at-bats, and struck out 90 in 111 innings with a 4.14 ERA. The Florida Marlins selected Vargas as a pitcher in the second round of the 2004 draft, but he wouldn’t be in Miami for long.

Vargas made his big league debut for the Marlins in 2005, starting 13 games and finishing with a 4.03 ERA in 73 innings. He relied on his fastball, throwing it 68.4% of the time, but also threw his changeup (17.8%) and slider (11.1%). 2006 was a struggle for Vargas, as he allowed 35 earned runs in 43 innings and fell in love with his slider, now throwing it 16 percent of the time. After the 2006 season, Florida dealt Vargas to the Mets for reliever Matt Lindstrom. Vargas only threw 10 innings for New York in 2007, allowing 14 earned runs. He had a bone spur removed from his elbow after the season, and missed the 2008 season with a hip injury. Following the 2008 season, he was dealt to Seattle as part of a three-team trade that sent JJ Putz to the Mets, Joe Smith to the Indians, and Franklin Gutierrez to the Mariners.

Finding a Changeup, and Consistency, in Seattle

The pieces started to come together for Vargas in the American League, as the Mariners called Vargas up from AAA to start for the club from May through July of 2009, during which time he posted a respectable 4.91 ERA in 91 innings. Vargas leaned on his four-seamer again (63.7% of his pitches), but also threw a changeup (16.4%), slider (9.2%) and two-seam fastball (8.4%).

After the 2009 season, Vargas altered his pitch repertoire and his career took off. In 2010, Vargas nearly doubled the amount of changeups he threw, from 16.4% to 29.3%. He dramatically cut back on using his four-seam fastball (down to 26.5% of the time, less than his changeup), and the two-seamer became his most frequent pitch (up to 35.6% of the time). In his first full big league season, Vargas threw 192 innings and recorded an improved ERA of 3.78. He recorded a wCH, or changeup runs above average, of 13.8, which was sixth in MLB and close behind his teammate and Cy Young winner Felix Hernandez’s wCH of 16.3. As the table below shows, Vargas may be the starter most dependent on his changeup since he began starting full time in 2009, as the difference between his wCH and wFB is the largest of the pitchers with the top five changeups since 2009.

Jason Vargas-43.462.3105.7
Cole Hamels299.897.8
James Shields-37.653.190.7
Tim Lincecum059.959.9
Felix Hernandez50.898.590.7

Vargas added a cutter to his ever-evolving arsenal of pitches in time for the 2011 season, throwing it 13.7% of the time. The changeup became his most-used pitch at 29.9%, surpassing his two-seamer (25.4%) and four-seamer (24.2%). With the cutter came some struggles, as Vargas’ ERA rose to 4.25, although he logged 201 innings. As he learned his cutter, Vargas’s changeup fell towards the middle of the pack, down to 4.3 runs above average. 2012 contained a similar pitch distribution to 2011, except for a few less cutters and change-ups and a few more curveballs, but Vargas’ change became the best in the major leagues. His 20.5 runs above average on his change-up topped the big leagues, and his ERA fell to 3.85.

Before the 2013 season, Vargas was sent back to his native California to pitch for the Angels with his former college teammate Weaver. With a new location, Vargas learned a new pitch, as he scrapped his cutter almost entirely in exchange for a curveball, which he threw 14.8% of the time. He also began throwing his four-seam more than his two-seam again, after throwing more two-seamers for the past three years. His change-up ranked fourth in the majors at 13.5 runs above average, but his ERA rose to 4.02.

Fresh Start in Kansas City

After the season, Vargas signed with the Royals as a free agent. He appears to have finally settled on a set of pitches. He’s a changed pitcher since he first became a full-time starter with the Mariners (more curveballs and changeups, no sliders), but he’s also returned to favoring his four-seam fastball. Since no season would be complete without a new pitch from Jason Vargas, he’s also experimenting with a knuckle curve. His changeup is fifth in the league at 10.3 runs above average, and it’s the third best change in the league since 2010, behind only King Felix and Philadelphia’s Cole Hamels. Vargas has a career-low 3.17 ERA this season, as well as a career-high strikeout to walk ratio of 3.30. As the Royals have made their push since the All-Star break, Vargas has sparkled, posting a 2.49 ERA in four starts, including a complete-game shutout of Oakland, a signature game which may have signaled the arrival of both the pitcher and his club to the MLB’s elite.