We've reached a decision point with Jason Vargas.
He's the most viewed player on CBS Sports in addition to being the most added. His ownership percentage has risen from 2 to 6 to 39 to 72 in four week's time. The metaphorical hounds have sniffed him out. The world has learned of his whereabouts. He's on every channel of every TV, with all eyes directed on him, so you know he's not slipping through the cracks much longer. If you want any chance of capitalizing on a possible breakthrough (assuming you aren't already too late), the time is now or never.
Wait ... breakthrough? He's 34 years old. His career-best strikeout rate is 6.5 per nine innings. He has been a full-time starting pitcher since 2009, save a couple years lost to injury. We should know exactly who he is by now.
And yet he's doing things completely foreign to him in this first full year back from Tommy John surgery. He struck out nine over seven shutout innings for the Royals in his last start Wednesday against the Giants, his third straight with at least a strikeout per inning. He allowed just one earned run between the three and recorded double-digit swinging strikes in each for an average (13) even better than Clayton Kershaw's (11).
You'd think his left arm healed in some magical, mechanic-altering way that allows it to spew fire, a la Henry Rowengartner, except that his fastball is still topping out at only 88 mph.
But the goal of pitching, many have claimed, is to disrupt a hitter's timing, and there are more ways to do that than simply out-muscling him. Vargas' method is and always has been his changeup, which has been better than ever in terms of swing-and-missability.
(data from Brooks Baseball)
"He's got a heck of a changeup," Giants acting manager Ron Wotus said after Wednesday's game. "That's why he can handle right-handers the way he did."
Vargas is also throwing the changeup more, as in nearly one-third of the time. There's diminishing returns with that, of course. The changeup is only effective in contrast to the fastball and vice-versa, so if he emphasizes one too much, he'll get pounded. Right now, he seems to have found the perfect balance.
But doesn't that speak to the concern with him? "Perfect" would yield positive results for anyone, and Vargas' pinpoint control (he has issued just two walks in 20 2/3 innings) perhaps makes him a little more capable of it than most from one start to the next. But "perfect" is also unsustainable, particularly in a high-volume, precision-based sport.
Every player endures cold stretches in baseball, in a way we don't really see in other sports. And why do you think that is? Because getting a fist-sized orb moving at breakneck speeds to do what you want it to do takes unimaginable precision, and the slightest blip in motion -- whether a delivery or a swing -- can ruin everything. It's inevitable in a game re-played so many times. The difference between the good players and the bad players is how long it takes them to correct it.
But there's another variable at work there, and that's how bad it can get when the delivery goes wrong -- i.e., becomes less than "perfect" -- which may ultimately be Vargas' undoing. His limited velocity combined with the way his fastball and changeup depend on one another give him a narrower margin for error that will surely reveal itself in time.
That's my theory, anyway, and I'd argue it's supported by history. This three-start stretch with double-digit swings-and-misses wouldn't be his first, after all. It happened most recently in 2014, but it also happened in 2013. And shoot, he had a five-start stretch with double-digit swings-and-misses in 2012 that would have been an eight-start stretch if not for an interruption halfway through. So to say what he's doing now is unprecedented wouldn't be entirely accurate.
But wait, wasn't 2014 a long time ago? Well yeah, but he hardly pitched the two years thereafter because of the surgery, which introduces another variable to the discussion.
The league has changed quite a bit since Vargas last pitched extensively. Pitchers are throwing harder and piling up strikeouts faster than ever. Batters are selling out for home runs in a more deliberate way, changing their swing paths to create more loft. You look at what Marco Estrada and Kyle Hendricks -- pitchers with Vargas', um ... we'll call them limitations -- have managed to do the last couple years, and you could argue that the oddity of a high-80s fastball, assuming a quality secondary arsenal, makes it more effective than ever.
But that's also theoretical -- and with little evidence to support it. It's basically my way of allowing for the possibility that something different is at work here, seeing as it's the start of a new season and the first after a long layoff for Vargas.
So let's review the theories for why he has been so good so far:
- His improved health has given him better-than-ever command.
- He has struck the perfect balance between his fastball and changeup.
- His changeup is better, for some inexplicable reason.
- The changing dynamics of the league have made him more effective.
- It's simply a nice run not too unlike some of the others he has experience in the past.
Yeah ... I'm giving that final option about a 90 percent chance of being the right one.
But that 10 percent chance that he's better, for one reason or another, is what makes him interesting. Signs of a transformation, particularly at the start of a season and particularly following a long layoff, are always noteworthy, and when the rest of the Fantasy Baseball-playing world catches wind of them, you're kind of forced to act, whether you're ready or not.
I try to play Fantasy Baseball with this idea in mind: I don't know everything. I'm not always right, and I don't have to be to succeed. It comes from experience -- from identifying the John Burkett (2000, anyone?), Esteban Loaiza (2003?), R.A. Dickey, J.D. Martinez and Jacob deGrom types who pop up out of nowhere and acting on them before I really knew what they were, only to see it pay off handsomely.
Most of the time, it doesn't, which is why I can't say everyone in every situation needs to act on Vargas now. But you see where I've positioned him in my rest-of-season rankings: 75th, which means if you own any of the pitchers ranked behind him -- and plenty of mixed-league owners do -- you're in a position to take that chance, as unlikely as it may be.
I called Vargas a just-in-case-type pickup in, and that's exactly what this is: giving yourself a chance to capitalize on an upward-trending player and robbing your opponent of that chance. Sometimes it's the reason you win it all, and considering the caliber of player you'd be giving up, never is it the reason you lose.
If Vargas' imperfections catch up to him next time out, so what? It's a quick and tidy resolution to a long-shot play. On to the next one!