One of this season’s best pitchers has flown under the radar through the first month. The Royals’ Jason Vargas has quietly been shutting down opposing teams with ease. Today, he pitched seven shut-out innings, allowing three hits and one walk. The win brings the 34-year old to a 5-1 record, lowering his league-low ERA to 1.01. His strikeout numbers are decent, as he’s averaging 8.4 K/9.
Part of the reason he’s not getting the noise is because it’s so sudden. Vargas missed half of 2015 and almost all of 2016 after an injury that resulted in Tommy John Surgery. Similar to an ACL injury in the NFL, any injury that requires Tommy John is tough to bounce back from. From a guy who has been a career 4.20 ERA guy, he’s recovered extremely well.
This usually leads to two questions. (1) Was he injured before and this surgery fixed everything? (2) Is he on something? Both are certainly legitimate questions for a guy who is performing way better post-surgery than pre-surgery, especially in his mid-30’s. However, for guys who use “performance-enhancing drugs” we typically see some sort of increased strength. Vargas’ speed on his fastball has remained relatively the same as prior to the injury (average 86.1).
Another reason many people aren’t giving him props is because it has been only six starts. Obviously, if he stays healthy, Vargas could make another 25+ starts the rest of the season. At his current FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching), his true ERA would be roughly 2.15. This means that if he had league average defense, then his ERA would increase, however, the almost 1.00 increase would still leave him as a top-end pitcher.
This is something that, statistically speaking, could continue. Not to mention the fact he’s getting more ground-outs (39.7%) than his career average (37.5%). Vargas could be one of the best pitchers in baseball for the entirety of the season, health being assumed. It’s difficult to believe, as an 88-mph fastball doesn’t tend to work out well (ask Dan Haren and Jered Weaver), but the longer this run goes on the more believable it becomes.
One of the better stories this year needs more attention. Buy into what Jason Vargas is doing. If the Royals continue their last place pace in the Central and seem out of it, the deadline would be a perfect time to deal the veteran on the last year of his deal.