What’s Wrong With Javier Vazquez?
The answer to that question is…a lot; at least right now.
After finishing fourth in the National League Cy Young award vote as a member of the Atlanta Braves in 2009, Javier Vazquez is now the fifth-best starter for the New York Yankees in 2010.
Whether he’s earned it or not, Vazquez has gained a reputation for wilting in the spotlight. He struggled in his first stint as a Yankee in 2004, and was called out by White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen for not being a big game pitcher as a member of the Chicago rotation. With a 1-3 record and a 9.78 ERA after five turns through the rotation this year, he has only added fuel to the fire.
The biggest problem for Vazquez has been his control. In each of the past 10 seasons, Vazquez has maintained a walks per nine (BB/9) under 3.0. In fact, in five of those seasons – including 2009 – he held his BB/9 under 2.0. Here’s your first sample size warning, but so far Vazquez has walked 5.78 batters per nine innings. In addition to the increase in walks, Vazquez has seen his strikeouts per nine (K/9) fall from 9.77 in ’09 to 7.83 thus far. A K/9 of near 8.0 is still good, and very close to his career number of 8.14.
More walks and slightly fewer strikeouts are part of the problem, but so is some flukish batted ball data. Currently, Vazquez has allowed a batting average on balls in play (BABIP) of .349. His career number is .309. Vazquez has always been prone to the long ball with a career home run per nine innings (HR/9) of 1.17 and a home run-to-fly ball rate (HR/FB) of 11.3%. But this year those numbers are off the charts: HR/9 of 3.13, with a HR/FB of 22.2%. It’s safe to say with more time and a larger sample size, these numbers will regress toward career levels.
Beyond the controllable stats like walks and strikeouts, and the easily skewed batted ball data of the early season, one thing to look for when a good pitcher struggles – or when a pitcher is having surprising success – is pitch selection. For examples, check recent Bloomberg Sports’ articles on Kevin Gregg and Mike Pelfrey.
Here are some questions when looking at pitch data: Has something dramatically changed? Is the pitcher relying on one pitch too much? Is he working on a new pitch? All of these could be viable explanations. Just not in Vazquez’s case.
Looking at the pitch selection year-over-year for Vazquez, not much has changed. Keep in mind we’re comparing 200+ innings with 20 innings, but each pitch has been used within a one percent of last season’s total.
While the selection is the same, the effectiveness has changed. Vazquez got 12.3% swinging strikes last season. For reference, Tim Lincecum induced 13.4% whiffs last year, so Vazquez did pretty well. In his five starts so far, he has a swinging strike percentage of just 8.6%. That’s down sharply from his career 11.6% mark. The biggest difference has been on Vazquez’s change-up - from 21.9% whiffs in ’09 to 12.3% in ’10. Behind the change-up is his curveball: 17.9% swings and misses in 2009 to 11.8% so far this season.
One potential problem with the change-up could be velocity separation from the fastball. Thrown with a similar grip to the fastball, the change-up’s biggest asset is fooling the batter into thinking it’s a heater. It keeps the batter off balance due to decreased velocity and sharp movement.
Throughout his career, Vazquez has maintained about 10.5 miles per hour on separation on the two pitches. This year, the separation difference is less than 8.5 MPH. His change-up velocity is within two-tenths of career level, but his fastball is down from 91.2 MPH (career) to 88.9 MPH (2010). A decrease of more than two miles per hour is probably the biggest cause for concern with Vazquez.
We are not doctors; therefore we won’t speculate about injuries. However, Frankie Piliere, a former major league scout and now writer for AOL Fanhouse, suggests that it is a mechanical flaw that has his velocity and control down.
There is a chance Vazquez continues to struggle all season, but with the limited data on the season, it’s just too early to make that assumption given his history as one of the game’s better starters. With simple regression alone on batted balls, Vazquez is likely to improve as the season progresses. If you own Vazquez try to remain patient. As Piliere, notes a mechanical flaw is not the easiest thing to correct during the season, so there may more ugly in his future than good.
Still, some caution is advised. Vazquez has always been a flyball pitcher. A right-handed flyball pitcher pitcher in front of Yankee Stadium’s short porch was never going to be a perfect match. Going from the National League to the brutal AL East was going to naturally inflate his numbers too, given the typical gap of up to half a run scored per game seen between the two leagues in recent years. If Vazquez’s other problems persist, his attempt at an in-season rebound becomes that much tougher.
For more on Javier Vazquez and the New York Yankees, check out Bloomberg Sports’ fantasy kits