by Eno Sarris //
He was done. Finished. His fastball lost two miles per hour in one year and he lost the plate at the same time. Even the fact that he was in the American League East only slightly mitigated the fact that the 35-year-old Javier Vazquez looked like burnt toast.
Maybe we labeled him too soon.
Of course, early this year it looked like he was still done. In the first month of the season, Vazquez was still averaging under 90 MPH on his fastball, and he even dipped as low as 87 MPH in his third start of the year. He had a 6.39 ERA in April, and a 5.67 ERA in May. After another ERA over five in June, his fantasy ownership sagged to a career low.
And then.. a day after he gave up seven runs in three and 2/3 innings… something happened. Take a look at his velocity chart for the year:
Would you look at that. His velocity is back to pre-2010 levels even. He’s been averaging 91.8 MPH since his 13th start. Look at what it did for his results:
First 13 starts: 7.09 ERA in 66 innings, with 45 strikeouts and 31 walks.
Since: 2.35 ERA in 95 2/3 innings, with 86 strikeouts and 16 walks.
That’s pretty stark. He’s been vintage Vazquez since June 11, and his velocity is a big part of this.
It’s not all poops and whistles, though. In the last three months, he’s allowed line drive rates over 24%, and 19% is average. That’s a lot of squared-up balls, and yet his BABIP for that time period was only .276. He’s also stranded more runners than the league average in those three months. Luck swung back with him once he had the gas again.
He still has his old flaws, too. As a pitcher that gets his whiffs high in the zone, he’s a fly-ball guy that has been prone to bouts of gopheritis. Only once since 2002 has he managed to allow less than one home run per nine innings. Florida suppresses home runs, but only a little — StatCorner.com has it as 1% below average for home runs by left-handed batters and 5% below for righty batters.
It’s best to still be careful with Vazquez. Even with his old velocity back, his old flaws can make him a bad start in homer-happy ballparks. Considering his recent cryptic remarks about retirement, he’s not a good keeper in any fantasy format, either. But it’s clear that he’s got his gas back and can be a useful role player for any fantasy team down the stretch.
For more on Javier Vazquez and other possible free agents, check out Bloomberg Sports’ Front Office.
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Yuniesky Betancourt, SS, Brewers
There’s been talk of the Brewers looking to upgrade at shortstop, but those plans may be on hold now that Betancourt is starting to show some life at the plate. The 29-year-old had a fine 2010 campaign with the Royals, blasting 16 home runs with 78 RBI, despite a .288 on base percentage. That on base percentage is just .265 this season, but with two home runs and four RBI over the last three games, he may be on the rebound.
Josh Reddick, OF, Red Sox
There have been bigger prospects to play in the Red Sox outfield in recent years, but few have had the impact of Josh Reddick. The 17th round pick out of Middle Georgia Junior College has been en fuego all season. He has 3 home runs over the last 10 games and now boasts a .378 average. He has also been patient at the plate and has been hitting the ball with power. Look for the Red Sox to continue to give Reddick at bats as long as he sustains the production.
Javier Vazquez, SP, Marlins
On June 11, there were some questions as to whether the Marlins would simply cut Javier Vazquez loose considering his ERA had ballooned up to 7.09 through 13 starts this season after enduring a 5.32 ERA in the Bronx last season. The Marlins stuck with the soon to be 35-year-old, and it has paid off handsomely. Vazquez has surrendered seven earned runs over the last six starts. In his last start he handled the Cubs with 10 K’s in 7 innings. Considering his high strikeout potential and past dominance, it’s not a bad idea to take a flyer on the veteran hurler.
Emilio Bonifacio, SS/3B/OF/2B, Marlins
One of the bigger success stories on the Marlins this season has been 26-year-old speedster Emilio Bonifacio. The story here is of a player who has all the speed in the world, but has historically struggled to reach base. That’s not the credit this season. His on base percentage has soared from 30% to 32% and finally 37% over the last three seasons. Bonifacio currently boasts 18 steals with 42 runs scored. He’s something of a one-dimensional weapon, but Bonifacio will get you steals.
Michael Martinez, OF/2B/SS/3B, Phillies
The 28-year-old rookie has already manned five of the nine positions this season. I know Mets fans would love to know who Michael Martinez is after he belted a key home run again them last series. It’s a little bit of a tough question to answer because of his limited playing time. We can say that last season he blasted 11 home runs with 56 RBI and 23 steals while splitting time between AA and AAA. So, there is a nice blend of pop and speed there, but in the Phillies lineup and in the favorable ballpark some damage can be done. Fantasy managers should pay attention considering the position eligibility.
- The ability to retire batters via strikeouts
- The ability to limit base-runners by avoiding the issuance of walks
- The ability to limit home runs by keeping the ball on the ground
Pitchers who do a good job at these three things are commonly assumed to be very skilled. Pitchers who do these things well but don’t have a superb ERA to match are seen as unlucky.
- Pitchers with elite ground-ball skills (above 47 GB%) including stars like Felix Hernandez and Chris Carpenter and lesser ones like Paul Maholm and Aaron Cook.
- Pitchers with above-average ground-ball skills (about 44.5%-47%) including stars like Tim Lincecum and CC Sabathia and lesser ones like Joe Saunders and Jeff Suppan.
- Pitchers with below-average ground-ball skills (about 40.5%-44.5%) including stars like Jake Peavy and Cole Hamels and lesser ones like Kevin Millwood and Kyle Lohse
- Pitchers with terrible ground-ball skills (below 40.5%) including stars like Jered Weaver and Matt Cain and lesser ones like Jarrod Washburn and Oliver Perez.
Now, let’s look at each of the categories.
by Eno Sarris //
Maybe there’s something in the water in New York. Javier Vazquez certainly doesn’t like something about the city, because both of his attempts at wearing the pinstripes went poorly.
Consider this: Only twice in the decade did Vazquez strike out fewer than 6.99 batters per nine, and only twice did he walk more than 2.7 batters per nine. Both of those times were with the Yankees, in his worst two seasons (2004 and 2010). Over his career, those numbers are 8.07 and 2.42 per nine respectively, so his failure to meet those benchmarks is significant.
Much has rightly been made about the drop in fastball velocity that Vazquez suffered last year. His fastball and slider both lost about two miles per hour, and the difference between his fastball and changeup dipped under 10 MPH for the first time. The strange thing? The last time his fastball averaged under 91 MPH, it was in a Yankee uniform. Perhaps the stadium gun is a little slow, or the pundits have it right and he Just Can’t Pitch in New York. [Edit: Mike Fast from Baseball Prospectus points out that the gun in New York runs about 0.7 miles per hour slow, so some of the drop is thereby explained. Vazquez may be declining, but it isn’t as drastic as it seems.]
Now it sounds like the Florida Marlins are looking into Vazquez, and it’s not surprising that the feeling is mutual. Not only will the righty be getting out of New York, but he’s always been a flyballer and has had a problem with home runs (1.2 HR/9 career, 1.83 in 2010, 39% groundballs career), so the move to Florida should help. Last year, the stadium had a 95 park factor for home runs for right-handers (99 for lefties), and ESPN’s park factor has averaged a .931 over the last three years. The park in Florida should help Vazquez suppress home runs by 5-7%, it seems.
In 2004, Vazquez left New York after losing oomph on his fastball and suffering from wonky control. He went to the National League and refound his game in Arizona. Because of a more drastic loss of oomph in 2010, Vazquez may need to go to a nicer park in the weaker league to find success this time. The good news is that Florida is just that park. Vazquez looks like a fantasy sleeper all over again.
For more on Javier Vazquez and other possible fantasy rebounds, check out Bloomberg Sports’ Front Office.
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