Jason Vargas = Jarrod Washburn?

Before the wheels fell off following a July trade to Detroit, Jarrod Washburn thrived with the Seattle Mariners in 2009. It was the perfect blend of pitcher, park, defense and luck — a left-hander, making his home starts in a venue that saps righty power, behind the best glove men in the game while getting auspicious bounces in tight situations to boot. You couldn’t conjure up a more perfect scenario for a pitcher of Washburn’s ilk.

This season, Washburn’s sitting on the sidelines. Last we heard, the 35-year-old said he was quite content in his retirement. But you’d have to forgive Mariners fans who thought that Washburn was still suiting up for the M’s. Jason Vargas‘ 2010 is shockingly similar to Washburn’s tenure with Seattle last year.

The superficial comparisons are obvious. Both are lefties a smidge over six foot tall. Neither guy cracks 90 MPH on the radar gun under the best of circumstances — Vargas is sitting 86-87 MPH with his fastball this season, while Washburn ramped it up to 88 MPH in ’09. Each features a pair of breaking pitches and a changeup to compensate for the lack of zip, with Washburn also featuring a cutter. But the parallels run much deeper. Take a look at Washburn’s numbers with the Mariners last year and Vargas’ stats so far this season:

We’re not at the same point in the season yet, but the 2010 version of Vargas is a Washburn ’09 clone. Few whiffs, walks, or ground balls. A low BABIP, high rate of stranding runners on base, and a home run per fly ball rate well below the big league average. The result? A sparkling ERA juxtaposed with middling peripheral stats.

There might not be a better location than Seattle for this type of pitcher, though. According to the Bill James Handbook, Safeco Field suppressed run-scoring six percent and home runs seven percent compared to a neutral park over the 2007 to 2009 seasons. Safeco’s particularly rough on righty power, with a 91 HR park factor. Further, the Mariners’ home park had a 96 HR/FB park factor from 2006 to 2009.

Defense plays a role, too. In 2009, Seattle led the majors in team Ultimate Zone Rating and Defensive Runs Saved. While the M’s aren’t setting the gold standard with the leather this season, the club is still playing above-average D — 12th in UZR and seventh in DRS. The Washburn/Vargas-type pitcher puts the ball in play often, so being backed by swift defenders clearly helps.

Like Washburn, Vargas is a low-K, fly ball-centric starter whose deficiencies are masked quite well by his home park and a group of strong defensive players. Fly balls, while more damaging overall, do have a lower BABIP than grounders, and Vargas induces plenty of BABIP-killing infield flies (13.8 IF/FB% for his career, while the MLB average is slightly over seven). So maybe his BABIP won’t quite rise to the .300 range.

Even if that’s the case, Vargas, much like Washburn last year, is primed for a good deal of regression. It’s highly unlikely that he continues to allow hits on balls in play or homers on fly balls at such a low clip, or strand so many runners on base. The 27-year-old is suited well for his environment, and if there’s anywhere he can succeed in the AL, it’s with the Mariners. But Vargas is more middle-of-the-road starter than breakout performer.

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A recent graduate of Duquesne University, David Golebiewski is a contributing writer for Fangraphs, The Pittsburgh Sports Report and Baseball Analytics. His work for Inside Edge Scouting Services has appeared on ESPN.com and Yahoo.com, and he was a fantasy baseball columnist for Rotoworld from 2009-2010. He recently contributed an article on Mike Stanton's slugging to The Hardball Times Annual 2012. Contact David at david.golebiewski@gmail.com and check out his work at Journalist For Hire.

19 Responses to “Jason Vargas = Jarrod Washburn?”

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  1. J.P. says:

    Wait a second, are you saying Jason Varags has been lucky this year?

    How dare you, sir.

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  2. Bender says:

    With the Ms out of contention, Vargas will probably be traded

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    • ROC says:

      Maybe the M’s can get some idiot to overvalue him in the trade, so even the Vargas trade will be like Washburns!

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      • Steve says:

        Doesn’t that imply that the Mariner’s actually got a good player back for Washburn?

        I guess if grade on the Seattle curve, it was only a “regular genius” trade, not a “supergenius” trade.

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      • joser says:

        It does, and let me introduce you to Mauricio Robles, who has managed a 2.78 ERA in 6 starts so far at High Desert, an extreme hitter’s park and league. In fact the Mariners got two players back for Washburn, who together have contributed to the M’s system this year. What value has Wasburn provided to any team in 2010? Something, no matter how little, is greater than nothing. And Robles may be significantly more than that.

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      • Steve says:

        What does 2010 have to do with anything? The Tigers were renting an arm for a playoff stretch and one decent prospect and Luke French seemed like an appropriate return for half a season of Washburn.

        My point was not that Mariner’s shouldn’t have traded Washburn, or that they didn’t do well to dump him at the deadline, my point was simply that the Tigers didn’t necessarily “overvalue” him or that they were “idiots”. They didn’t overvalue or undervalue him, they simply “valued” him.

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      • joser says:

        2010 has everything to do with it, because it’s part of the value the M’s got back for Washburn. I’m not going to defend ROC’s entire statement (he can do that, if he likes); you simply questioned whether the Mariners “got a good player back for Washburn?” and I was suggesting that indeed they did.

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    • Jerry says:

      David just got done pointing out why he’s a perfect fit for the Mariners and Safeco; he’s young, cheap, and under team control on a team that badly needs pitching…. so why would they trade him???

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      • Everett says:

        Exactly – Washburn was an overpaid veteran, Vargas is a nice rotation filler who’s cheap. No need to trade him unless someone offers something stupid.

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  3. mowill says:

    Vargas a cutter which comes in at 84-85. Fangraphs seems to list it with his regular fastball though. It’s being able to throw the cutter and fastball for strikes that has made his change so good.

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  4. ThundaPC says:

    There were people in some circles that were calling for the resigning Jarrod Washburn this. People who were seduced enough by his results in 2009 to forget about his past.

    But people who knew better understood that it’s not very difficult to find an inexpensive pitcher who could match Washburn’s skillset. Sure enough, the team had no less than three “Washburn-clone” candidates heading into 2010 including a pitcher they got back from the Washburn trade (Luke French, Ryan-Rowland Smith, and Jason Vargas)

    So even Vargas being a middle-of-the-road starter works out as a nice piece to have on the team as he was never considered anything more than a back-end starter to begin with.

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  5. jirish says:

    Vargas brought his shtick to Busch 3 against the Cardinals this past Wednesday, and it worked there too. 7 2/3 innings, 5 hits, no walks, 4 k’s. He only gave up one run, only one double; the rest of the hits were singles. Ended up with 7 outs on the ground, and 10 in the air. All on 94 pitches. So his pitching style worked there too. The outfielders were not plastered against the wall to make those plays. They were easily caught.

    I can tell you after watching that game that the key to his success isn’t all park related. He has a very deceptive motion combined with excellent command. He has great defense playing behind him. That combination will play in just about any park. His home/road splits aren’t that big.

    So I’m going to accept the idea that he is having a solid season, no matter what your stats say.

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  6. nolan says:

    People forget that Washburn threw a near-perfect game last year on July 6th against the Orioles, for what it’s worth. One hit that could’ve been fielded by Langerhans kept him from perfection.


    Washburn got a lot of flak for being an overpaid Bavasi signing but he pitched decently when he was healthy. I think sometimes and to a certain extent you create your own ‘luck’ in luck-based stats such as BABIP and LOB%.

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  7. nolan says:

    What I also like about Washburn is that he has chosen retirement instead of playing baseball. He’s only 36 and he could probably still play a few seasons. At this point it probably makes sense for him to come back next year if he still misses the game. Take a minor league contract and have another shot with a ballclub. But he’s a multi-millionaire already. He doesn’t need the money.

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    • joser says:

      Did he choose it or was it chosen for him? He was sitting around this offseason — and even into the season — waiting for the phone to ring, and it didn’t. At least, not with the kind of offer he (and his agent, Boras) was looking for. Forget “missing the game”: maybe he doesn’t need the money, but he sure wasn’t going to pitch without it.

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  8. nolan says:

    Last thought: Maybe the Mariners should give Washburn an offer this offseason. Why not have two Jason Varguses rather than one? If he’s such a great fit for his park and he wants to come back, why not give him a shot? Last I checked there aren’t too many soon-to-be-starters on the farm for the #6org.

    wouldn’t it be like trading french-robles-washburn for two months of bad-washburn? what is not to like about this? besides bad washburn, of course.

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