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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