Vargas, Baby

OK, so, yeah, it’s not so great that the Kansas City Royals told everyone they had a major announcement to make and then announced that they had signed pitcher Jason Vargas. Even if you like Jason Vargas, even if you love Jason Vargas, even if you are related to Jason Vargas, this is not a major announcement. The Royals’ general manager Dayton Moore is a good guy, and I respect him on numerous levels. But he doesn’t always have a great sense of how perception works. I should give him a chart.

Major announcement: I have found the cure for cancer.
Not a major announcement: We have signed Jason Vargas.
Major announcement: We are being invaded by alien life forms.
Not a major announcement: We have signed Jason Vargas.

Anyway, the Royals did sign Jason Vargas to a four-year, $32 million deal, and before I get into how much I loathe this move I should point out that numerous smart people think it was OK. Not great. Not life altering. But OK. Dave Cameron over at Fangraphs thinks the move was not the worst idea ever, and Brian Kenny tweeted that pitching metrics say Vargas has been, “OK, not bad,” and Kansas City Star columnist Sam Mellinger writes that Vargas, “Makes some sense for the Royals … he is a good bet for 185 innings or so of league average production.” And so on. None of them are particularly excited by the move, but none of them find it to be especially galling either.

Their thinking seems to be this:

1. He was signed for a relatively small amount of money.
2. He is roughly a league-average pitcher who should be perfectly serviceable for the next couple of years.
3. The Royals probably have a bigger thing in the works.

I disagree with each of these which is probably why I actively loathe the move while they are fairly neutral about it. But I’m always more than a bit leery when my instincts cut against the instincts of people who are smarter and are closer to the situation. Like with all Royals things, I hope I’m wrong. I’m hope they’re right. I hope Jason Vargas pitches great and I can write a post about how stupid I am and how glad I am the Royals have smarter people running the team. I always hope.

Anyway, let me go through some of my disagreements here:

1. He was signed for a relatively small amount of money.

I understand what a relatively small amount of money looks like outside of Kansas City but when it comes to the Royals, there is nothing small about four years, $32 million. Yes, I realize starting pitching is hugely expensive these days and all that. But the Royals do not give out these kinds of contracts. This one will shock you, but best I can tell it is right: I think Jason Vargas is the third-richest contract the Royals have ever given a starting pitcher.

Yeah. Third richest. I know.

– Gil Meche, 5 years, $55 million.
– Zack Greinke, 4 years, $38 million
– Jason Vargas, 4 years, $32 million
– Jeremy Guthrie, 3 years, $25 million.

I could be missing someone, but the point is that Vargas’ contract is not some throwaway money the Royals happened to have on the side. Even if the Royals payroll structure has gone up, this is still a major investment for Kansas City, and it is a long-term one.

Anyway my problem with that sort of investment is not the money itself. It is the commitment that comes with the money. See, the Royals are now committed to Jason Vargas in a way that they are not committed to, say, Danny Duffy or Yordano Ventura or Kyle Zimmer or Miguel Almonte or any of their other young pitchers. The Royals get stuck in these messes all the time. They gave too much money to Jeff Francoeur, and they stuck with him for way too long while Will Myers got enough time in the minors to be named minor league player of the year.

Vargas could come out next year and be horrendous and the Royals will stick with him for too long. This is what a long-term investment means. You lock up all this money and it weighs you down, it cuts down your options, it forces you to do things that are not always in the best interest of winning.

Of course, the Royals obviously believe hat Vargas will not be horrendous — quite they opposite. They must think he will at least be a league-average starter, and they probably think he will be better than that. Which leads to a second disagreement.

2. He is roughly a league average pitcher who should be perfectly serviceable for the next couple of years.

The last two seasons, Vargas has pitched 367 innings with a 3.92 ERA. That’s toughly league average. He has very good control so his Fielding Independent Pitching numbers seem roughly in line with league average too. Some very good projections — including Bill James’ tools — see him being roughly league average in 2014 as well.

But here’s the thing that bothers me about Vargas. The last two years, he has pitched his home games in two of the best pitchers parks in the American League. He pitched in Seattle in 2012. He pitched in Anaheim in 2013. Most of

Here are his home/road splits:

2013:
Home: 6-2, 3.30 ERA, 79 innings, 60 Ks, 24 walks, .251/.307/.413
Road: 3-6, 4.82 ERA, 71 innings, 49 Ks, 22 walks, .303/.359/.440

2012:
Home: 5-5, 2.74 ERA, 98 innings, 69 Ks, 22 walks, .219/.265/.327
Road: 9-6, 4.78 ERA, 118 2/3 innings, 72 Ks, 33 walks, .266/.315/.495

Those are not the best numbers for measuring, but I see a guy who was considerably better than league average at home, in those cozy ballparks, and considerably worse than league average on the road.

Now, Kauffman Stadium is a hitter’s park. People sometimes assume its a pitchers park because the outfield is enormous and it might be the toughest home run park in the league. That mitigates it somewhat (before they moved back the fences, Kauffman Stadium was an extreme hitters park). But that enormous outfield along with what hitters have told me is a excellent hitting background consistently makes Kauffman Stadium one of the better average, doubles and triples park in the league and hitters strike out less there. It’s good for hitters.

Does this mean that Vargas will regress? Not necessarily, but I don’t think you can write off the possibility. Let’s throw out a small-sample size bit: Vargas has pitched 20 innings at Kauffman Stadium against the Royals. Do you know how many strikeouts he has in those 20 innings? Two. Yeah. Two. His ERA is 5.31 in Kauffman.

I’m sure the Royals have all sorts of well-thought-out reasons why they think Vargas will pitch well for Kansas City. He’s a lefty with a good change-up, and whenever one of those comes up dreams of Jamie Moyers dance in GMs heads. But for every Jamie Moyer there are dozens of pitchers like Mark Redman and Jeff Francis and Sterling Hitchcock and Nate Robertson and Chris Hammond and Brian Anderson. Oh, Brian Anderson — to be honest he might be the main reason I have really bad feelings about this move. Brian was one of my all-time favorites, a great guy, and I wrote a gushing ode to him when Royals signed him before the 2004 season. He was 31, lefty, fantastic control, good change-up, better than league average pitcher for several years. I called him the next Moyer. I felt sure that the best was yet to come.

You could say it didn’t work out. Or you could say that in his time with the Royals, batters — all batters — hit .317/..360/.546 against him, meaning he turned every single hitter in the American League into Vlad Guerrero. To be fair, he was hurt. But that also happens to 30-something pitchers. So does decline. The Royals might know what they’re doing betting four years on Vargas. I’m just saying if this was a craps table, I’d be betting “Don’t pass.”

3. The Royals probably have a bigger thing in the works.

I have little doubt in my mind that the Royals would like to make a couple of splashy moves this offseason. The time is right. They won 86 games in 2013, brought back manager Ned Yost, and would like to believe that they are real contenders in 2014. Heck, the other day I got an email from someone I did not know with the Royals asking if I’d like to buy season tickets. I emailed back saying that I would like to but, you know, I’ve moved from Kansas City. He wrote back, “Where did you move to?” I should email back just to find out why he’d asked that question. Do they have a special North Carolina package going? Maybe he just wants to be pals.

Anyway, I know the Royals would like to make an exciting move or two. But the question is always the same: CAN they make an exciting move? For it to happen, they need a willing partner, they need the money to be right, they need the situation to match up. This isn’t as easy as some seem to think. I was on a radio show the other day and was asked if the Orioles should trade Matt Wieters. I don’t know. They shouldn’t trade him for Jason Vargas. It depends on a million things — how good is the offer, how does the money work, how does the team line up, is there a catcher in the system, on and on and on.

And for the Royals to make an exciting move will not be easy. They tried to get in on the Tim Hudson deal. It didn’t work. They tried to get on some Josh Johnson talks. Didn’t work. A few years ago, I remember, they thought they had Torii Hunter signed. That would have been moderately exciting at the time. Just before the deal was struck, the Angels blew the Royals offer out of the water, and the Royals ended up signing the delightful Reggie Sanders. That turned out not to be very exciting. You need someone who wants to come to Kansas City, someone who makes sense for the team, someone who will fit into the budget …

So whatever the Royals intentions may be, the odds are against them doing something bigger this offseason. They decided to beat the Christmas shoppers by spending $32 million on Jason Vargas, and I’d say there’s a pretty good chance that will be their big move of the off-season. Again: Hope I’m wrong. But then I wasn’t the one who called the Vargas signing a major announcement.

20 thoughts on “Vargas, Baby

  1. Donald A. Coffin

    I don’t think I had ever heard of Jason Vargas before reading this post. So I looked him up. He turns 31 in February. His career ERA+ is 91 (in 980 innings). He has a career 5.9 K/9, which is, as things go these days, well below the league average (6.8, 6.9, 7.4, and 7.7 from 2010 through 2013; the AL K/9 hasn’t been as low as Vargas’s career numbers since 1993). K/W ratio, 2.12, again well below the league average (2.11, 2.25, 2.45, 2.50). KC in 2013 had, as a team, an ERA+ of 120, K/9 of 7.5, and K/W of 2.5. I frankly don’t see how Vargas is an upgrade. (OK, he’s an upgrade over Davis & Mendoza, but that’s hardly praise.)

    Reply
  2. Richard Aronson

    I would call the pitcher’s parks in Seattle and Anaheim spacious rather than cozy.

    I mostly agree with you, but it is worth noting that a veteran pitcher with good control and a good teachable pitch like a change-up can often help younger pitchers. I remember Vin Scully commenting on a 20 year old Clayton Kershaw sitting next to an ancient Greg Maddux, soaking up pitching knowledge. Kershaw’s ERA that year was 4.26. I think he learned a few things from Maddux. Maybe Vargas can help the Royals’ young pitchers similarly.

    But yeah, in this day and age, one of the biggest considerations I would have before signing a free agent is what has he done in my park*. I dread the thought that the Royals looked at Vargas’s career record at Kaufman of 2-1 and thought, “Great, a .667 pitcher” without looking at that ERA of 5.31.

    * I never understood why Mike Piazza, with a career OPS well over 1.000 in Colorado, didn’t test the free agent waters, sign with the Rockies for a short deal below market value, and win an MVP and establish the best catcher’s offensive season ever (if he doesn’t already own it). He has better numbers in a few other parks, but none with as large a sample size. The only better ones with more than 70 PA were Pittsburgh and Houston, where I think the pitching staffs were as important as the ball park.

    Reply
    1. Paul

      Great point about looking to see what a player does in your park before signing him. I have always thought that is the first thing you should do. Keep in mind, also, that his 5.31 career ERA at Kauffman was put up against a Royals lineup that has, for the last few years, had a terrible time scoring runs. Hence, it’s even worse than having a 5.31 ERA against teams like the Rangers or Tigers.

      Reply
  3. Ice Cream Jonsey

    Vargas’s WHIP in 2012 was 1.178 at 217 innings. If the Royals get that guy for four years, this is a perfectly fine signing. You can win with a guy like that in your rotation. And if you look at his splits in 2012, his OPB against was like .295. He got stung by slugging percentage against that year, but that’s what Kauffman ought to suppress, right?

    I realize that saying “two years ago he was good” is not the sort of player you want for a team’s big signing though, haha. =)

    Reply
  4. amishelectrician

    Interesting on the top pitching contracts in Royals history. Although dollar wise it can’t compare, the 4 year, 13 million offer to Mark Davis in 1989 has to be one of the all-time pitcher moves for the Royals, particularly when comparing the league average salary in 1989 (512,000) to 2012 (3,440,000) . Granted, Davis won the Cy Young in 1989 and commanded that type of salary, but that was a “major announcement”, at least I felt like it was as a 15 year old baseball fan. Of course, that signing was a disaster.

    Reply
  5. KC Oracle (@KCOracle)

    Upset about how the Royals described the annnouncement? Come on. Look, if the Royals needed to sign a starting pitcher, and everyone seems to think that is true, then they signed an average MLB pitcher at a market price, which means it is a good move. He is not as good a pitcher as Santana, but the “quality” of the pitcher does not always mean more wins. The Royals were 16 and 16 when Santana started, including losing 6 in a row in May when the Royals blew their season. The Angers werer 13 and 12 when Vargas stated, including winning 6 in a row beginnning in early May. I realize pitchers do not have great control over whether their team wins, but winnning is still the bottom line.

    Reply
    1. Ian R.

      The Angels scored 733 runs this year.

      The Royals scored 648 runs this year.

      Vargas + the Angels offense was about equal to Santana + the Royals offense. Given that the Angels offense was substantially better than the Royals offense, we can reasonably conclude that Santana contributed more to winning than Vargas did.

      Reply
  6. BobDD

    The Royals management do not know what their strengths and weaknesses are and what causes which. They will probably regress, and blame it on whatever injury occcurs. GMDM is good at some things, but I do not see improvement on any of his weaknesses (especially the ML roster). He (and a certain percentage of fans) actually think the Myers trade was a good one. So how can they learn from their mistakes when they don’t understand their mistakes even in hindsight. It is just so continually frustrating!

    Reply
  7. KHAZAD

    The Royals call every signing that has a player they expect to be a contributing part of their roster “major”. No sense parsing their language and drawing conclusions from that.

    All Royals fans are afraid this is it, but let’s not assume that until the end of the off season. Hope is what baseball is all about right?

    Yes, the 4th year is really unnecessary. I would have been fine with 2 years, 3 at the outside.

    Yes if this is all we do, It will be a long year. Thus far we have lost Santana and picked up Vargas, and lost Kottaras in favor of some minor league veteran catcher. We have a bullpen who had the best year of any AL bullpen in over 20 years and simply has to regress. We had a a remarkably injury free season, and that rarely happens twice in a row.

    When you add all that up, so far it looks like a team that will win quite a few less games in 2014. I still hope maybe it looks a little different before spring.

    Reply
  8. Pingback: Jason Vargas: a major award? | The Daily Inning

  9. buddaley

    There is a rumor the Royals are pursuing Carlos Beltran. Should it happen, would that be a major announcement-in baseball terms?

    Reply
  10. Jesse

    Is Kauffman Stadium that much of a hitter’s park, or is that somewhat skewed by the fact that the Royals have been bad since before the Soviet Union fell and have gone whole seasons with essentially a Triple A rotation?

    Reply
  11. APODionysus

    Great price Joe . I do have a quibble:

    “Anyway my problem with that sort of investment is not the money itself. It is the commitment that comes with the money. See, the Royals are now committed to Jason Vargas in a way that they are not committed to, say, Danny Duffy or Yordano Ventura or Kyle Zimmer or Miguel Almonte or any of their other young pitchers.”

    I’m not sure it’s as much of a commitment as you think. Given the way the market is shaping up so far this offseason, Vargas’ contract should be relatively easy to move if some of the prospects make a real push for the rotation in a few years. So long as Vargas isn’t a complete disaster, he should be easy to move to a team that maybe has an injury to an SP or something.

    Remember Ryan Dempster is making $13M. Vargas, even if mediocre, at $8M for, say, two seasons (I’m assuming the Royals do keep him for at least the first two seasons) is not a high enough price to keep the Royals from dumping him if they need his slot in the rotation for someone better.

    The rest is spot on though.

    Reply
  12. Pingback: KC Headlines: Sporting KC, Kansas City Chiefs, Missouri Tigers

  13. Sky

    Joe,

    I generally love your writing, but when are we going to get something positive about the Royals? It’s hard enough being a Royals fan. I get the cynicism, but can we please not have an automatic “the Royals make the worst decisions ever” post after every move?

    Reply

Comment: