May 25, 2011
Javier Vazquez and the Incredible Fading Fastball
Players inevitably age, and there simply is not much getting around that; many have supposedly tried by means that have been shown to be less-than-acceptable to the public, though. The extent to which age contributes to the decline of baseball players is not fully known, although recent studies have brought back interest in the field of study.
However, no matter how you slice and dice the various studies and information on the matter of aging, the fall from grace of the aging Javier Vazquez was visually stunning. He went from a 2009 Cy Young award candidate for the Atlanta Braves to a disaster of a starter in his second stint with the New York Yankees, and before Saturday afternoon's start versus the Tampa Bay Rays, things were only getting worse with the Florida Marlins. There were concerns about diminishing velocity back in New York, and it was a concern when he signed with the Marlins. That velocity has yet to return, as he is averaging just 88.4 miles per hour on his fastball with the Marlins this season, likely playing a large role in his inflated 6.41 ERA.
As a Marlins fan, I have a vested interest in whether or not Vazquez can recover from his horrific start to 2011, but as a baseball fan, part of me wonders just how grand a decline Vazquez is really suffering and how it compares to other players of his previous skill level. Between 2007 and 2009, during Vazquez's age 31 to 33 seasons, he started 97 games and threw 644 1/3 innings while posting an ERA of 3.74 and an ERA+ of 119. As for comparable players, I looked at all starters from 1961 to 2010 with an ERA+ between 110 and 130 through their combined age 31 to 33 seasons. There were 65 pitchers (including Vazquez) who qualified for these criteria with at least two seasons of work, ranging from Tim Hudson and his 130 ERA+ between 2007 and 2009 down to Milt Wilcox and his 110 ERA+ between 1981 and 1983. As a whole, these pitchers threw 37,425 innings with a collective ERA+ of 118.5. Here were the top ten starters and where Vazquez ranked within the list:
How did these pitchers fare in their following two seasons? Of the 64 pitchers of the initial sample, 10 dropped out of the subsequent query because they did not pitch in the majors in their ages 34 to 35 seasons or were not starters in at least 60 percent of their games. A few pitchers from the previous sample (Dempster, Hudson, and Ted Lilly) only had their 2010 results surveyed. These remaining starters had a collective ERA+ of 118.8 in their age 31 to 33 seasons through 31,973 1/3 innings pitched. Their age 34 to 35 seasons totaled 16,094 2/3 innings with a collective ERA+ of 108.2. Removing Vazquez from the sample made no significant difference to these results.
This means that, among the surviving major league starters with comparable talent to Javier Vazquez, we saw a drop in talent in terms of run prevention from 19 percent better than league average to eight percent. Vazquez, however, has dropped (so far) from 19 percent better than league average to 24 percent below league average when including his 2011 performance to date. Among in sample pitchers with at least 200 innings pitched in the age 34 to 35 seasons, Steve Rogers suffered the largest fall from grace, going from a 122 ERA+ (18th in the sample) in his younger seasons and dropping to a 76 ERA+ in his older years. After posting a 4.31 ERA at age 34 in 1984, Rogers received only seven starts and 38 innings in 1985 before he and his 5.68 ERA were removed from the rotation.
In terms of ERA+, Vazquez's fall was only rivaled by one player, but he logged a lot of innings in the process. For example, of the top ten ERA+ leaders listed above, only one (Mussina) was able to manage more innings than Vazquez in that time period. To take into account playing time and the value that provides, I wanted to look at how Vazquez and comparable players managed in terms of WARP. Between his age 31 and 33 seasons, Vazquez totaled 14.1 WARP, including 5.8 WARP in his stellar 2009 season with the Braves. What is a comparable group of pitchers for Vazquez's performance through those 644 1/3 innings? Thanks to Rob McQuown, one of BP's database overlords, we found 21 starters pitching between 1961 and 2010 with between 12 and 17 WARP during their age 31 to 33 seasons, ranging from the 12.5 posted by starters like Rick Rhoden and Tom Seaver and the 16.8 WARP Gaylord Perry from 1970 to 1972. These pitchers all averaged 14.1 WARP through these seasons, yielding an average of 4.7 WARP per season during that time period. Again, here are the top ten pitchers in WARP per season:
This list contains much more rarified air than the previous one. Only Mussina overlaps both lists, and this one also contains some of the best pitchers in the 1990s, including Brown, Johnson, Maddux, and Martinez. Six of these starters are either in the Hall of Fame or are guaranteed first-ballot inductees. The rest of the list is also quite impressive, with names such as Roger Clemens, Nolan Ryan, Curt Schilling, and Seaver populating it.
Given how good these starters were, how far did they fall on average in their two following seasons? The sample of 20 pitchers without Vazquez averaged 7.4 total WARP over their age 34 to 35 seasons, an average of 3.7 WARP per season. Only one of the 20 pitchers actually increased in average, as Clemens went on to have two of his best career seasons with Toronto en route to back to back Cy Young awards. The largest fall among these 20 pitchers was from Wilbur Wood, who had 13.4 WARP through his three previous years (4.5 WARP per season) before succumbing to an injury-shortened 1976 season and a poor subsequent 1977 season. Among pitchers who threw at least as many innings as Vazquez has in the age 34 through 35 seasons, Jim Palmer suffered the largest decline, throwing 351 1/3 innings and producing just 1.5 WARP between 1980 and 1981.
That star-studded list of starters still managed to lose an average of 1.0 WARP per season going from the younger seasons to their older years. Right now, Vazquez has totaled -0.1 WARP between his 2010 and 2011 seasons to date. Even if PECOTA's currently projected 2.2 WARP for the remainder of the season were correct, he would still end up with the largest of downfalls in terms of WARP, losing an average of 3.7 WARP per season going from ages 31 to 33 to ages 34 to 35. If, however, he continues to pitch as poorly as he has and remains a replacement level player at best, he would have posted the lowest WARP total in his age 34 through 35 seasons among the 21-pitcher sample along with suffering the largest decline of any pitcher of his comparable skill level. If he regains some semblance of the velocity he flashed this past weekend against the Rays, he may have a shot at being a decent pitcher the rest of the way and continue his career. Without that velocity however, it seems as if Vazquez is finished as a major leaguer, and given the Marlins' lack of depth at starting pitcher and $7 million investment in him during the offseason, he may be given ample opportunity to finish his career-crashing season in grand style.