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May 3, 2010

Prospectus Hit and Run

Bronx Cheers for Vazquez

by Jay Jaffe

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At Javier Vazquez's first home start this season, fans wasted little time before booing the struggling Yankees starter, who'd been rocked in his 2010 debut at Tampa Bay and was off to another shaky start. By the time the boos rained down during Saturday's outing as Vazquez surrendered three homers, seven hits, and five runs in three-plus innings against the light-hitting White Sox, you could hardly blame them.

Forgive Yankees fans for not greeting Vazquez with open arms, as they've spent years trying to erase their last memory of him in pinstripes. Down 2-0 in Game Seven of the 2004 American League Championship Series, with the bases loaded and one out, Vazquez came on in relief of Kevin Brown to face Johnny Damon. On his first pitch, he served up a cookie that Damon promptly crunched for a game-breaking grand slam, helping send the Yankees to a historic defeat in a series that they'd once led 3-0.

That was the last game Vazquez pitched in his first tour of duty with the Yankees. Acquired the previous December from the Expos in a trade that sent Nick Johnson, Juan Rivera, and Randy Choate north of the border, the then-28-year-old righty had gotten off to a fine start in the Bronx, earning All-Star honors on the strength of a first half in which he'd gone 10-5 with a 3.56 ERA while making 11 quality starts out of 18. Mysteriously, Vazquez simply wasn't the same pitcher after the break, going 4-5 with a 6.92 ERA and just five quality starts out of 14. His postseason was more of the same; prior to his Game Seven performance, he'd allowed nine runs in 9 1/3 innings over two starts. Dissatisfied with the performance of a supposed rotation mainstay, general manager Brian Cashman 'scaped his goat and went hunting even bigger game the following offseason, trading Vazquez to Arizona in a deal for Randy Johnson.

Such history ensured that Vazquez's return over the winter via a five-player deal that sent Melky Cabrera, Arodys Vizcaino, and Mike Dunn to Atlanta was greeted with apprehension in some quarters, particularly given the pitcher's fly-ball tendency and Yankee Stadium III's soaring home-run rate during its inaugural season. Never mind that in the ensuing five years, Vazquez ranked second only to Johan Santana in strikeouts (1,027), fourth in SIERA (3.27), eighth in innings (1062 2/3), and 17th in SNLVAR (23.2), or that he was coming off the strongest season of his career, finishing second in the National League in strikeouts and sixth in ERA, good enough to place him fourth in the Cy Young voting. Never mind that Vazquez was coming off his 10th straight season of at least 190 innings and 150 strikeouts, workhorse numbers for a pitcher slotted as the fourth starter with his new team.

The Yankees acquired Vazquez to line up behind a big three—CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, and Andy Pettitte—whom they'd ridden all the way through the postseason to their 27th title. With Vazquez in the final year of his contract, the move was a one-year, $11.5-million insurance policy against any potential falloff from the injury-prone Burnett or the aging Pettitte. Furthermore, it was designed to prevent the team from needing both Phil Hughes and Joba Chamberlain to live up to their tantalizing potentials in the rotation at the same time, a situation which, over the past four years, has proven even more elusive than a world championship.

Alas, Vazquez has been brutal thus far, putting up a 9.78 ERA and yielding eight homers in 23 innings. He's compiled three disaster starts and zero quality starts out of five, and failed to last even four innings in either of his last two starts; half of the Yankees' losses thus far have coincided with his turn. His latest woes have only intensified the chorus insisting that he can't pitch in the AL and is ill-suited for the Bronx, charges leveled last week by the one person Vazquez could still beat in a popularity contest among Yankees fans, Curt Schilling; on a lighter note, The Onion's take was much funnier. Among pitchers with at least 190 innings in pinstripes (admittedly a carefully manicured cutoff), he's certainly in the kind of company that limits colleague/YES columnist Steven Goldman to discussing only while shining a flashlight under his chin:

Rank Player ERA IP Years
1 Javier Vazquez 5.42 221.0 2004, 2010
2 Ed Whitson 5.38 195.2 1985-1986
3 Jeff Weaver 5.35 237.1 2002-2003
4 Andy Hawkins 5.21 378.2 1989-1991
5 Sterling Hitchcock 5.15 402.0 1992-1995, 2001-2003
6 Richard Dotson 5.13 222.2 1988-1989
7 Tim Leary 5.12 425.2 1990-1992
8 Kenny Rogers 5.11 324.0 1996-1997
9 Jaret Wright 4.99 204.0 2005-2006
10 Kevin Brown 4.95 205.1 2004-2005

Vazquez's Bronx tales constitute a relatively small volume in his career, but over the course of his 13 seasons, he's shown a sizable league-based split, one that's even more pronounced if we discount his first two seasons (1998-99), when he was pounded for a 5.56 ERA in 327 innings while cutting his teeth as a 22- and 23-year-old:

League IP HR/9 BB/9 SO/9 K/BB ERA ERA+ SNWP SIERA Gap
National 1337.1 1.1 2.0 8.4 4.2 3.65 121 .538 3.41 +0.24
American 848.2 1.3 2.6 8.1 3.2 4.67 99 .498 3.64 +1.03

Vazquez's peripherals during his time in the AL (2004 with the Yankees, 2006-08 with the White Sox) are across-the-board worse relative to his time in the NL. While his strikeout and walk rates should cover for his gaudy home-run rate—as it has during his Senior Circuit tenure—the gap between his SIERA estimates and his actual ERA is more than three-quarters of a run higher during his time in the AL. He's been over a run worse than expectations based upon his strikeout, walk, and ground-ball rates, the difference between being a front-line starter and a merely league-average one.

That he rarely lives up to his mostly impressive peripherals isn't exactly news. Last year, colleague Eric Seidman examined the enigma that is Vazquez and showed that he performed significantly below average with runners on base. Whereas the average pitcher's opposing-batter performance with men on rose by 14 points of OBP and seven points of SLG over his showing with the bases empty, Vazquez's numbers went to hell in a hand basket, rising by 38 points of OBP and 42 points of SLG. Broken down by league as above (excluding 1998-99), the difference is even more dramatic:

League Bases Empty Men on Base Difference
NL .248/.283/.399 .258/.315/.419 .008/.032/.020
AL .237/.291/.407 .289/.348/.470 .052/.057/.073

What's going on? It's not simply a matter of serving up 'taters while surrounded by AL baserunners; Vazquez's rate of home runs per plate appearance edges up only a hair in both cases. His other peripherals are moving in the wrong direction to even greater extents:

Bases Empty Men on Base Difference
League SO% UIBB% HR% SO% UIBB% HR% SO% UIBB% HR%
NL 23.5% 4.3% 2.8% 21.5% 5.8% 2.9% -2.0% +1.5% +0.1%
AL 23.1% 6.1% 3.2% 18.6% 7.0% 3.4% -4.5% +0.9% +0.1%

His strikeout rate with men on base during his AL tenure falls off more drastically than it did during his NL tenure. Furthermore, worse results on the increased number of balls put into play are exacerbating the problem. During the time in question in the NL, his BABIP splits have been unremarkable, .302 (the same as his overall career mark) with the bases empty and .306 with men on. In the AL, his BABIP vaults from .282 when empty to .326 when occupied. Particularly given the way he's bounced back and forth between leagues over the past seven years—which would seem to preclude singular points of inflection in the data produced by wholesale changes in repertoire or approach—a good portion of the difference in his men-on-base splits simply has to be chalked up to matters of luck and/or randomness. The enigma endures.

Which isn't to say that BABIP-based bad luck is all that's going on with Vazquez, especially now. Comparing his 2010 Pitch-f/x data with that of previous years, the most obvious difference is that his fastball is about 2 mph slower than last year, falling from 91.1 to 88.9; he's been somewhere between 91 and 92 in every year since 2005. That's a significant drop; not many right-handers can succeed with fastballs below 90 mph. Vazquez is throwing fastballs—both four-seamers and two-seamers, according to the Texas Leaguers site—a bit less often than in 2009, and generating fewer whiffs (swings and misses):

FB Freq Strike Swing Whiff Foul In Play
2009 49.5% 68.9% 46.7% 7.8% 20.2% 18.5%
2010 46.6% 61.8% 44.7% 6.0% 23.5% 15.2%

Perhaps of more significance, the whiff percentage on his off-speed stuff—curve, slider, and changeup—has fallen even more dramatically: 

Offs Freq Strike Swing Whiff Foul In Play
2009 48.1% 64.7% 48.1% 17.1% 13.9% 17.0%
2010 53.4% 61.8% 44.2% 12.0% 14.9% 17.3%

Prior to Saturday's start, YES analyst and former big-league pitcher Al Leiter suggested that Vazquez's current troubles were rooted in his delivery. "He's getting under the baseball" rather than on top of it, said Leiter, causing his pitches to flatten out. Fanhouse's Frankie Piliere, a former big-league scout, similarly blamed nagging mechanical difficulties as well, noting that Vazquez isn't driving over the top of his front leg and getting on top of his pitches, instead rotating around his torso and shoulder (a more eloquent description of another issue Leiter described), thus robbing himself of velocity, and compromising his command such that he's leaving more mistakes out over the plate.

Irate calls for Vazquez to be pulled from the rotation and exiled to a Siberian yak farm have already begun sounding among the chattering classes. Right now, it's not even clear that Vazquez will make his next start on Friday in Fenway Park. Asked after Saturday's debacle, manager Joe Girardi was noncommittal about such a prospect. With an off day on Thursday, the team could conceivably skip Vazquez's turn and throw Hughes on regular rest. The 23-year-old blue-chipper has been everything the Yanks could have hoped for thus far, the anti-Javy, putting up a 1.44 ERA and 8.6 K/9 while limiting opponents to two runs or less in each of his four starts.

Taking a more dramatic route, if not necessarily a smarter one, the Yanks could also start Sergio Mitre in Vazquez's stead, though it's tough to imagine Mitre's lone supporter (Girardi) subjecting a pitcher with a career ERA of 5.48 to such brutality even given Boston's recent struggles. More elaborate solutions are unlikely, at least at this juncture, given that the Yankees have few places to stash an $11.5-million pitcher in a funk. In years past, struggling pitchers like Jeff Weaver or Jose Contreras have been sent to the team's spring training facility to work with pitching guru Billy Connors, taking the so-called "Tampa Cure." But that would require a DL stint, and thus far, nobody has suggested Vazquez is injured. Short of a serious injury which could shelve the struggling starter for awhile, the one thing the Yankees almost certainly won't do is haul Chamberlain back to the rotation, particularly given the concerns they have about their set-up corps, with Chan Ho Park lost to a hamstring injury and David Robertson and Damaso Marte just lost, period.

So the Yankees and their fans will have to endure Vazquez for the foreseeable future. Which shouldn't be so hard, given that they sit at 16-8, with the second-best record in the AL, and that despite the weight of his personal history in the Bronx and in the league, Vazquez's current rough patch still amounts to only five starts. In recent years, upstanding hurlers such as Sabathia, Jon Lester, Josh Beckett, and Justin Verlander have overcome similarly ugly season-opening patches to wind up ranking among the majors' top pitchers, and a change in Vazquez's fortunes may only be a mechanical tweak or two away.

Even with his patchy situational stats, it's simply too early to resort to panic over a pitcher not expected to carry the team, one whose overall track record is as long and as solid as Vazquez's is. Expect Cashman, Girardi, and company to resist the temptation to resort to more drastic measures—firing squad, stoning, trepanning, or Clockwork Orange-style loops of the 2004 ALCS—while riding out the storm for a while longer.

Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jay's other articles. You can contact Jay by clicking here

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