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September 6, 2011

Divide and Conquer, NL East

The Curious Case of Javier Vazquez

by Michael Jong

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This past week, Florida Marlins starter Javier Vazquez struck out his 2500th batter, inducing a whiff from Lucas Duda to end the bottom of the 6th inning on August 30. This put Vazquez in quite a bit of special company, one of only 22 pitchers since 1961 (and 30 pitchers overall) to reach the 2500-strikeout plateau.

Whenever milestones come up, it is always a good opportunity to look over a player's overall career, and Vazquez's is an intriguing one when considered alongside his strikeout-laden peers. The perception of Vazquez as an excellent pitcher who could reach such a career milestone seems strange after his numerous decent but unspectacular seasons. After all, how many excellent starters are told by their managers that they are not “big-game pitchers” like Ozzie Guillen said to Javy all those years ago? But the perception of him as just an average pitcher (he does have a career record of 160-160) does not match the fact that he was able to reach such a lofty milestone as 2500 strikeouts.
 

ERA Oddity
Through much of Vazquez's career, he was seen as something of an oddity when it came to his ERA. Despite a very successful career in terms of strikeouts, Vazquez has never been able to suppress runs as well as his peripherals would have suggested; this is most evidenced by a career 4.27 ERA and a consequent 3.94 FIP. Indeed, among the 23 pitchers since 1961 to have reached 2500 strikeouts, Vazquez's ERA+ is the lowest at 104. However, when organized in terms of FIP compared to league average (FIP+, if you will), Vazquez climbs to a more respectable 17th place, ahead of pitchers like Chuck Finley, Jerry Koosman, and Don Sutton. Much of that success must come from his strikeout rate, as Vazquez has the eighth best strikeout rate among these pitchers at 21.2 percent.

Over the course of a season, it may be difficult to separate out pitching performance from defensive issues and other matters that affect pitchers, hence the use of tools such as FIP and Baseball Prospecus's Fair Run Average to attempt to quantify pitching performance. Still, over a long period of time, things like a pitcher's skill in BABIP and his ability with runners on base bears more meaning. Over the course of his career, he has had a significant split between his performance with the bases empty (3.67 FIP) and with runners on base (4.22 FIP), which may be a primary contributor to his ERA-FIP split.  Over such a long period of time, this is likely tied to his skill set and not attributable to an in-season timing oddity.
 

Longevity
Among our list of 23 pitchers, Vazquez has thrown the fewest number of innings of them all, tallying only 2802 innings pitched. Of course, the majority of the other starters threw innings into their late 30's and early 40's, with Phil Niekro going into his age-48 season. Only two other pitchers, David Cone and Pedro Martinez, pitched fewer than 3000 innings in their careers. Martinez's career was notably cut short due to mounting injuries—which led to ineffectiveness—occurring earlier in his career than in the careers of the majority of these other pitchers; Martinez's final season was at 37 years of age, earlier than any other pitcher on the list aside from Vazquez.

The topic of longevity seems pertinent given the sentiment that Vazquez has recently shared in light of this accomplishment:

"I don't think I'm going to stick around for 3,000," Vazquez said. "I'm not going to play for that long. This might be it."

Despite the fact that his recent performance has been stellar (since May 21, he has thrown 115 1/3 innings with an ERA of 3.36), Vazquez may be contemplating retirement after this season. For most pitchers who have established a decent career in the majors, this would be fairly early. One would expect that his success in the game would keep his services desired past the 2011 season. Just last season, however, he suffered through the worst season of his career, and earlier this year it looked like he was going to have the most significant fall for a pitcher of his caliber in the game's history. The turnaround has been spectacular, but perhaps he is tired of dealing with the rigors of baseball life and being away from his home and family. After all, one of the primary reasons behind his signing with the Marlins before the season began was the proximity to his home in Puerto Rico, so it would not be surprising if he was ready to retire despite the earliness of such an exit.
 

Productivity
In part due to the lack of longevity compared to the other starters, Vazquez has the lowest pitching WARP total among them at 44.9 WARP. However, given that the lack of playing time is in part due to his career not being completed yet (the remaining pitchers have all finished their careers), it may be better to compare him to the others in terms of rate of performance. When looking at WARP produced per 200 innings pitched, Vazquez's career appears favorable, ranking 13th on the list with an average of 3.21 WARP per 200 innings. His standing places him right behind Gaylord Perry and ahead of Chuck Finley on the list, with notable names like Tom Seaver and Nolan Ryan just slightly ahead. Notable starters who did not average WARP at the same pace as Vazquez include Hall of Famers Steve Carlton (3.04 WARP) and Don Sutton (2.70) and soon-to-be Hall of Famer Tom Glavine (2.77).  Keep in mind, however, that since these pitchers have their stats from their late 30s and early 40s (when pitchers are in greater decline) averaged in, this isn’t exactly an apples-to-apples comparison.

When looking at WARP produced per season, Vazquez improves slightly to 11th place on the list of pitchers, settling in right next to Carlton and Fergie Jenkins. His 3.46 WARP per season compared to his lower value per 200 innings serves some testament to his durability; since the start of his career in 1998, he has failed to throw 200 innings in only four of his 13 completed seasons. In fact, among active starters, Vazquez and his 2802 innings rank behind just Livan Hernandez and Tim Wakefield, both of whom have pitched at least two more seasons than he has.

When looked at in these terms, the idea of where Vazquez really ranks as a pitcher makes sense. If his career were to end this season, there would be no argument to support him entering the Hall of Fame, but there have been pitchers who have pitched longer and, by the end of their careers, less effectively than Vazquez that have (or are likely to) make the Hall. While he has certainly had his share of strong seasons (seven seasons with at least 4.0 WARP), he has had enough down years to bring him to the level of a merely above average starter. His tools and workhorse pitching got him those 2500 strikeouts, but the concept of Vazquez as an underrated star pitcher is probably overstating his case. If indeed this ends up being his last season, Vazquez's career will not have been average (or worse) as some of his New York Yankees and Chicago White Sox seasons were. Neither will it be great as his 2009 season in Atlanta was. Perhaps at the end of his career, the perception of Vazquez as a pitcher will finally meet with the reality of what he accomplished.

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

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