By Eric Roseberry
The Buyer’s Guide is a weekly column designed to help fantasy owners assess a player who sees an increased level of interest during a given week. This column will focus on players who generally have lower than 40 percent ownership rates across various leagues.
Few players experienced the jump in ownership that Jason Vargas did over the past week. In ESPN leagues, Vargas went from 1.1 percent ownership to 28.9 percent. He experienced a similar jump in CBS leagues where he moved from 6 percent to 35 percent. In Yahoo’s latest “Transaction Trends,” Vargas was the fourth-most added player.
What led to this spike in interest for Vargas? He opened the 2017 season with two impressive starts for the Royals. On April 7, Vargas pitched six innings against Houston and gave up one earned run with six strikeouts. Six days later, Vargas held Oakland scoreless, and he struck out eight batters in just over seven innings of work. It’s early, but over those two starts Vargas is 2-0 with a 0.66 ERA and 9.2 SO/9.
That level of production from Vargas is a surprise, and it leaves fantasy owners in an interesting position. Should you add Vargas to your roster hoping that he’ll bolster your pitching statistics with performances like these, or should you be a little more patient with a pitcher performing well above his career averages? What exactly should fantasy owners expect from the 34-year-old moving forward?
Let’s break it down in this week’s Buyer’s Guide.
The obvious “good” on Vargas’ resume is his first two starts of the 2017 season. However, those starts come on the heels of three impressive performances to end the 2016 season. Vargas rejoined the Royals rotation during September of last season, and he allowed 3 ER over 12 IP. That makes a string of five solid regular season starts for Vargas, and it has some wondering if he’s turned a corner later in his career than expected.
George Bissell wrote a little about Vargas’ repertoire in the latest “Free Agent Watch.” His fastball sits in the mid-to-high 80’s, but he employs an effective changeup that has led to a lot of his success. This season, he’s throwing that pitch around 30 percent of the time, and opposing batters are hitting worse than .130 against it.
You would expect someone with Vargas’ stuff to rely heavily on ground balls, but for most of his career his ground-ball percentage has been just below league average. That’s looked different over these last two starts as he’s generated grounders on 50 percent of the balls put in play against him. It’s unlikely his percentage will stay this high, but if he can keep it above league average it could lead to some sustained success.
The other obvious benefit working in Vargas’ favor is his home ballpark and defense. Last season, Kauffman Stadium was the fourth-worst park for home runs in the major leagues. This can be a helpful asset for a pitcher who isn’t going to overwhelm batters with his stuff, and who has historically not been a “ground-ball pitcher.” Kansas City should also employ a solid defense behind Vargas. The Royals rated as a top 10 defense by various advanced defensive metrics in 2016.
A concern with Vargas moving forward is that he still hasn’t pitched that much since his return from Tommy John. He underwent the surgery during the 2015 season, and 2017 would be his first full season back since the procedure. Even if you’re not concerned about lingering effects form the injury, it’s fair to wonder how well his 34-year-old body will handle a full load after only throwing 55 major-league innings between 2015 and 2016.
The other “bad” that comes along with Vargas is his track record. Now let me be clear, Vargas’ major-league career isn’t all that bad. From 2010-2014 he made at least 24 starts in five straight seasons, and he did so with around league average production (98 ERA+). Over those five seasons, Vargas made 150 starts. He ran a 3.92 ERA with 5.9 SO/9 and 2.4 BB/9 in that time. Those are adequate stats for a major-league starter, and adequate production can be a valuable addition to a real-life starting rotation. However, those numbers are of limited fantasy value. Yes, his strikeout rate has jumped to 28 percent this season, but you should expect it to fall more in line with his career mark of 15.6 percent. Yes, his WHIP has been under 1 over his past five starts, but you should expect it to move back toward his career mark of 1.30. Even if Vargas does regress back to his career averages, he’ll still be a valuable starter for the Royals, but he will be of much more limited value to fantasy owners.
Buyer’s Guide: Buy…for now.
As we mentioned above, fantasy owners are taking notice of Vargas’ hot start to the season. He’s still available in 65 percent of the leagues polled above, and he’s worth consideration for your fantasy roster. If you play in a relatively deep league, then he’s definitely worth adding. If you’re in an AL-only, I think Vargas is a no-brainer at this point (if, for some reason, he was available).
Even if Jason Vargas doesn’t continue to give you the kind of production he did in his first two starts (and he won’t), he’s not likely to be a major drain on any specific category. He’ll likely settle in again as a league-average starter, and that can have some value on a fantasy roster. You need pitchers who can make regular starts who aren’t a risk to implode, and Vargas is a relatively safe bet in that regard. He looks like he could be a high-floor candidate the rest of the season (for other pitchers in his tier), and that can be a nice supplemental piece to any fantasy pitching staff.
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