MLB Ace Jason Vargas and His 86 MPH Fastball Will Have MLB Contenders Calling

Danny KnoblerMLB Lead WriterMay 30, 2017

CLEVELAND, OH - MAY 27: Starting pitcher Jason Vargas #51 of the Kansas City Royals pitches during the first inning against the Cleveland Indians at Progressive Field on May 27, 2017 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
Jason Miller/Getty Images

There's a beauty in what Jason Vargas does on the days the Kansas City Royals pitcher is at his best.

You have to see it to fully appreciate it. You have to change the way you watch pitching, because Vargas isn't a "watch the pitch and then check the radar gun" kind of guy. In this era of ultra-high velocity, he's motoring along in the slow lane and still finding a way to win the race.

He's not throwing 100 mph or even 90 mph, but his 2.39 ERA ranks seventh among all full-time major league starters.

It shouldn't be a mystery, because we've seen pitchers like Vargas before. But it poses a question as teams in need of rotation help survey the upcoming July trade market.

Do you trust a guy with an 86 mph fastball?

"Everyone would take him," one American League scout said. "But nobody wants to give up a lot for him."

It could be a moot point because as poorly as the Royals have played, they're not yet committed to selling off assets in July.

"We're not ready to go in a different direction at this point," general manager Dayton Moore said, before a weekend series in Cleveland that couldn't have made his path all that much clearer. The Royals won Friday and Saturday to pull within 3.5 games of an Indians team that still stands as the favorite to win the American League Central, but a 10-1 loss Sunday dropped Kansas City back into last place, 6.5 games behind the first-place Minnesota Twins.

Vargas started and won the game that sent the Royals to the World Series for the first time in 29 years.
Vargas started and won the game that sent the Royals to the World Series for the first time in 29 years.Ed Zurga/Getty Images

Should Moore sell, Vargas would be a likely one to go. The Royals love what he does and could use him next season, but he's 34 years old and in the last year of his contract.

And since that contract pays him just $8 million this season, he's attractive to a whole list of teams that might not be able to shop at the top end of the market.

Vargas will have people interested—remember, everyone would take him—and he should. He has been one of the most consistent starters in baseball the first two months of the season and, as Moore helpfully points out, "Jason Vargas has pitched some playoff games and won playoff games."

He won one playoff game, but forgive Moore if he thought it was more than that. It was the game that sent the Royals to their first World Series in 29 years.

Vargas beat the Baltimore Orioles 2-1 that October day in 2014, allowing just two hits in 5.1 innings. His fastball averaged 89 mph, according to BrooksBaseball.net, and while that's a few ticks higher than what he throws now, you could make the argument Vargas is a better pitcher now than he was then.

Tommy John surgery in August 2015 cost him a year's worth of games but gave him time to work hard on his mechanics. Even when he couldn't throw a baseball, Vargas would stand on the mound with a towel in his hand, simulating the motion he would use when he returned.

Counting three starts last September, Vargas has pitched in 13 major league games since then, with a 2.36 ERA and just 18 walks in 72.1 innings.

He uses the fastball and changeup to great effect, and he has good success with his curveball, too. On his best days, he's able to throw all his pitches to both sides of the plate, allowing him to throw six shutout innings against the defending American League champion Cleveland Indians, seven shutout innings against the San Francisco Giants and Tampa Bay Rays and 7.2 shutout innings against the Oakland A's.

"It's beautiful," Rex Hudler, the former major leaguer who is now a Royals broadcaster, said. "I call him Dr. Vargas, making a house call. He's a precision doctor. He cuts and scalpels. Jamie Moyer and Tom Glavine would be proud. Having faced guys like that, they're a pain to hit against."

Vargas throws harder than Moyer, whose fastball in his latter years struggled to reach 80 mph. Glavine was an 82-83 mph guy at the end, according to FanGraphs.

Vargas' average fastball this year has been 86.2 mph, also according to FanGraphs. At a time when the list of ERA leaders is populated by pitchers who have thrown 99 (Chris Sale), 98 (Lance McCullers Jr. and Max Scherzer) and 96 (Ervin Santana and Clayton Kershaw), Vargas stands out.

Of the 950 pitches he has thrown this season, not one has been clocked above 90 mph.

There's a theory, in fact, that Vargas benefits by standing out. Hitters see 95-plus every day, so 86 is tougher to adjust to. It's not a theory everyone subscribes to.

"You ask me day in, day out, would I rather face 95 or 86, I'm always going to say 86," Yankees third baseman Chase Headley said. "But give him some credit. It's not a gimmick. You never get a count where you know what's coming."

Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

Headley knows that only too well. He struck out twice in two at-bats against Vargas last week in New York, taking a 3-2 fastball that caught the inside corner and swinging over a 2-2 changeup that ended up in the dirt.

Vargas has embraced who he is and what he can do, even if he hasn't gone as far as ex-big league pitcher Dan Haren did. Haren retired two years ago, but you can still find him on Twitter at @ithrow88.

"It'd be nice to be able to reach back and get 95," Vargas said. "At the same time, I've been able to develop a changeup that balances things out. It's all about what we're given."

You go with what you're given, and you go with what works. What Vargas was given is working.

Everyone would take him.


Danny Knobler covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.

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