Jason Vargas, LHP
Player Data: Age: 35, B/T: L/L
Primary Stats: 20 GS, 92 IP, 5.77 ERA, 1.413 WHIP, 8.2 K/9, 2.9 BB/9, 1.8 HR/9, 2.80 K/BB
Advanced Stats: 64 ERA+, 5.02 FIP, 4.42 xFIP, 1.00 GB/FB, -0.3 bWAR, 0.1 fWAR, -0.79 WPA
Free agency: 2020 (team option available)
2019 Salary: $8MM, with $2MM buyout on 2020 option
While the Mets’ starting rotation definitely took a step in the right direction relative to the debacle of 2017, it was no thanks to Jason Vargas – a veteran starter who the organization had originally signed to stabilize the back-end, but ultimately found itself working around through much of the first half.
Vargas didn’t make his first start until April 28 after he fractured his hand in a simulated game the prior month, and would again sit out in July after he strained his calf. At one point making a start on 12 days’ rest and again in mid-June after one eight-day lull, Vargas was tagged for 36 earned runs and 11 homers through his first 37.2 innings, with opposing hitters bashing him to a hellish .344/.404/.613 line. His average game score in that time was 37 – tied with Brandon Finnegan of the Cincinnati Reds for the worst mark in the National League. What’s more – Vargas wouldn’t make it past five innings in a single start until August 14.
Between his 2018 debut and the All-Star break, the Mets’ rotation compiled the fifth-best xFIP (3.97) and groundball rate (44.7%) in the National League while also inducing the second-highest soft-contact rate (21.1%) in the majors. It would be unfair to pin the Mets’ struggles through May and June on Vargas alone, given the futility of their hitters. Nevertheless, it’s hard to forgive his miserable performance over such a period because, as the team continued a losing slide despite the efforts of its starters, the lefty’s work stood out for all the wrong reasons. Fairly or unfairly so, his starts seemed to take on a life of their own as automatic losses as the weak breaking pitches and loud extra-base hits piled up.
With that being said, Vargas’ return was exactly that. On a much more plausible average of just over five days’ rest, he picked it up in virtually every category, striking out 8.7 and walking just 2.7 per nine innings as opponents scraped up a .661 OPS. His 3.81 ERA is confidently supported by a 3.92 FIP and 3.94 xFIP, and from August 14 on, they shine even brighter at 2.62, 3.88, and 3.72, respectively. Save for a tough contest against the Los Angeles Dodgers in early September, each of Vargas’ last dozen starts marked a step in the right direction. Admittedly, the goal at such a juncture in the season surely involved hanging onto his job at the bottom of the rotation, but Vargas made out nicely in that regard.
As shameful a first impression as Vargas made for a $16MM signing, both the Mets’ brass and fanbase were mistaken in overlooking his regression from the prior season. Despite winning 18 games and making his first All-Star team, Vargas posted a 6.49 ERA and 1.537 WHIP over his final two months while averaging 2.0 HR/9 in nearly 60 innings and floundering with an average game score of 44.
The reasons behind Vargas sputtering early on in 2018 were rooted in a larger issue, though it isn’t necessarily irrational to see his turnaround in the second half as an encouraging sign of things to come. Five of the eight teams that Vargas faced over his hot stretch were over .500, three playing in October, no less in the Dodgers, Braves, and Cubs.
Whether or not he builds off his past success in the last year of his two-year deal, he has certainly earned a chance to try again. But with the floor having been established, the Mets would be wise to make adjustments if he is to stumble again as he did last year.