Most Yankee fans remember Javier Vasquez for two things. Giving up the grand slam to Johnny Damon in the 2004 ALCS Game 7 that completed the worst collapse Yankee postseason history, and for not being all that good in the American League. Neither of these can be disputed, they are both facts. But coming off a career year with the Braves in 2009, did Vasquez finally turn that long awaited corner into becoming an elite pitcher?
First, some background. Vasquez has always been viewed around Baseball as a pitcher that has ace tools. He sports a repertoire of excellent fastball, good curveball and an outstanding change-up. The type of skill set that scouts drool over. He has good control, doesn’t give up many walks, strikes out a ton of batters and is very durable. Yet the abundant skills never seemed to translate into results on the mound. He was often criticized as someone who seems to lose focus out on the mound, doesn’t set up batters properly to maximize his killer stuff, and just gives up way too many HRs, and all too often at the wrong times. Scouts would say he needs to be more of a battler and tactician. Many wrote him off long ago as a guy who has Ace-level talent but will only deliver mid-rotation production.
Sabermatricians agreed with scouts on Javy. Vazquez’s career ERA is roughly .30 runs higher than his career FIP, which puts him on the high end of the graph. Most pitchers will have their FIP and ERA be within 0.20 runs of each other. FIP is a stat that tends to love pitchers that don’t give up walks and strike guys out. A difference of that much tells you that he’s clearly doing something wrong, and getting hit hard when he does it.
But last year, he was amazing. He posted career highs in SO/9, BB/9 and SO/BB ratio. His pitch values were outstanding across the board. It was by far the best year of his career since his breakout season with the Montreal Expos in 2003. What did he do differently last year? NoMaas chimes in with this tidbit:
1. Javy Vazquez threw 66.9% of his first pitches to batters for strikes. That was the 3rd best mark among all ML starters (2nd was Roy Halladay, 1st was Carl Pavano — yes, Glass Carl).
2. Batters put less wood on the ball against Javy Vazquez than against any other starter in MLB who pitched at least 150 innings. Hitters made contact when swinging only 73.3% of the time.
Sounds great, but he put up similar #s in 2008 (65.1% first-strike, 77.9% contact) and he put up a 98 ERA+ and 1.32 WHIP. So that’s not it. We can also throw out the “He can’t pitch in the AL stuff” and chalk it all up to pitching in the National League. He was great with the Yanks in the first half of 04, and was mediocre at best pitching in the weak NL West for the Diamondbacks in 05. It’s not as if he goes to the NL and dominates, he was the same pitcher for the D-backs and in his early years with the Expos that he was for the White Sox and Yankees.
Something changed last year. Leo Mazzone isn’t the pitching coach in Atlanta anymore, so we can stop giving him all the credit for what goes on down there. Vasquez credits having a better change up, but he had everything working across the board. That goes beyond just being healthy, and he’s been a workhorse his entire career so you’d think he would have done this sooner if it was simply a matter of health. Maturing as a pitcher could factor in here, at age 33 he’d certainly be a late bloomer. AJ Burnett said he didn’t really figure it out until he was in his 30s and spent some time with Roy Halladay. A pitcher with his profile putting it all together now tells me that he was pitching batters differently in 09. It’s often been said by veteran pitchers that the art of pitching is like ‘the pages of a book’ with one page setting up the event that occurs on the next. It’s also been said that the difference between a good outing and a bad one can come down to a handful of pitches per game. Javier Vasquez may have finally figured out how to navigate through those rough patches, and if he has, then the Yankees have themselves a top of the rotation talent.