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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:

In 2009…

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.

12 Responses to “Are we sure Javier Vasquez is just a #4 starter?”

  1. I always hated these “#3 starter” #1 starter” #2 starter” labels. In reality each of the top-4 starting pitchers is of the same importance. Saying, “he’s just a #4 starter” is wrong on so many levels.

    I definitely agree with you that Vazquez is underrated, and had a great peripheral year. I love the balls and strikes numbers you posted. But I also think that its important to point out: A.J Burnett, Andy Pettitte, and Javy Vazquez are pretty close to the pitcher in terms of value. #2-4 are all basically 200 innings, high-3, low 4s ERA guys. That’s great.  (Quote)

    [Reply To This Comment]

    Steve S. Reply:

    I just wanted to respond to those who look at his AL numbers and dismiss him. He’s performed at times in the AL and been mediocre in the NL, so that explanation doesn’t wash. I think he’s finally matured as a pitcher, and if nothing else being in a contract year should help him bear down, which has been long standing complaint as something he doesn’t do enough of. People also forget how talented he really is, because of all the years of middling results. When he was in Montreal, scouts called him ‘little Pedro’ (Martinez).  (Quote)

    [Reply To This Comment]

    MJ Reply:

    I guess a like or dislike of the #1, #2, etc. labels is subjective but I don’t agree that all starting pitchers are of the same importance and that expectations should be the same across the rotation. There’s a reason why guys like Sabathia, Halladay, etc. earn what they earn and why rotation filler like Gaudin has a different threshold he has to reach in order to provide his own value.

    As to your point about Burnett…I like him and I’m happy he’s here but all the stuff about how much he learned in Toronto and how he’s a different pitcher sounds like MSM drivel. He might think he learned a few things — and I’ll never discount the positive power of a placebo — but he pitched to a 106 ERA+ last year and he was at 104 in his final year in Toronto. He was at 115 in his final year at Florida and went 115, 119 in his first two years in Toronto. Maybe he paces himself more but the results don’t show any greater depth or understanding of the art of pitching.  (Quote)

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  2. I also want to add that it doesn’t matter if Vazquez is more like the pitcher that dominated the NL last year or the one that was a roughly league-average AL pitcher in 2004, 2006 and 2008. The Yanks won the World Series with one ace and two league-average starters last year. 200 innings of a 4.20 ERA from Vazquez is all the Yanks need from him. His track record of health represents a decreased dependence on scrubs like Mitre, Gaudin and the like. As long as we only expect that fairly attainable level of performance, none of us will be disappointed. Anything beyond that will be icing on the cake.  (Quote)

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    Moshe Mandel Reply:

    This is what I enteredthe thread to say. They don’t need anything more from Vazquez than his career average rates and 200 innings. Anyrhing more is gravy.  (Quote)

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  3. Vasquez will have to adjust to the short porch.If he does he will be avery big winner this year.  (Quote)

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  4. I read somewhere that he started using more of his offspead pitches last year. Perhaps he changed his pitching tactics?  (Quote)

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    Moshe Mandel Reply:

    I think Eric wrote that up here at TYU. He used his FB 5 percent less than his career average, so he did in fact change his approach. Good catch.  (Quote)

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  5. I’m hoping Joba or Hughes emerges as the #4. Javier is just a better Sergio Mitre who gives you innings.O.K. much better but I still wouldn’t want him pitching a big game for me.  (Quote)

    [Reply To This Comment]

    Moshe Mandel Reply:

    I think you are underrating him, and I’m not sure his tiny sample of big games really tells you anything.  (Quote)

    [Reply To This Comment]

    MJ Reply:

    You really think that Javier Vazquez is “just a better Sergio Mitre who gives you innings”? Do you think if Cashman put Mitre on the trade market, he’d get Melky Cabrera, Mike Dunn and Arodys Viszcanio in return? Answer that question honestly and you’ll see that Vazquez isn’t just an innings-eating Mitre.  (Quote)

    [Reply To This Comment]

    Tom Swift Reply:

    MJ, that’s a great idea. Let’s trade Mitre to Atlanta and get our guys back!  (Quote)

    [Reply To This Comment]

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