A lot of good things had to happen over the weekend for the Florida Marlins to take two games from the three-game set against the Tampa Bay Rays. However, perhaps the most intriguing of all those things was the performance of Javier Vazquez, which will be the primary topic of discussion of this edition of Fish Cap.
The Javier Vazquez revival story
Javier Vazquez had an afternoon for himself versus the Rays this week, and because I was not initially planning on watching the game, I was fairly confused. Early on, he had posted three strikeouts and two walks within the first two innings and I wondered aloud how this could possibly be. Luckily, fellow Maniac Fake Tommy Hutton had the answer that everyone really wanted to hear, but nobody really believed.
Yes, that is actually accurate. Vazquez sat in the low 90’s with his fastball early in the game, and his velocity did not dip badly by the end of the affair.
As you can see by this pitch-by-pitch velocity track, he was pretty consistently in the 90’s with his fastball well into his 70th pitch of the start. After that, he dropped back down to around his seasonal high 80’s average. By the end of the start, Pitch f/x data had Vazquez’s average fastball recorded at 90.6 mph, a drastic improvement over his seasonal average and indeed the average of any given game since 2009.
As you can see, that last average fastball velocity and subsequent error bars around it are clearly above any other velocity bar for any of Sanchez’s other starts since 2009. He basically hasn’t sat at this sort of velocity since his Cy Young candidate season with the Atlanta Braves in 2009. To see him suddenly jump in velocity like that has to intrigue Marlins fans who have come to accept that Vazquez will not be the same pitcher he was even just two seasons ago.
It should come as no surprise that this increase in velocity correlated quite well with his best performance. Vazquez’s season-high seven strikeouts came as a direct result of the increased velocity. He was able to force 10 swinging strikes against the Rays offense, including two on his fastball. Five of those swinging strikes came on the curveball, which remained at its typical velocity but appeared to be more effective as a result of the improved change of pace with the pitch. Three of those swings and misses came out of the zone, located below the knees and likely on the curveball.
There is no question that Vazquez pitched better on Saturday than he has all season long, but how can a change in just one or two mph add so much to the effectiveness of a pitcher? Well, fellow Baseball Prospectus author and friend of the Maniac Mike Fast has previously discussed this in a Hardball Times article from early last year. In this piece, Fast determines that there has been a trend of around a 0.2 to 0.3 runs per nine innings improvement for every one mph gained on a fastball. For Vazquez, who was averaging 88 mph before, a two-mph jump would be worth almost 0.6 runs per nine innings, or an improvement from a true-talent 5.06 ERA pitcher to a 4.51 ERA pitcher. For the National League, a 5.06 ERA pitcher is just about replacement level, while a 4.42 ERA pitcher is more like Chris Volstad, who is a good deal better than replacement level.
This is a significant improvement and a very important development for the Fish if it can be maintained. Consider that the Marlins recently lost Josh Johnson to a hopefully short-lived but possibly troubling injury and watched his designated replacement (Buente) burn when facing major league players once again. Also consider that the Marlins’ two other primary candidates for replacement are currently injured or heading to rehab. Finally, consider the significant investment the Marlins put into Vazquez. It is easy to see why Marlins fans should expect to see at least a few more starts of Vazquez. These next few starts will be crucial, because they are likely the only remaining guaranteed starts remaining for him; if he returns to his old fastball velocity and struggles, the Fish may go to other options as they become available. But if he has somehow found a way to overcome that dead arm, the team may have found its answer in the rotation.