(Editor’s note: I made a mistake on the WAR projection, so I made the proper corrections. Projected WAR should now be 2.2 WAR. Not bad, right? -MJ)
Today we continue our trek through the Marlins’ starting rotation. After going over the Ace and the Enigma, we reach the original Enigma, the Papa Bear of Enigmas so to speak, newly acquired right-hander Javier Vazquez. I called Vazquez the Papa Bear of Enigmas because he is one of the higher profile pitchers who have underperformed their peripherals over their career; his 4.26 career ERA pales in comparison to his significantly better career 3.93 FIP. At this point, with over 2600 innings of work, I’d trust that 4.26 career ERA a bit more than his 3.93 FIP, but the true talent should still be somewhere in between those marks. Of course, this season the question this Papa Bear of Enigmas is facing isn’t about that difference in ERA but about a far larger discrepancy from the 2010 season.
Vazquez signed a one-year deal worth $7M with the Marlins this offseason, looking to bounce back from what was a career-worst year in his second stint with the New York Yankees. In 2010, the wheels all fell off for Vazquez, who suffered through 156 1/3 horrific innings with a 5.32 ERA and an ever worse 5.56 FIP. A lot of problems went into those numbers, including a drop to his second worst strikeout rate of his career, a career high walk rate, and an equally career high rate of home runs.
Some of that can be explained away with bad luck and Yankees Stadium. The Marlins are hoping that a move to the more spacious Sun Life Stadium will help decrease Vazquez’s 14.0 percent HR/FB rate, the second highest of his career. Unfortunately, much of the rest of that line can also be explained by a decreasing velocity. Vazquez sat about two miles per hour slower on his fastball all of last season, and according to some past pitchers who have done the same, that velocity isn’t likely to return.
To that extent, it seems Vazquez is aware of the drop in fastball velocity and has been working on improving it.
"“My velocity was down a little bit last year,” [Vazquez] said. “In the offseason, I was working with a therapist and doing some different [conditioning] things. I’m not 27 anymore, so I’ve got to start doing different things."
Along with a bounce back in velocity, Vazquez will most assuredly have to do something different. It is likely he’ll never return to pitching in the low-to-mid 90’s, but if he can maintain a high 80’s clip, he can still remain an effective pitcher with his arsenal. He seems to recognize that he’ll have to change his approach to work more effectively in 2011.
"“I’m not 27 anymore,’’ Vazquez said. “I have a lot of years in the big leagues and a lot of innings, and it takes a toll on the arm. Even though I feel good and my arm feels good, I need to start doing some different things to maybe help my arm.’’"
So what could those changes involve? Vazquez throws three other pitches in his arsenal, a changeup, curveball, and slider. The other pitches did not lose much bite over the past three years according to Pitch f/x raw data, but there could have been some mixup in terms of pitch classification. A reliance on more breaking balls could yield an improvement from Vazquez, as his curveball and changeup were among his best pitches throughout his career according to FanGraphs’s pitch type linear weights. Then again, we do not know how much of that effectiveness was tied to a positive fastball with good velocity; we all know that changeups, for example, are more efficient when paired with a fastball a good seven miles per hour faster, and there is no guarantee that Vazquez’s fastball will remain that fast or whether his changuep requires more of a velocity differential. Those are things we will simply have to observe at the start of the season.
Projection: 200 IP, 2.2 WAR
This is a projection based on a conservative estimate of his ERA, putting his projected ERA at 4.34. Going with an average of multiple ERAs from various projection sources yields an average ERA of 4.15 and 2.7 WAR from Vazquez in 2011. Of course, a lot of these systems use a basic weighting with regression and aren’t necessarily aware of the 2010 aberration in velocity. Expecting a number in between these totals, something around 2.3 WAR, would not be a bad idea for the Marlins. Regardless of whether Vazquez’s 2010 velocity will remain, the odds that he was simply as bad as he was that season are slim (as of right now). Moving to an easier park and league should help him significantly, but expecting a full bounceback into the low 4.00’s is also a bit extreme given what we know about his physical condition. As much as I wish I could say more about how well he will pitch, I simply do not know the condition of his arm. The Marlins think it will work out, so the team may be more “in the know” about his condition, but this is one of those preseason mysteries that will simply have to be monitored in season. I have no extra nuggets knowledge beyond that.