In case you have been under a rock for the last 12 hours, the Yankees have reacquired RHP Javier Vazquez and LHP Boone Logan from the Braves for OF Melky Cabrera, LHP Michael Dunn, and RHP Arodys Vizcaino. Yankee fans probably remember Vazquez best for his shaky 2004 season, which saw him get off to a strong first half start (even making the All Star team) and struggle mightily in the 2nd half of the season, including the playoffs (giving up an infamous grand slam to Johnny Damon). Based on his 2004 season, the criticism of Vazquez was that he was not mentally tough enough to handle playing in New York, and people who believe that to be the case will likely be outraged at this acquisition.
For those who weren’t following the NL closely this season, Vazquez was one of the top 5 pitchers in the National League, going 15-10 with a 2.87 ERA. In 219 1/3 innings, he had 238 strikeouts against only 44 walks, with a 1.03 WHIP and a career-low 20 home runs allowed. It was a potential Cy Young caliber season, and he finished 4th in the voting (behind Tim Lincecum, Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright). It was a career year for Vazquez, even better than his superb 2003 with Montreal that caused the Yankees to trade for him the first time around. While Vazquez’s ERA is likely to rise moving to the AL and Yankee stadium, I’m going to look at his stats to see if he is likely to be a better pitcher than the 4.91 ERA that he put up in 2004. Was 2004 the norm, or an exception to an otherwise impressive career? Or was 2009 a fluke? To Fangraphs, we go. Analysis after the jump.
When looking at the stats for Vazquez, one thing that jumps out to me is his fastball velocity. In 2004, Vazquez averaged 90.1 MPH on his fastball, which was 1.7 MPH lower than the 91.8 he averaged in 2003. For 2005 onward, Vazquez has averaged in the 91 range, with a 91.1 mph average in 2009. Given that Vazquez was rumored to be battling a shoulder injury in the second half of 2004, it is likely to expect Vazquez to average 91 again in 2009. Just looking at the fastball velocity, 2004 looks like the anomaly (explained by the possible injury), while 2009 might be repeatable (once league/ballpark adjustments are taken into account).
When a player’s ERA by almost 2 runs from one season to the next, (as Vazquez’s did from 2008-2009), it is difficult to attribute all the improvement to luck. Moving from a hitter haven in the AL to Atlanta could account for some of the change, but it doesn’t make a mediocre pitcher (as Vazquez was in 2008) into an ace and a Cy Young candidate in 2009. Was Vazquez lucky in 2009? A (flawed, but still somewhat useful) way to measure luck is BABIP. If Vazquez’s BABIP against in 2009 was much lower than career averages, then one might expect some regression to the mean. Vazquez’s 2009 BABIP against was .297, which is below his career average of .309, but hardly a big deviation (he had a lower BABIP against in 2004, as a matter of fact). As such, it doesn’t look like Vazquez got lucky with batted balls.
Looking at home run rate gives a slightly different impression. Vazaquez dramatically dropped his home run rate in 2009 (from 1.08 in 2008 to 0.82 in 2009). This would be a potential indicator that Vazquez was lucky in 2009, though US Cellular Field (where Vazquez pitched in 2008) is one of the most homer-friendly ballparks in the majors. However, Vazquez’s HR/FB rate, which gives the percentage of flyballs that left the park, was actually higher in 2009 (10.1%) than it was in 2008 (9.8%), indicating that Vazquez wasn’t exceptionally lucky with flyballs not turning into home runs in 2009.
What this signifies is that Vazquez dropped his flyball percentage in 2009, which was a dramatic drop, from 41.7% percent in 2008 to 34.8% in 2009 His GB/FB rate increased to 1.20 from 0.92 in 2008, so he evidently was keeping the ball on the ground more than he did in 2008. While HR/FB rate is considered to be somewhat out of the pitcher’s control, pitchers generally have control over the amount of groundballs and flyballs they give up, and the drop in flyball rate could be the result of a repeatable improvement, possibly the result of changed pitch selection.
Vazquez’s pitch selection was in fact different in 2009 than it was in previous years. For the first time in 2009, Vazquez threw less than 50% fastballs (49.9%, compared to 53.2% in 2008). His percentage of sliders thrown was lower than in 2008, while the percentage of curveballs and changeups increased. That Vazquez is decreasing his fastball usage and increasing the use of his secondary offerings is indicative of perhaps a change in approach, which could explain the higher groundball rate. Fangraphs doesn’t differentiate between 4-seam and 2-seam fastballs, but it’s possible that the increase in groundball/flyball ratio could be explained by an increased use of a 2-seamer (if anybody has read anything about this being the case, let me know).
Looking at Vazquez’s pitch type values on Fangraphs, some interesting numbers jump out at me, though I don’t know enough about the statistic. I am under the impression that a value of 0 is league average (or maybe replacement level, if somebody knows more about this, please let me know). Vazquez’s fastball value has been around 0 (and sometimes negative) for his entire career, with the only exceptions being 2004 (21.6) and 2009 (12.77). This indicates that Vazquez’s fastball was more effective in 2009 than in past seasons, and maybe the decreased usage contributed to the effectiveness. The value was 2.7 in 2008, and -14.6 in 2004. The slider value of 3.0 was a career high, but not much different than the 2.6 he put up in 2008. The 2009 curveball value of 17.2 was a big career high, compared to 3.3 in 2008 and his previous career high of 7.2 in 2007. Vazquez’s changeup was also more effective in 2009 than 2008 (10.7 compared to -5.1 in ’08), though he put up better changeup numbers in 2002, 2004, and 2005. So what can be taken from all these numbers? Vazquez’s offerings (with the exception of the slider) were much more effective in 2009, and his curveball was much more effective than it has ever been.
Sorry for throwing out so many numbers, but I’m going to try to contextualize them. With the increase in GB/FB ratio and a BABIP and HR/FB in line with career numbers, I argue that Vazquez was not especially lucky in 2009. His lower ERA can be explained by the transition from a hitter-friendly stadium in the AL to a more pitcher-friendly park in the NL in 2009, as well as some tangible improvements. The change in GB/FB ratio as well as the change in pitch selection reflects some tangible improvement that could be carried over into 2010, even in a tougher park and league.
Based on these improvements (and assuming good health), I think that the 2009 Vazquez is more likely than the 2004 Vazquez. This does not mean I’m expecting a sub-3 ERA again, but even assuming a 1-run bump in ERA from changing leagues and ballparks, it would not be unreasonable to expect a sub-4 ERA in 2010 for Vazquez. His ability to strike batters out without giving up many walks is valuable in any stadium, and his decreased flyball rate could mitigate some of the effect of moving to homer-happy Yankee stadium. His durability and ability to pitch 200+ innings on an annual basis is also important, especially with an aging Andy Pettitte at the #4 and a young pitcher (Hughes or Joba) occupying the 5th spot.
If he can pitch 200+ innings again (a good bet since he hasn’t gone below 198 since 1999), projecting Vazquez for 16-18 wins is not unreasonable. He could easily be the Yankees’ 2nd best starter next season, and considering the expectations are much lower for him this time around, there may be less pressure on him (as opposed to 2004, when he was expected to be an ace). If Vazquez can maintain the improvements made in 2009, he will counteract (or even outweigh) the John Lackey acquisition by Boston, with the added benefit that he is under contract for only 1 more season at a reasonable 11.5 million. While Dunn, Cabrera, and Vizcaino will all be missed, Vazquez’s potential impact in 2010 makes this a good deal for the Yankees. If Vazquez walks in 2010, the Yankees could get draft picks for him, which could help to replace the lost prospects.
One thing that does worry me about this trade: Mike Francesa considers it a heist for the Yankees, and I usually disagree with him on everything (granted, I think Francesa has no idea who Michael Dunn and Arodys Vizcaino are). There is no question that the Yankees gave up some valuable pieces in this deal (especially Vizcaino, who is definitely a top 5 organizational prospect, ranked as high as #2 by some publications). Whether you think 1 year if Vazquez is worth the price paid is a conversation for another day (and another post). However, there is no question that the Vazquez acquisition is a big improvement to the 2010 Yankee team.
More analysis on the other aspects of the trade is forthcoming. Anyone with thoughts on the subject or criticisms of my analysis, please weigh in in the comment section.
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