On May 1, Javier Vazquez had an ERA of 9.78, and those who had asserted that he did not have the personality to succeed in New York were pointing to his first five starts as more proof that he just couldn’t cut it in the Bronx. A month later, however, and Vazquez is shutting up his critics, including a sterling performance yesterday against the Blue Jays, allowing two runs over seven innings while striking out nine. How has he turned his season around so quickly?
The big key has been keeping the ball in the park. In his first five starts, Vazquez faced 112 batters and allowed eight home runs, or one every 14 plate appearances. In his last five starts (and one very brief relief appearance), he’s faced 126 batters and allowed just three home runs, or one every 42 plate appearances. The drastic drop in balls flying over the wall has allowed Vazquez has to the big innings to a minimum, which have always been his Achilles heel.
The drop in home runs have come, in large part, due to two factors that are likely related –- a surge in strikeout rate and a run of games against teams that feature right-handed power hitters. Vazquez has been downright horrible against left-handed hitters this year -- they are hitting .283/.383/.566 against him -- but over the last month, he has been able to match-up against line-ups that don’t feature an abundance of lefty sluggers.
On May 12th, he faced the Detroit Tigers, whose two biggest bats belong to righties Magglio Ordonez and Miguel Cabrera. On May 17, he faced the Mets, who feature Jason Bay and David Wright as their best sources of power. On May 27, he ran into the lefty-heavy Twins and predictably struggled, but was able to rebound in his last two starts against the Orioles and Blue Jays, both of whom rely on right-handed hitters for most of their power.
If Vazquez is going to maintain his recent success going forward, he’s going to have to figure out how to get left-handed hitters out again.
While he’s always been better against right-handed hitters (.662 OPS against in 2010), the difference this year is remarkable, and his problems against lefties have been the source of most of his struggles. While Yankee fans should be encouraged by his recent outings, they may want to wait until he blows away a team with some good left-handed bats before they get too excited.
Dave Cameron is a writer for FanGraphs.