Is Javier Vazquez Really A Top-15 Starting Pitcher?
Picture this. A starting pitcher posts a 2.87 ERA and a 1.03 WHIP, strikes out 238 batters in 219 1/3 innings and allows a .226 average to opposing hitters, then before the 2010 season gets traded to the defending world champions. Pretty good, right?
As a group at ESPN Fantasy, we rate Vazquez the 14th-best starting pitcher you can draft this spring. At MockDraftCentral.com, his average draft position has him going at the top of the seventh round, 61st overall, the 12th starter selected. And to all this Vazquez love, I say: You're a year too late.
Now, I'm not going to proclaim that Vazquez's one year in Atlanta was a fluke. He's a good pitcher. His career ERA over 12 seasons is a respectable 4.19, his WHIP a better-than-decent 1.24, and he's fanned 8.14 hitters per nine innings, which means generally speaking his strikeouts are legit. In fact, at this time last year I was making the argument that Vazquez was underrated and thus underdrafted; I rated him 24th among starters, while his ADP was 31st. In a 2009 piece in which I told you not to draft Daisuke Matsuzaka, I listed Vazquez as a guy I considered clearly head-and-shoulders above Dice-K, despite the fact that Matsuzaka was being taken more than four rounds earlier.
But as happens so often in the fantasy world, there's an overreaction going on with this guy. We rated him too low last season, and now we somehow feel compelled to rate him too high this season.
The fundamentals don't support the notion that Vazquez is going to give a repeat performance in pinstripes this year. In '09, his fly-ball rate was 34.8 percent. For his career, it's smack dab at 40 percent. And in his three seasons pitching for the White Sox from '06 to '08, it was 40.7, 43.4 and 41.7 percent. More fly balls are rarely a good thing for a pitcher, yet it's likely that more fly balls are what Vazquez will see. Next, consider his new home ballpark. While it's true that it's far too early to unilaterally declare that the new Yankee Stadium is and always will be a home run hitter's paradise, it's not too early to declare that Turner Field is very tough in that regard, especially for left-handed hitters. Last year, Turner Field was fifth hardest on homers, while Yankee Stadium was famously the No. 1 home run hitting venue around, and has one heck of an enticing right-field porch, about which right-handed pitchers need to be concerned. Finally, Vazquez's strand rate last year was 76.6 percent, the highest of his big league life (compared to 70.8 percent for his career).
But the main reason I feel secure saying Vazquez won't repeat his 2009 season in 2010 is simple: I've seen this movie before. Vazquez has done this. In 2004, at age 28, Vazquez played a full season for the Yankees and did little to erase his reputation as a soft pitcher. Set free from the non-attention he enjoyed in six years as a Montreal Expo, he put together a blazing first half (10 wins, 3.56 ERA, 1.15 WHIP) and an All-Star Game appearance as a Yankee, then went belly-up when the pennant race got tight, posting a 6.92 ERA and 1.49 WHIP after the break. Plus, he famously allowed Johnny Damon's Game 7 grand slam in the Red Sox's improbable playoff comeback. (Remember ol' gutsy Vazquez relieving ol' gutsy Kevin Brown, Yanks fans?) And after posting a sub-4.00 ERA his each of his final three seasons in Montreal, Vazquez would go on to post a 4.00-plus ERA in four of his next five with the Yankees, Diamondbacks and White Sox.
Yes, that's right: The Yankees saw enough of the guy who was supposed to be their future ace after one season. They shipped him off, essentially, for Randy Johnson. Going back through a New York Times article about Vazquez's departure back then, one is struck by how final the judgment appears to be.
"'For me, maybe I was in the minority, but I was never a huge Vazquez fan,' one executive from an American League East team said. ... 'I always thought he was a No. 4 starter. He's not an $11 million player. ... He would dazzle you for three or four innings, but then there would be two or three innings where you got to him. He got away with that in the National League. That showed up and hurt him in our league.'
"A former NL manager agreed that Vazquez might have gotten 'gun shy' about his approach because players who hit fifth, sixth and seventh for an NL team might sit in the bottom three spots of the order in the AL."
Yes, there's also the league change. Any pitcher moving from the National League to the American League will suffer the Reverse John Smoltz Effect; whereas Smoltz got his doors utterly blown off with the Red Sox in '09, he jumped to the Cardinals and suddenly was a pretty effective starter. (Brad Penny, Vicente Padilla and even Jose Contreras had similar midseason stories last year.) Vazquez's career ERA in four years as an AL pitcher is 4.52, and just 4.02 in eight NL seasons.
But I think it's more than just the big bats of the AL East. I think it's also the bright lights. Vazquez has a 10.34 career playoff ERA, and in his four career playoff appearances, has never posted an ERA better than 8.68 in a single game. Sure he was terrific in Atlanta, where it's mostly Bobby Cox's close friends and relatives watching home games. Here's another quote from that Times article back at the end of '04:
"'His command hasn't been what it was in Montreal. But if I was an NL club like the Dodgers, I would take a chance on him. If you bring him to a ballpark and a situation where he has a chance for some early success, I think you would have a good pitcher again.'"
Yes, the eminently laid-back Dodgers. Or the Pirates. Or the Nationals. Perfect.
So while I'm not predicting disaster for Vazquez this season, I do coincidentally have him ranked as my No. 24 starting pitcher again this year. He'll post a sub-1.30 WHIP, and he's more likely to rack up 15 wins playing for a better team. But expect him to drop from last season's 9.77 K/9 back to the mid-8.00s that his career numbers indicate, and his ERA will climb as many as two runs. Things were a combination of very pitcher-friendly, vaguely lucky and awfully quiet for Vazquez in '09. Don't pay for a repeat in the Bronx.
Christopher Harris is a fantasy analyst for ESPN.com. He is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writing Association award winner. You can ask him questions at www.facebook.com/writerboy.