Bronx Cheers for Javy

In today’s Prospectus Hit and Run, I tackle the disappointing performance of the ever-enigmatic Javier Vazquez, who was once again pounded on Saturday. He’s carrying a 9.78 ERA and has allowed eight homers in his 23 innings. What’s more, he hasn’t gotten past four innings in either of his past two starts. The boos are raining down from the Yankee Stadium stands, and the word on the street is that the Yanks may skip his next turn in the upcoming series against the Red Sox.

Vazquez’s first stint in New York back in 2004 didn’t end well, of course; after making the All-Star team on the strength of a 10-5, 3.56 ERA first half, he was rocked for a 6.92 ERA in the second, and had two ugly postseason outings already under his belt when he sealed the Yankees’ fate by allowing Johnny Damon’s grand slam on his first pitch in relief of Kevin Brown in Game Seven of the ALCS. Leaving the postseason aside, he’s actually got the highest ERA of any Yankees pitcher to throw at least 190 innings:

Rk  Player                ERA     IP    Years
 1  Javier Vazquez       5.42   221.0   2004, 2010
 2  Ed Whitson           5.38   195.2   1985-1986
 3  Jeff Weaver          5.35   237.1   2002-2003
 4  Andy Hawkins         5.21   378.2   1989-1991
 5  Sterling Hitchcock   5.15   402.0   1992-1995, 2001-2003
 6  Richard Dotson       5.13   222.2   1988-1989
 7  Tim Leary            5.12   425.2   1990-1992
 8  Kenny Rogers         5.11   324.0   1996-1997
 9  Jaret Wright         4.99   204.0   2005-2006
10  Kevin Brown          4.95   205.1   2004-2005

That’s a lot of the past decade and a half’s nightmares on that list, no? In any event, Vazquez has had his ups and downs since then, but came to the Yankees on the heels of a career year in which he finished fourth in the NL in the Cy Young voting. Which is kind of the rub. Vazquez has shown a pretty big split between his time in the AL and his time in the NL, particularly if you discount his first two seasons, when he was getting pounded regularly (5.56 ERA) for a 90+ loss club.

Lg     IP   HR/9  BB/9  SO/9  K/BB   ERA   ERA+  SNWP   SIERA    gap
NL  1337.1   1.1   2.0   8.4   4.2   3.65  121   .538    3.41   +0.24
AL   848.2   1.3   2.6   8.1   3.2   4.67   99   .498    3.64   +1.03

Vazquez’s peripherals during his time in the AL (2004 with the Yankees, 2006-2008 with the White Sox) are across-the-board worse relative to his time in the NL. While his strikeout and walk rates should cover for his gaudy home run rate — as it has during his Senior Circuit tenure — the gap between his SIERA [Skill-Interactive ERA] estimates and his actual ERA is more than three quarters of a run higher during his time in the AL. He’s been over a run worse than expectations based upon his strikeout, walk and groundball rates, the difference between being an frontline starter and a merely league average one.

That he rarely lives up to his mostly impressive peripherals isn’t exactly news. Last year, colleague Eric Seidman examined the enigma that is Vazquez and showed that he performed significantly below average with runners on base. Whereas the average pitcher’s opposing-batter performance with men on rose by 14 points of OBP and seven points of SLG over his showing with the bases empty, Vazquez’s numbers went to hell in a handbasket, rising by 38 points of OBP and 42 points of SLG. Broken down by league as above (excluding 1998-1999), the difference is even more dramatic:

Lg    Bases Empty      Men On Base      Difference
NL  .248/.283/.399   .258/.315/.419   .008/.032/.020
AL  .237/.291/.407   .289/.348/.470   .052/.057/.073

What’s going on? It’s not simply a matter of serving up taters while surrounded by AL baserunners; Vazquez’s rate of home runs per plate appearance edges up only a hair in both cases… During the time in question in the NL, his BABIP splits have been unremarkable, .302 (the same as his overall career mark) with the bases empty and .306 with men on. In the AL, his BABIP vaults from .282 when empty to .326 when occupied. Particularly given the way he’s bounced back and forth between leagues over the past seven years — which would seem to preclude singular points of inflection in the data produced by wholesale changes in repertoire or approach — a good portion of the difference in his men-on-base splits simply has to be chalked up to matters of luck and/or randomness. The enigma endures.

Enigma or no, the big problem with Vazquez is his mechanics, which are lopping 2 mph off his heater and compromising his mechanics and ultimately his command; former MLB scout Frankie Piliere has a good blow-by-blow of what’s going wrong.

Headed to the ballpark tonight to see the much less enigmatic Sabathia face the Orioles, assuming the rain is kept to a minimum.

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