Ildemaro Vargas Makes Contact and Indicators a Contract

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Ildemaro Vargas
Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports activities

Whereas a lot of the baseball world was targeted on the playoff race, the Nationals received an early begin to their offseason on Wednesday, avoiding arbitration with veteran utility man Ildemaro Vargas. The phrases of the contract haven’t but been introduced, but it surely’s protected to presume the journeyman will earn a elevate over his $975,000 wage from the present season. He set a brand new profession excessive in plate appearances this yr, taking part in in 84 video games at 5 totally different positions. What’s extra, the 2023 marketing campaign marked the primary of his profession by which he wasn’t optioned, traded, or designated for project; other than a three-week stint on the injured listing and some rehab video games at Triple-A, he spent your entire season on Washington’s huge league roster.

I’ll be trustworthy: when the Nationals first broke the information about Vargas, I didn’t assume it warranted a full write-up. Nonetheless, I needed to do my due diligence, so I started my typical strategy of cursory participant analysis. First, I checked his FanGraphs web page. A 77 wRC+ and -0.1 WAR? Positive, sounds about proper. Subsequent, I went to Baseball Savant. Sixteenth-percentile xwOBA? Yeah, that tracks. Then, I regarded on Baseball Prospectus. A 144 DRC+ and a pair of.0 WARP? Okay, nothing out of the… wait, what?

After refreshing the web page a pair dozen instances and checking to ensure there isn’t a second Ildemaro Vargas on the market, I spotted this man is perhaps just a bit extra fascinating than I initially thought. DRC+ is just one metric, and like every metric, it’s weak to small pattern dimension trickery. Be that as it might, I can’t ignore the truth that DRC+ ranks Vargas because the fourth-best hitter within the Nationwide League; it goes Ronald Acuña Jr., Mookie Betts, Juan Soto, and Vargas. He’s forward of names like Matt Olson, Luis Arraez, and Freddie Freeman. Small pattern dimension or no, it is a participant who deserves our consideration:

Prime Ten Hitters by DRC+

SOURCE: Baseball Prospectus

I’ll go away it as much as the oldsters at BP to delve into the specifics of DRC+, however one thing tells me this has to do with strikeouts — or, extra precisely, a scarcity thereof. In 2023, Vargas has struck out solely 20 instances in 280 journeys to the plate. That’s good for a 7.1% strikeout fee, the second-lowest determine within the recreation (min. 150 PA). The highest spot, as you might need guessed, belongs to Arraez, the one hitter in baseball who places the ball in play extra usually than Vargas:

Simply Put the Ball in Play

Vargas has at all times been a contact hitter, however he has reached a complete new degree in 2023. In simply over 600 plate appearances between 2017–22, the switch-hitter struck out 13.4% of the time — nonetheless glorious, however not precisely noteworthy. Even in his minor league profession, he nonetheless struck out in 8.8% of journeys to the plate. However this yr, in his first actual style of semi-regular taking part in time (and his first full-year job with a single crew), his plate self-discipline has by no means regarded higher. He’s one among solely two gamers, together with Arraez, to go 13 consecutive video games with out a strikeout. On prime of that, his stroll fee is up, too; he’s strolling 6.8% of the time, in comparison with a 4.3% profession fee coming into the season. The one gamers with a better walk-to-strikeout ratio this yr are Arraez, Acuña, Soto, José Ramírez, Alex Bregman, and, um, effectively… Tony Kemp. Nonetheless, in case your listing of comps contains 5 Silver Sluggers, you’ve received to be doing one thing proper.

It goes with out saying that such a low strikeout fee will probably be arduous to keep up. Even Arraez has struck out 7.6% of the time in his profession, and no different energetic participant has a profession fee under 9.5%. However, strikeout fee tends to stabilize fairly shortly, and Vargas has been constant in his strategy all yr. He hasn’t had as a lot as a 30-game stretch with a strikeout fee above 9.6%, and since he took on a daily position after the commerce deadline, his strikeout fee has stood at 7.5%. What’s extra, the truth that he lower down on strikeouts and upped his stroll fee is an encouraging signal of latest and improved plate self-discipline. He’s chasing rather less however making extra contact on pitches each out and in of the zone. It’s not a model new strategy, only a refinement on the margins. He already had a lot of the instruments he wanted to make contact at an elite fee; he swings lower than the common hitter and infrequently misses when he does.

Avoiding strikeouts is a good talent. By placing the ball in play, a hitter provides himself a preventing probability to achieve base or advance a runner. That mentioned, it’s not as if each low-strikeout slap-hitter is a good ballplayer. Certainly, Arraez is an outlier for a motive. Of the 4 gamers with a single-digit strikeout fee this season, Vargas appears to have much more in frequent with Nick Madrigal (83 wRC+) and Kemp (77 wRC+) than the NL batting champ (132 wRC+). And but, at the least in a single respect, Vargas has all of them beat:

Slap Hitters, Arduous Contact

Participant maxEV Ninetieth-percentile EV HardHit% xwOBA
Ildemaro Vargas 111.0 104.3 30.4% .300
Nick Madrigal 106.9 101.2 27.5% .294
Luis Arraez 104.0 99.9 25.2% .353
Tony Kemp 103.0 98.8 20.1% .297

SOURCE: Baseball Savant

Vargas doesn’t hit the ball arduous, however he makes considerably more durable contact than his contact-hitting compatriots. His most exit velocity would rank within the forty fourth percentile amongst certified hitters. Nobody is looking that good, per se, but it surely places him in a complete totally different class than guys like Kemp and Arraez, who rank final and second-last, respectively, amongst certified batters in maxEV. Which means one thing, even for a hitter with a .245/.299/.354 slash line, as a result of hitting the ball arduous is a type of abilities you possibly can’t actually educate, particularly to a man who’s already on the flawed facet of 30.

Thus, Vargas has confirmed himself to have two of an important instruments in a batter’s toolbox: He makes a ton of contact, and he hits the ball more durable than the opposite guys that do the identical. Even higher, we might be fairly assured these abilities are reliable, even in a small pattern dimension. It’s arduous to pretend bat-to-ball abilities or exit velocity. He may not be a very good hitter — not now, and never ever — however he’s a bit of nearer to reaching that degree than you would possibly assume.

So what does Vargas have to do subsequent? Straightforward: simply repair his launch angle. We’re in the course of the launch angle revolution, proper? Anybody can do it.

All kidding apart, it’s true that Vargas hits manner too many groundballs. Like, manner too many. Although he hits the ball more durable than Madrigal and Kemp, his xwOBA falls in the identical vary as a result of he simply can’t elevate the baseball. A whopping 57.5% of his batted balls have been hit on the bottom, and almost half have had a damaging launch angle. In the meantime, his line drive fee is a measly 16.3%, and his candy spot proportion is 26.3%; league common is 20% and 33.1%, respectively. As Arraez has demonstrated all season, high-contact/low-power hitters have to thrive on line drives to succeed. Certainly, Vargas has a 400 wRC+ on line drives this season, even higher than Arraez’s 361 mark, however the latter has hit 4 instances as many liners in simply over twice as many journeys to the plate.

Sadly, Vargas has by no means demonstrated a lot management over his launch angle. The usual deviation of his launch angle this season (and for his profession) is considerably larger than league common, and a better normal deviation (a.okay.a. much less “tightness”) is usually a signal of poor bat management. On the identical, it’s truthful to presume a sure diploma of regression going ahead. Line drive fee can take a very long time to stabilize, and coming into the season, Vargas had a way more cheap 20.7% line drive fee in his profession.

Groundball fee stabilizes extra shortly, however nonetheless, a 57.5% fee is simply so excessive. The one energetic gamers with a profession groundball fee above 57% (min. 500 PA) are Johnny Cueto and Clayton Kershaw. And sure, I double-checked that I used to be trying on the batting leaderboards. It’s arduous to consider Vargas gained’t get that quantity down with extra plate appearances. For reference, his profession fee coming into the season was 51.3%.

Presuming the identical outcomes on balls in play however along with his common batted ball distribution from 2017–22, Vargas would have, roughly, a 93 wRC+ this season as an alternative of 77 — a 16% bounce. If he additionally had a league-average BABIP on groundballs (as an alternative of his .187 determine), we is perhaps taking a look at a league-average hitter total. Sure, I’m cherry-picking the numbers by suggesting his batted ball distribution will regress and his strikeout fee gained’t, however that’s type of the purpose; I’m in search of upside right here.

Vargas has glorious bat-to-ball abilities and a tad extra energy than you would possibly assume. He’s additionally a switch-hitter, one other issue that works in his favor, since pitchers induce fewer groundballs with out the platoon benefit. The talent he’s missing is a giant one, however, in principle, it may be discovered. And even when he by no means learns to elevate, he would possibly nonetheless have league-average upside. Bundle that with common dash pace and a plus glove at a number of infield positions, and also you’ve received a fairly helpful utility man.

Vargas is used to beating the percentages. By no means greater than an honorable point out on a prime prospect listing, he was launched by the Cardinals in 2015 after almost seven years within the group. It took a brief stint within the impartial Atlantic League for him to earn one other probability with an MLB membership, and it took one other two years within the minors after that earlier than he earned a name to the present. In the end, in June 2017, 9 years after he signed as a global free agent, Vargas made his huge league debut. Since then, he has performed in every of the previous seven MLB seasons. He’s already had a much more spectacular profession than most unranked prospects and former impartial league gamers, and subsequent season, he’ll lastly earn his first seven-figure wage after 16 years {of professional} baseball.

In all probability, Vargas has already reached his ceiling, and his 144 DRC+ is little greater than a mirage. Nonetheless, he’s extra than simply your run-of-the-mill bench participant, and he’ll be a man to look at in 2024.



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