The engima that is Javier Vazquez

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Javier Vazquez throws in game one of the NLDS against the Rays. (Icon/SMI)

Introduction

Javier Vazquez has some of the nastiest stuff in the big leagues yet hasn’t really ever emerged as a consistent front line starter. With two years and $23 million dollars left on his contract the White Sox traded him to the Braves last week. Was this a keen pilfer by Braves GM Frank Wren or will he be getting the same headcase that Ozzie Guillen has been complaining about for years? Why can’t Vazquez translate that immense talent into results?

Vazquez’s Stuff

Obviously stuff isn’t Javier Vazquez’s problem. Let’s look at his PITCHf/x movement chart to get a feel for his pitches.

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Vazquez throws his fastball over 93 mph on average with some incredible movement in to right-handed batters. Looking at his delivery it is easy to see why he is getting so much horizontal movement with the pitch—he has a a very low release point of below three quarters. Normally pitchers who have a very low release point sacrifice speed and vertical movement for horizontal movement, but that clearly isn’t Vazquez’s problem. Besides the plus speed, he averages over nine inches of vertical movement thanks to an exceptionally high spin rate on his fastball. His fastball almost explodes on right handed batters and it is that inward movement that has allowed him to break so many bats in his career.

Vasquez’s change-up mirrors his fastball really well, and he is throwing that pitch with nearly an 11 mph differential from his fastball. That sure has the makings of a good pitch to left-handed batters, and scouting reports seem to agree. Because of the large horizontal movement this probably isn’t a good pitch to right handed batters as it would have a tendency to move back over the plate and end up down and in to right handed batters. Vazquez realizes this however and rarely ever uses the pitch to right handed batters.

Vasquez’s slider is a hard slider which slides off the table but has relatively little vertical movement which helps him keep the pitch down. His curveball, however, is a rather interesting pitch. It tends to be a slurvy curve with huge horizontal movement and little vertical drop. Because he throws it around 75 mph on average, it is a big sweeping curve not a tight over the top curve. That said, there is a huge amount of variation in Vazquez’s curve. He can add and subtract from a pitch that can like anything from one of his better sliders to a 65 mph beast with massive horizontal and vertical movement.

Whenever you encounter a pitcher that has such variation with a pitch the important question to ask is is he controlling that on purpose, or does he not have a lot of feel for the pitch. It is hard to say just looking at the data but because Vazquez is an 11-year veteran you would tend to give him the benefit of the doubt. On the other hand, if you type “Javier Vazquez” and “hanging curve” into google you get some alarming results. Normally when a pitcher is said to have left a curve hanging it isn’t that the ball didn’t break, it is the pitcher released the pitch too high and it broke from the letters to the belt. In Vazquez’s case it could also be that he was trying to throw a nasty curve that would drop off the table but didn’t impart enough spin and the ball literally hung because it had almost no vertical drop.

Vazquez’s results

If you look at Vazquez’s FIPs and his peripherals he looks like an ace. His FIPs have been under four each of the last four years and his K/G, BB/G, and K/BB have all been solid to spectacular in recent years. So why hasn’t he only been able to post an ERA+ above 100 one time in the last five years?

The fact is there are pitchers who constantly underperformed their FIPs and it appears that Vazquez is one of those pitchers. One of his problems is a rather average LOB% over his career, which you wouldn’t expect from a pitcher the quality of Vazquez. Another concern is Vazquez’s inability to get through the order multiple times. Again, the fact that he is a better pitcher the first time facing a batter is to be expected but it appears hitters figure out Vazquez much quicker than they figure out other pitchers putting up similar peripherals.

A possible remedy?

Is this Vazquez’s fate? Is he destined to be a pitcher with great potential that never lives up to it? Despite the fact that he in his 30s I think there is still hope. Here are some things I would try to alter with Vazquez if I were Braves pitching coach Roger McDowell. First, Vazquez has an extremely good fastball but he is only using it about 53 percent of the time (league average is close to 60 percent). Other pitchers would kill for a fastball that either was as fast as or moved as much as Vazquez’s, so why is he using less than other pitchers? In particular, I don’t think Vazquez is using his fastball enough early in the count, throwing it just 56 percent on 0-0, 48 percent on 0-1 and 52 percent on 1-0. When you have a plus fastball, use it to get ahead in the count. Getting ahead in the count is only going to make his off-speed pitches better.

Vazquez has an excellent change-up which he correctly is using only against left handed batters. Still, he isn’t using that pitch nearly enough. Vazquez is throwing his change-up around 19 percent of the time to lefties, but he is throwing his slider 21 percent of the time. By pretty much any metric his slider is his forth best pitch, so why is he throwing it so often? Pitchers want something hard they can come in with to hitters with the platoon advantage so there is a place for the slider but just not nearly as often as he is throwing it. There is a similar story to right handed batters where Vazquez’s curve has much better movement than his slider yet he is throwing his slider far more often (22 to 16 percent).

Lastly, I think Vazquez should pick one or two of his pitches to use as his strikeout pitch. Right now he is using all three of his off speed pitches about equally when he gets two strikes on the hitter. If he focused on even one pitch to right-handed batters and another to left-handed batters to use in strikeout situations I think he would be better off. Maybe that is the slider to right handed batters and the curve to left handed batters but whatever the case work on starting that pitch down and away but still in the strike zone only to have to move out of the zone getting the hitters to chase.

As is, I think the Braves have themselves a middle of the rotation innings eater that should provide nearly league average production. In the current market that might be worth the $11.5 million they will be paying him in the next two years. That said, the potential is there for Vazquez to become a top of the rotation starter. The tools are there and a little molding might be all it takes. However, the Braves will be Vazquez’s fifth big league team and none of the previous four have been able to figure him out.

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