A 34-year-old man on his fifth big-league organization is pitching the best of his life immediately upon returning from reconstructive elbow surgery, and even by baseball’s standards, this is a hard thing to explain.
Jason Vargas doesn’t have a particularly persuasive explanation, anyway. He was terrific, again, this time throwing seven scoreless innings with nine strikeouts and just three base runners allowed in the Royals’ 2-0 win over the Giants on Wednesday.
He did not throw a single pitch above 88 miles per hour, which is standard for him. He shut down a big-league offense by hitting every spot, on each corner, and using a magician’s change-up to keep everyone guessing. This is also becoming standard for him.
“Couldn’t ask for a better start to the season,” he said.
He has now given up just one run and 12 base runners while striking out 23 in 20 2/3 innings. His ERA is an absurd 0.44, and sure it’s early, just three starts, but in 12 mostly solid big-league seasons and 199 starts he’s never had a stretch quite like this. Not with this command, or this dominance.
The progression of modern medicine and widely recognized increase in Tommy John surgeries across all levels of baseball has produced a perception that tearing an elbow ligament and having it replaced with a new one is routine, sort of like an eye exam, but the truth is that pitchers are lucky to be as effective as they were before.
The ones who do almost always struggle, in the first year or so.
And they rarely — rarely — ever come back better.
“He’s making it look easy,” said Danny Duffy, Vargas’ teammate who had the surgery in 2012.
Vargas does not offer good clues about what’s happening. Rehab went well. No setbacks. Some guys — and Duffy was one — say it takes a while to get the feel of the ball back. Some struggle with recovery soreness, some can’t get past the fear of another tear.
Vargas didn’t deal with any of that, which puts him ahead of most patients, but still does not fully account for all of this.
We should say, too, that while it’s early in the season Vargas has now made roughly 10 percent of the starts he would make in a full season.
He had a 3.71 ERA over 187 innings in 2014, his last of full health. If he pitched that effectively the rest of the season, and finished with the same number of innings, his start has been so good that his ERA would be 3.32.
Last year, only seven qualified starters in the American League had better ERAs.
“I think he’s better now (than before the surgery),” Royals manager Ned Yost said. “I think his command’s better. I think his elbow bothered him a little bit that last year. Command on fastball is the same, but the command and action on his pitches is just as sharp as sharp can be.”
In some ways, Vargas has helped salvage the beginning of this season. The Royals have won all three of his starts. They are 4-7 in the other games.
He’s been the best pitcher in a rotation that now has an absurd 2.07 ERA. The pitching has been so good that the Royals have scored seven runs in their last four games, and only lost once — 2-1, in 11 innings.
The nature of humans and sports is that when things aren’t going well, we all tend to focus on the negative, which in the Royals’ case means lots of talk about how awful the hitters have been.
And they have been — last, or next to last, in runs, hits, hitting, on-base percentage, and slugging.
You can make of that whatever you want. They have, literally, hit into some bad luck. Cheslor Cuthbert came to bat with runners on second and third and two outs in the second inning, and nobody hit a ball harder all night — his 118 mph exit velocity is one of the hardest hit balls of the season, across baseball.
And it went straight into the glove of Giants third baseman Eduardo Nunez. Inning over.
It’s more than anecdotal, too. The Royals’ team OPS with nobody on base is actually better than league average. But they have been so terrible with runners on base that they rank near the bottom in most categories.
Generally, baseball history shows that success and failure in RBI situations is cyclical. A hot start will fade. A slow start will pick up. Batting average on balls in play is often used as an indication of good or bad luck. The Royals’ number with runners in scoring position is .208. The league average usually hovers around .300.
The Royals should be in line for the good kind of regression to the mean, in other words.
The reverse probably applies to Vargas, too. He is a 12-year vet who’s won respect for his guts on the mound and willingness to compete, but never shown or been thought capable of dominating the world’s best hitters.
He’s doing that now, though, performing better than ever at an age when many start to fade. Even if this is as good as it gets for him in 2017, he has already made a difference.
The bats stink right now, and if that doesn’t improve, this season isn’t going anywhere. But the pitchers — and none more than Vargas — have been good enough that the Royals are still .500, no major ground to make up, waiting for the hitters to do their part.