Small changes turned Jason Vargas, a Tommy John survivor, into a frontline starter

Royals' Jason Vargas selected for All-Star team

Kansas City Royals pitcher Jason Vargas on being selected for the 2017 All-Star Game.
Up Next
Kansas City Royals pitcher Jason Vargas on being selected for the 2017 All-Star Game.

On a day last summer, Jason Vargas headed to a bullpen to throw a side session in front of Royals pitching coach Dave Eiland. Vargas was immersed in the final months of his recovery from Tommy John surgery, the grueling, 14-month process that tests the body, the mind and the reconstructed tendon graft in a pitcher’s elbow. Eiland was there for every step, a shadow offering support and guidance.

In rehab terms, Vargas was a star, an overachieving student who aced every test. His arm rarely suffered the soreness that marks certain phases. The Royals’ medical staff marveled at his progress. But as his throwing program continued — first catch, then long toss, then bullpen side sessions — Eiland began to notice something kind of strange. As he returned to throwing, Vargas’ release point had dropped lower, maybe 2 inches. As Vargas stepped on the mound in the bullpen, Eiland sought to take a closer inspection.

“When you come back from Tommy John,” Eiland says, “sometimes your arm goes naturally to where it wants to go.”

To the untrained eye, the change was basically imperceptible. Even Vargas didn’t notice at first. But to a pitching coach tasked with identifying every detail, every lever and twist and turn, it opened up another world. Vargas’ fastball had increased movement. His command was impeccable. And his change-up — yes, the change-up, the pitch that had kept him in the big leagues — had transformed from a nasty offering to something like pure filth. As he watched, Eiland figured Vargas was onto something. One year later, Vargas is the answer to a simple riddle: What is the value of 2-3 inches?

“Maybe that’s where God meant for it to go,” Eiland says.

Armed with a lower release point, the gift of health and an unyielding intensity, a trait hardened over a decade in the majors, Vargas has wreaked havoc on opposing hitters, recording a 12-3 record and a league-leading 2.62 ERA in the first half. His resurgence has buoyed the Royals’ playoff hopes and stabilized a rotation that lost Danny Duffy for a month. Vargas’ surgical, understated style has transfixed his teammates.

On most nights, Vargas’ fastball does not top 87 mph. He owns the slowest average fastball (85.8 mph) in baseball among non-knuckleballers. And yet, on Tuesday evening, he will stand on the field at Marlins Park in Miami, an All-Star selection for the first time.

“It is nice,” Vargas says, “to see some reward for the work.”

In 11 previous seasons, Vargas’ career-low ERA was 3.71, set in 2014. He spent most of the last two seasons rehabbing his left elbow. And yet, here he is, one of the best pitchers in baseball at age 34.

Inside the clubhouse, the domination is a source of great curiosity. His teammates take turns rhapsodizing over his ability to confound hitters. Alex Gordon compares him to Kyle Hendricks, the Chicago Cubs’ crafty right-hander. Ian Kennedy marvels at his identity, his ability to understand and trust his stuff. Duffy remains astonished by his ability to possess such feel and command less than two years removed from Tommy John.

In August of 2015, a surgeon replaced a torn ulnar collateral ligament in Vargas’ left elbow with a tendon graft. In 20 starts since, including three last September, Vargas has logged a 2.58 ERA.

“The first full season coming off of Tommy John, I felt like a baby deer trying to walk,” Duffy says. “Vargy woke up out of bed and he’s an All-Star.”

In a room of veterans, they talk about Vargas’ supreme confidence and methodical approach. They call him “The Doctor,” a nod to his clinical nature. Yet the conversation often turns to his most potent weapon: the change-up.

“It’s one of, if not, the best change-up in the game,” Royals starter Jason Hammel says.

Vargas will turn 35 this winter. He is in his fourth season with the Royals, his fifth major-league team. A free agent this offseason, he has crafted a long and respected career on command and control and confidence. But the change-up is his gift. In his career, opponents have hit just .194 with a .285 slugging percentage against the pitch. In 2017, the change in arm slot has turned the pitch into an otherworldly force.

According to FanGraphs’ pitch value — an advanced metric that measures a pitch’s potency in runs — Vargas’ change-up has been the best in baseball at plus-16.6 runs in 2017. The value is more than six runs better than the second-best change-up, which belongs to Miami’s Edinson Volquez. And according to FanGraphs, only two pitches in baseball have been more valuable this season: Max Scherzer’s slider and Chris Sale’s fastball.

“He has a curveball, and he uses it perfectly when he needs to,” Hammel says of Vargas. “But more or less, he pitches with his change-up. He makes guys look pretty silly.

“When you can throw it three times in a row to a hitter and make them swing and miss three times, it’s pretty impressive.”

Vargas’ change-up leaves opponents frustrated and teammates envious. The genesis of the pitch stems from a simple story. In the minor leagues, Vargas relied on a traditional fastball-breaking ball mix. When he debuted with the Marlins in 2005, he had an important epiphany.

“I really understood that hitters here see spin,” Vargas says.

Twelve years later, Vargas is a master in the art of deception. He has drilled his delivery down to a science, releasing his fastball and change-up from the same location. His change-up leaves his hand at an average of 79.5 mph. Yet opposing hitters cannot detect the difference.

“They don’t see it,” Eiland says. “The arm speed. The delivery. They can’t pick it up.”

On a recent morning, reliever Mike Minor sat at his locker and sought to describe Vargas’ dominance in math terms. In one start, Minor said, Vargas is likely to throw 100 pitches. His below-average velocity means little room for error. Vargas must be perfect, living on the corners with nearly every pitch. On most days, he is close to it.

“Everybody calls him the Doctor,” Minor says. “Because even in his bullpens, he doesn’t miss. And when he does, he usually doesn’t miss twice in a row.”

Hammel puts it another way: “You have to have stones to go out there and know that you can’t really overpower a guy with a fastball,” he said.

For now, Vargas has sought to downplay his performance. He is healthy now, he says. That helps. He credits specific pitching skills, like being able to better command his fastball to both sides of the plate. He is focused on process, routine and the art of execution. He tries to avoid being consumed by results.

In the days after earning his first All-Star berth, he talked to his father, his mentor and former coach. Vargas grew up in Southern California. His father was a high school baseball coach. If the conversation was emotional, it was difficult to discern from Vargas’ telling.

“You couldn’t ask for a better start,” he says. “The rehab went really well. I never really had an issue with the feel of the ball.”

Inside the clubhouse, Vargas cuts an understated figure, offering a quiet intensity and dry sense of humor. Outside, he is a willing golfing partner and loyal friend, teammates say. In June, Gordon hit a home run and left Vargas’ high five hanging in the dugout. Vargas responded with a deadpan and NSFW, “What the …. ?” Later, Gordon says, he would laugh hysterically after seeing the video.

The golf course, perhaps, is the only place where Vargas approaches his focus and intensity on the mound. Hammel, a sometimes golfing buddy, draws a parallel between the two. On the golf course, Vargas is regimented and mechanical and consumed with finding a repeatable swing. Everything must be done the same way.

There is one difference: Vargas is an All-Star starter at 86 mph, a change-up wizard and an expert in precision. But he does not lack power on the tee.

“He bombs it,” Hammel said, smiling. “But he’s very methodical. And you can kind of see when he’s out there on the mound.”

2017 MLB All-Star Game

At Marlins Park, Miami

▪ Sunday: Futures Game (3 p.m. on MLB Network). Class AA Northwest Arkansas left-hander Foster Griffin, the 28th overall pick in 2014, will represent the Royals.

▪ Monday: Home Run Derby (7 p.m. on ESPN). The Royals’ Mike Moustakas will face off against Minnesota’s Miguel Sano in the first round.

▪ Tuesday: AL vs. NL (6:30 p.m. on Fox). The Royals have at least three All-Stars for the fifth straight season.

Royals’ recent All-Stars

2008 (1): RHP Joakim Soria

2009 (1): RHP Zack Greinke

2010 (1): RHP Joakim Soria

2011 (1): RHP Aaron Crow

2012 (1): DH/1B Billy Butler

2013 (3): OF Alex Gordon, RHP Greg Holland, C Salvador Perez

2014 (3): C Salvador Perez*, OF Alex Gordon, RHP Greg Holland

2015 (7): C Salvador Perez*, SS Alcides Escobar*, RF Lorenzo Cain*, RHP Wade Davis, OF Alex Gordon, RHP Kelvin Herrera, 3B Mike Moustakas**

2016 (4): C Salvador Perez*, 1B Eric Hosmer*, RHP Wade Davis, RHP Kelvin Herrera

2017 (3): C Salvador Perez*, LHP Jason Vargas, 3B Mike Moustakas**

*elected as starter; **won Final Vote