Judging the Royals

Royals shut out the Blue Jays: Is Jason Vargas back?

Kansas City Royals starting pitcher Jason Vargas
Kansas City Royals starting pitcher Jason Vargas AP

On Sept. 5 while pitching against the Detroit Tigers, Jason Vargas gave up seven runs in two innings. Vargas was pulled after 54 pitches and the Royals went on to lose the game 13-2. Vargas finished the day with an ERA of 4.23.

Since then Vargas has had three starts, won all three and put up an ERA of 2.20.

What changed?

After Vargas threw 6  1/3 scoreless innings against the Toronto Blue Jays on Thursday, Ned Yost said Vargas and pitching coach Dave Eiland had made an adjustment. After tweaking his delivery, Vargas was pitching “downhill” again.

What a downhill trajectory does for a pitcher

This might be an oversimplification, but it’s one I got from a major-league pitcher who is now a big-league general manager, so there’s a decent chance it’s worth repeating:

When a pitch comes in flat or up, the side of the ball is exposed to the hitter and that makes it easier to hit line drives.

Over his career, when Vargas gives up a line drive, batters hit .694 and slug .981.

If a pitch is thrown with downhill trajectory, low in the zone, the top of the ball is exposed to the hitter and that can mean more groundballs.

When Vargas gets the batter to hit a ground ball, they hit .234 and slug .251.

To hit a grounder for extra bases, it pretty much has to be hit right down one of the foul lines. So if a pitcher can get ground balls, the opposition will probably be limited to singles and it usually takes three of them to score a run.

Pitch downhill and you’re more likely to get grounders and grounders limit the damage.

From a pitcher’s point of view, not all walks are bad

Here’s another pitching theory and this one comes from former Royals closer Greg Holland.

I didn’t understand why Holland would walk certain hitters even when he had good command: How did he decide when to go after a hitter and when to work around him?

Holland explained. If a hitter had some pop and could hurt him, Holland might try to make two perfect pitches. If Holland got ahead of the hitter with those two perfect pitches, he could then go after him with chase pitches.

But if Holland fell behind 2-0 with those two pitches, he was done messing around with that hitter, he’d put him on base and go after the next guy. Holland was not going to let certain hitters beat him — he had three empty bases to work with and he’d use all three if he had to.

On Thursday night against the Jays, Vargas walked three batters and he probably walked the right guys: Josh Donaldson, Justin Smoak and, oddly enough, Darwin Barney.

Don’t let hot hitters beat you

Pitchers will identify hitters who are coming into a game hot and work around them when possible; make somebody else — somebody who isn’t hot — beat you.

Before playing the Royals the Jays played the Twins and in that series Josh Donaldson was 10 for 17 with a double and five home runs.

In that series against the Twins Justin Smoak only hit .267, but he slugged .600 and hit his 38th home run of the year.

Jose Bautista, hitting .203 on the year and .188 in the Minnesota series, was the soft spot in the order behind Donaldson and Smoak. Against the Royals, Bautista was 0 for 10, punched out three times and didn’t walk once.

Darwin Barney wasn’t exactly on fire, but the guy hitting behind him — Luke Maile — was hitting .138 on the season.

So when Vargas fell behind Donaldson in the first, Barney in the second and Smoak in the fourth, he didn’t give in and pipe a fastball down the middle, Vargas put them on base and went after the next guy.

10 games left in the season and some very long odds

The Royals are 3  1/2 games out of the last AL wild-card spot with 10 games left in the season. The odds aren’t good, but if the old Jason Vargas is back, the odds just got a little better.