Sam Mellinger

Sam Mellinger: Royals’ Jason Vargas doing something no ballplayer has done in decades

Two World Series and a parade ago feels like a lifetime removed from the days when the response to anything the Royals did was snark first and ask questions later. The offseason between 2013 and 2014 may have been the peak.

You remember that, right? General manager Dayton Moore said the franchise’s first winning record in a decade felt like winning the World Series “in a small way,” and even though he had a nuanced and important point, many Royals fans pointed and laughed like it was junior high school and he had toilet paper stuck to his shoe.

That was also the offseason the Royals sent out a press release for what they called “a major baseball announcement,” and it’s unclear what anyone expected, but when the announcement became a four-year and $32 million contract for Jason Vargas you’d have thought the club spit in people’s faces.

It’s funny to think about now. The Royals haven’t had a losing season since, are competing for what would be their third postseason in four years, and Vargas is one of the best pitchers in baseball — his 12 wins and 2.62 ERA are best in the American League.

“Spectacular,” Moore said. “More than we certainly could expect.”

More than anyone could’ve expected, really, and the story gets better the more you look into it.

For starters: Vargas is pacing for a season unlike any in big-league history dating back to at least 1969, when the mound was lowered to create more offense.

He is 34 years old, and at the moment his ERA is more than a full run better than his previous career best. No starting pitcher has ever done that — a breakout this extreme, with a season this good, this late in his career.

If you don’t like all the qualifiers, a 2.62 ERA would be the lowest in baseball for a man at 34 or older since Roy Halladay in 2011. In the last 20 years, here is the complete list of the other men that old to have an ERA of 2.62 or better: Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux, Randy Johnson, Chris Carpenter, and Kevin Brown.

In an admittedly narrow view, this is historical, if Vargas keeps it up.

“I don’t know if I have that type of appreciation for it,” he said. “Maybe just because I’m the one going through it.”

The Star’s Rustin Dodd provided terrific insight into how a previously journeyman pitcher came to be so effective immediately after returning from Tommy John surgery, and it’s also worth noting that this season almost never happened for the Royals.

In that offseason before 2014, Moore targeted Vargas for his steadiness, competitiveness, and his fly-ball tendencies as a good fit for Kauffman Stadium and the Royals’ terrific outfield defense.

But they originally wanted him on a three-year contract. Studies have shown that big contracts on free-agent starting pitchers are the worst investments teams make, and the Royals have been particularly selective in this area.

Moore took a call from Mike Sweeney, who said Vargas was interested in the Royals. Dean Taylor, then an executive with the club who has since retired, told Moore they could probably sign Vargas by upping the offer to four years.

Moore didn’t want to, at first. But after talking about it with his scouts, they decided to do it based on a lot of factors: the ballpark, Vargas’ work ethic, the immediate needs of a team ready to win, and, perhaps ironically after the surgery, no medical red flags.

In most cases, an extra year put in to win the negotiation is an effective tax on getting the deal done. In this instance, it meant that Vargas is having the best year of his career with the Royals instead of someone else.

It’s not a stretch to believe that without him, the Royals would be closer to selling than buying at upcoming trade deadline.

“He’s got poise and toughness,” Moore said. “What we’ve learned now, in addition to that poise and toughness, is he’s got perseverance and resolve by showing he can come back from this surgery.”

That fourth year turned out better than Vargas could’ve known, too. And this is about more than the extra money. A three-year deal would’ve meant hitting free agency last offseason, when he’d pitched just 55 innings in two years, spending most of that time rehabbing.

He was very good in his limited time last season — 2.25 ERA in 12 innings over three starts — but his value would’ve been based in part on history that says many Tommy John patients need a year or more back before feeling like themselves.

Now, he’ll likely hit free agency off the best year of his career.

“I wish I never had that surgery,” he said. “But to be able to know I was going to be in the same spot to do my rehab, and come out of it with those same people, was huge. It worked out good for me and my family that they threw that fourth year on there, both baseball-wise and career-wise. It worked out good, just how good our (training) staff is.”

One more point about Vargas, and this is something you hear a lot from scouts and others who measure their time in pro ball in decades and not years.

Vargas would not have been the first pitcher with enough career earnings to set his family up for generations, face a career-stalling surgery like this, and effectively decide that enough is enough.

Humans are human, in other words, and rehab from reconstructive elbow surgery is a brutal 14-month grind that tests the body, mind, and will. Vargas could have coasted, come back at something less than his best possible self, and would not have had a unique place in baseball history.

That he came back like this, with people in the organization saying they’ve never seen anyone work harder, is a point in the favor of the Royals betting in part on Vargas’ competitiveness.

It’s a trait that, as much as anything else, is fueling what could be a historically unique season happening in a Royals uniform for reasons that combine intuition, calculated risk, and good fortune.

Sam Mellinger: 816-234-4365, @mellinger

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