Ildemaro Vargas is building an unique way to success

Photo by Sol Tucker for TalkNats

On May 27, the Washington Nationals signed Ildemaro Vargas who was made available as a free agent and stadhed him in Triple-A. The Nats knew what they were getting when they made the transaction: a versatile player capable of playing above average defense in multiple positions, a good base runner, and a batter who makes contact above average and doesn’t strike out too often.

Vargas became a free agent after he  was designated for assignment by the Chicago Cubs on May 22 and cleared waivers. He had an awful .579 OPS over 10 games with the Cubs, with three of those games as a replacement. He played all over the infield. 

After Ehire Adrianza was traded, the Nats promoted Vargas to take the vacant bench spot on August 1st, and he debuted with the Nats on August 3rd. He went four-for-four that day and Vargas has been unstoppable since that game, and literally took Maikel Franco’s starting spot. It supplanted Franco to the bench until he was DFA’d last week.

“We knew [Vargas] could field his position anywhere we put him,” manager Dave Martinez said in his postgame presser. “We also knew that he brought a lot of energy. He’s a guy, honestly, in our clubhouse and our dugout, he’s always fired up and ready to go. I love that. Especially with some of the young kids, he gets them going.”

It’s been one month since his Nats’ debut, and Ildemaro is slashing .284/.336/.468 during his 25 games. He has taken seven walks and only has 13 strikeouts. The thing I’m most amazed about is how much Vargas improved his numbers coming from that 10-game terrible stint with the Cubs, especially how he is hitting the ball more than two times higher as you can see in the launch angle comparison. Hitting the ball with a higher launch angle leads to more line drives and fly balls and combined with a proper exit velocity it provokes more barrel, the best result for a batted ball. That’s why there is a notable increase in his barrel percentage, as you may notice in the table below:

Stat Cubs Nationals
Games 10 25
Plate Appearances 26 93
OBP .231 .366
SLG .348 500
BABIP .100 .324
wOBA .255 .374
Hard Hit Rate 38.1% 31.6%
Launch Angle 5.1 12
Max Exit Velocity 107.7 MPH 109.2 MPH
Barrel % 0 5.3%

Vargas has a .500 slugging percentage with the Nationals due to six doubles and four home runs in 86 at bats. Although his Max Exit Velocity is a career high 109.2 MPH during his time with the Nationals, his hard hit rate is just 31.6%, which is below the 35.8% league average. So, how is Ildemaro Vargas having the best month of his career and not hitting the ball hard enough at the same time?

A plate appearance is no more than the result of swings and takes by the batter —but that result is also influenced by the pitchers. How you make that contact is a key with decisions by the batter as to how and what you swing at.

Statcast Swing/Take

Areas over the plate is split into 4 Attack Regions with dimensions shown here.

For each Region, Statcast shows the frequency of pitches seen or thrown, as well as the rate of swinging or taking in that Region.

Every pitch is assigned a run value based on its outcome (ball, strike, homerun, etc), as detailed here.

Vargas is making better choices on pitches in the heart of the zone, as well on pitches on the chase and waste zones. This means he is swinging more at pitches that are strikes, avoiding pitches out of the zone and way out of the zone. His only weakness has been the pitches in the shadow zone; those are the pitches that are borderline.

Generally, he swings less than MLB average and takes more pitches than MLB average in the four zones, as detailed in the next table:

Zones Ildemaro Vargas (Swing/Take) MLB Average (Swing/Take)
Heart 68%/32% 73%/27%
Shadow 49%/51% 54%/46%
Chase 23%/77% 24%/76%
Waste 0/100% 6%/94%

His Swing/Take run value is only behind Luke Voit on the Nationals. Vargas has been a great asset in an offense that doesn’t make good choices in the batter box on average. 

His best contributions come from facing left-handed

hitting. However, he’s managed to add one run from his right-handed hitting in terms of plate discipline 

And this is the bigger picture:

Defying the Statcast gods

Since Statcast surged in 2015, there’s a philosophy in the baseball industry that is simple to understand: hitting the ball hard and in the air gets the best results. This was easily accepted due to the numbers that the combination of camera and radar systems called Statcast showed, such as, exit velocity, launch angle, maximum exit velocity, and the different kinds of quality of batted balls.

For Vargas it has been quite peculiar. Even though his Max Exit Velocity of 109.2 MPH is in the 53rd percentile (meaning he’s in the top 47%), his median exit velocity is just 87.2 MPH, 1.2 MPH below MLB average. His hard hit rate of 33% is 2% less than the MLB average 35%. His 10.5 degrees launch angle is slightly below the MLB average of 12.1 degrees. Then, how did Ildemaro Vargas accomplish such success in August?

Barreling fastballs at a career high level and fewer groundballs.

Also, average exit velocity  and average launch are tricky. Choosing the average distribution is not always an accurate decision. Let me show you something.

Ildemaro has had more plate appearances where he hit the ball over 87 MPH than plate appearance where he has hit the ball below 87 MPH.

You can see the two faces of Ildemaro. The low average exit velocity in the second image (72.2 MPH) is due to bad contacts, the kind of contact when the player hit a pop up, a weak ground ball, etc. That’s why the average exit velocity is useless.

Killing fastballs

Well. We already know that Vargas makes a lot of contact, some hard contact and doesn’t swing and miss that often. Now we are going to dive into the kind of pitches and batted balls where Vargas excelled.

In 77 of his 119 plate appearances for Ildemaro Vargas in 2022, he has seen fastballs (four seamers, two seamers, sinkers and cutters). He has faced this group of pitches 62.9% of the time. He’s hitting .296, .549 slugging with four home runs and an outstanding .396 wOBA against those kinds of pitches and only a 7.3 Whiff%. 

The next group of pitches he’s faced more are the breaking balls (sliders, curves and knuckles), 20.9% of the time. This has been the group of pitches that has done more damage against him. He is hitting just .231, with a .308 slugging and has swung and missed 20.6% of the time. Breaking balls are exit velocity suppressors, like his 75.3 MPH exit velo shows.

The group of pitches he’s faced the least are the off-speed pitches, just 16.2% of the time (change, split, fork and screw). He is 7-for-25 for a .280 batting average and a bad .279 wOBA, a 13.9 Whiff% and a -3 degrees launch angle. This is the group of pitches the pitchers use against him to put him away.

Among the fastballs pitches, he’s killing the sinkers and having a good performance against four seamers and cutters. He’s been great vs sliders and changes, not the same story against curves and splitters:

The Oakland Athletics and the New York Mets, the two teams the Nationals have faced in the beginning of September, have done their homework and are throwing less sinkers to Vargas and you can notice the decrease in the next graph:

Batted ball

The Venezuelan is hitting the lowest percentage of ground balls in his career and the highest percentage of fly balls and line drives in a full season. That’s good, He’s also pulling less the ball and trying to hit more to the opposite way, something he didn’t do in 2021 and 2020.

But in August, despite hitting less groundballs than ever in his career, he managed to have the five best batting averages on groundballs in baseball!

You may notice that most of the groundball hits were singles that finished in an infielder glove.

He also batted .588 on line drives in August and, on the other hand, struggled with fly balls in terms of batting average (3-for-21 = .143 BA), but the three hits were home runs, for a .571 slugging percentage.

All of his expected stats suggest he overperformed because of the quality of contact on those batted balls. A lot of weak contact with a low hit probability ended up being a hit, because of a bad positioning of the fielders, the ball landing location, so some good BABIP luck by Vargas on all of the previous options. In the next videos you can see what I’m trying to explain:

This single based on his exit velocity (110 MPH) and his launch angle (-12 degrees) had a .260 batting average. Vargas hustled with a great run and slide, but the ball was hit

This one has an .220 expected batting average. Credit to Vargas for his speed.

This was a play that Mark Canha did not make. This batted ball had a .150 xBA:

And in the same game on August 3rd, which marked Vargas debut with the Nationals, this batted ball had a .080 expected batting average:

I think that video is a good summary of how well things have been going for Vargas with groundballs. The next stats are for batted balls with a launch angle of 1 degree or less.

Also, Vargas is showing a little improvement in his running and speed on the bases and that definitely helps when you hit a lot of groundballs. You put more pressure on the infielders because they know they have to catch and throw the ball faster to get you out.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to point out that Vargas is gonna have an abrupt regression. I’m just trying to show you guys why his batting average and slugging are way below his expected batting average and his expected slugging. There are also batted balls of him barreling the ball and finishing in the fielder’s glove. 

A big part of the success Ildemaro is having is due to his good plate discipline and aggressive approach when the pitchers throw something in the heart of the zone. That, combined with a good velocity and his capacity to play above average in multiple positions are going to be crucial in his second month with the Nationals and the eventual return of him in 2023.

Vargas is under control for the team until 2026, but he doesn’t have MiLB options, which means that the Nationals can’t send him to the minors. They have to designate him for assignment, clear waivers and then if he decides, he can decide between going to MiLB or elect to become a free agent. In the worst case scenario, the Nationals can unconditionally release him, but that’s not going to happen now because a player with the tools that Vargas possesses, he looks like he is going to be a National for a long time if he can continue to contribute like this.

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