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Friday, May 14, 2010
Embattled Vazquez shows signs of life

By Will Moller, It's About The Money, Stupid

You can’t hide in New York. Not if you're a baseball player. This is taken as fact, same as the assumption that LeBron James will be a Knick, that Glen Sather will never be fired and that empires may fall, but the Jets will still find a way to lose the game.

The city exudes baseball -- from TVs in store windows, David Wright smiling from the sides of city buses, Mariano Rivera in his pinstripe Canali jacket. The lights shine brighter here -- we know where our team’s athletes eat, where they sleep, where they party. It’s splashed across our collective consciousness, viewed on YouTube, shouted on the radio, crumpled under train seats on Metro North. And some athletes can’t handle it. Some of the best, even.

As long as I can remember, there’s always been at least one player on the Yankees who the fans think just can’t hack it here. These days, Javier Vazquez is the target.

See, New Yorkers have a long memory. We remember all the wins, but we also remember the losses, and for most Yankee fans, 2004 comes down to one thing:

Johnny Damon, with the bases loaded, versus Javier Vazquez.

Never mind that the other guys in pinstripes had lost three games previously or that Kevin Brown was in the dugout contemplating Seppuku after his terrible start; Vazquez was and remains the scapegoat eternal.

And now, in 2010, Vazquez has been the lone dark spot in the Yankees' rotation. Any recitation of pitching statistics includes the obligatory phrase, “without Vazquez ...”

So the Yankees should trade Vazquez, right?

Nope.

Many of the folks writing in this space Thursday and today have been writing about the player on their team who needs to go -- why, how, and to be replaced by whom. It’d be too easy to write that story for Vazquez. Too easy, too consensus, and more importantly, downright incorrect.

Javier Vazquez doesn’t need to go anywhere. Unless he’s supped from the cup of sudden aging (a possibility, no doubt), he’ll not only be fine over the rest of this season -- he’ll be one of the Yankees best pitchers.

Last season, Javy smoked the National League -- 2nd by FIP, 2nd by K/BB, 7th by ERA, 1st by xFIP, 4th in swinging strike rate inside the zone (17.1%!). Despite what you’re probably thinking right now, he wasn’t just lucky. He didn’t benefit from a crazy LOB%, nor an extremely low BABIP, nor a lower than normal HR/FB rate.

This year, he hasn’t had nearly as much success getting batters to swing and miss in the zone, generating whiffs on only 11.5% of such pitches. Combine that with terrible luck -- an abnormally low LOB%, high BABIP, and the highest HR/FB rate of his career (by a long ways), and you’ve got a recipe for badness.

Against the Tigers on Wednesday, we saw signs of life. Vazquez struck out seven batters, giving up only five hits and two walks. Along the way, he mustered 16 swinging strikes -- 12 of which were in the zone, and the majority of which came on his fastball. This, against a team that doesn’t swing and miss a whole lot—the Tigers are 7th in baseball when it comes to contact on pitches in the zone, and 6th best at hitting fastballs (by wFB/C from fangraphs.com).

The last four years, Javier Vazquez has been 4th, 10th, 8th, and 9th in baseball at generating whiffs on pitches in the zone. And there’s nothing better for a pitcher than a swing and a miss on such a pitch -- it’s a strike whether or not the batter offers at it (assuming the umpire is willing to play along). The day Javy loses the ability to generate those whiffs, he’ll have to evolve or retire -- but as he showed us on Wednesday, that day isn’t here yet. He won’t match his numbers from 2009 -- he is a year older, and he’s pitching in the AL. But once his HR/FB, LOB% and BABIP revert, he’ll still be in the upper quintile of MLB pitchers, and by far the best No. 4 pitcher in baseball.

New Yorkers have a grudge six years in the making when it comes to Vazquez, but a few more starts like Wednesday’s, and once again Brian Cashman will show us all he knows a thing or two about building a baseball team.

Rebecca Glass contributed to this article. Her writing can be found here.