While I will forever refute any claim that any baseball player has supernatural clutch abilities (hi, I’m Paul the Broken Record), I understand how the inverse could be true. I do believe in headcases – that there are certain players out there who shrink when pressure rises. They could be thinking too much or lose trust in their own abilities and in the process under-perform. This makes sense to me. Because I KNOW that I’m better at Big Buck Hunter when alone than while surrounded by girls I’m trying to impress (ladies love a good woodsman).
I’d like to think that these crack-under-pressure players are few and far between. They did, after all, make it to the bigs and this should mean that they’re pretty good at what they do. Somewhere along the way, they must have faced some trying moments, whether it be a championship game in high school, college, or the minors, or something as simple as performing well when you know that a scout is in the stands. They must have done something right to get as far as they did, right?
And yet, there are some out there like the Atlanta Braves’ Javier Vazquez, a guy who should be able to dominate but has the reputation of choking when it “matters”. This idea was exacerbated by his former manager, Ozzie Guillen, last September, who said that Vazquez hasn’t been a big game pitcher.
Javy began his MLB career in 1998 as a 21-year old pitcher for the Montreal Expos. From 2001-2003, Vazquez sported a 3.52 ERA with 8.9 K/9IP and 2.0 BB/9IP. Tantalized by this young, dominant pitcher, the Yankees acquired him in a December 2003 trade that sent Nick Johnson and Juan Rivera – two of the best prospects the Yanks had to offer – plus reliever Randy Choate north of the border.
But in his one season in pinstripes, Vazquez more or less underwhelmed, if not all together bombed. In 32 starts, he had a 4.91 ERA, his walk rate rose to 2.7 over 9, and his strikeout rate plummeted to 6.8/9IP. And it was during this time that the reputation began to build. Fairly or not, Javier Vazquez was now a guy who couldn’t pitch when all eyes were on him.
After being dealt again, this time to Arizona in 2005, Vazquez did better, but not by much, posting league average numbers mostly due to his inability to keep the baseball in the park. But in his three seasons in Chicago’s South Side, Javy had one very good year, in 2007. That was also the only season out of the three in which the ChiSox were not in contention for a division crown, finishing with 72 wins.
In fact, in Vazquez’ 11-year career, there have been 4 seasons during which he posted an ERA+ of at least 110 (ballpark adjusted figure where the league average ERA is 100. 110 would make him 10% better). In those years, his team won 67 (2000), 68 (2001), 83 (2003), and 72 (2007) games respectively. The chart below shows the relationship between Vazquez’s yearly performance and his teams’ overall records.
Based on this information, it appears that Vazquez hasn’t been able to combine personal success with team success. In 2002, the Expos went from 68 wins the year before to 83. But Javy’s ERA+ drops to 108 from 130. In 2004, he goes from the Expos to the Bronx where the Yankees won 101. Vazquez’ ERA+ dropped that year too, from 139 to 92, and so on and so forth. Is this merely a coincidence? Or is he really a guy that just can’t perform when his team needs him to?
I decided to take a smaller slice of stats to see if anything caught my eye. I wanted to know how Vazquez fared when his team was close to a postseason berth.
There have been four seasons in Vazquez’ career when his teams have been late-season contenders (for the sake of creating a cutoff, let’s say within five games of a playoff spot on September 1st) – 2003, 2004, 2006, and 2008. I then looked at his September starts from those four years and ended up with over 141 innings worth of data. In these 23 starts, Javier Vazquez posted an ERA of 5.08. Not good. As a point of comparison, in every non-September start in those four years (173 games), Vazquez had an ERA of 4.17, so it’s not just that he had bad years. He had bad Septembers when his team happened to be in contention.
Wanting to try another control group, I also calculated his September starts from his other seasons as well to see if a September swoon was an annual tradition that I simply wasn’t aware of. The result? 31 starts. 2.78 ERA. Clearly, Vazquez performed better in Septembers when there was nothing at stake.
Now some of you may want to take all this information and claim that it’s sufficient evidence to brand him a headcase. Call me hardheaded, but I’m still on the fence. Why? Because even when he’s getting knocked around in these late-season starts, his peripherals remain strong (see chart at right).
The 3 walks per nine innings pitched is a bit high. But the increased K rate and the better HR rate should be more than enough to lead to an improvement in the ERA. Instead, as I’ve mentioned, his ERA is at 5.08 – 0.76 runs more per game than his career numbers. Now there are two potential explanations for this – he’s had terrible luck or he really is the kind of guy who falls apart with RISP, especially in a high-leverage game. And I don’t know which it is (nor am I going to comb through each of these games to identify exactly how well he did. Yes, I am a bit lazy).
But I will say this. If he really was a headcase, wouldn’t we expect him to be awful in every meaningful outing? On September 14th last year, the ChiSox and Twins were tied atop the standings on the AL Central. The White Sox sent Vazquez to the hill that day to start the first game of a double header against the Tigers. And instead of crumbling, Vazquez was great, going 7 2/3, allowing three hits, two walks, no runs, and striking out eight. And in his two previous starts (both in September), he had allowed four runs in twelve innings. It was in the three starts after that when things fell apart.
Or how about in 2006, when the Sox and Twins were once again jockeying for a playoff spot, this time as the Wild Card? In his first four September starts, he had 9 earned runs in 28 1/3 IP, with at least ten Ks in three of those four outings. It’s evident that Vazquez can pitch in big games. He’s done it before. So again, is he or isn’t he a headcase?
2009 ought to be a really interesting year for Javy. As per usual, the projection systems are very high on his prospects for the season. And with the switch back to the NL East, he’s getting away from the home-run happy stadium that is The Cell which should only work to his advantage.
I also anticipate the Braves to be playing some big games this September. Despite the fact that I am a Mets fan, there’s also going to be a part of me that’s going to be pulling for him when/if that time comes. Because I still think that he’s too good to have this label attached to him.