Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Harvey Dent and Two-Face. Katy Perry’s fiancé in her 2008 smash hit Hot and Cold. All three of these gentlemen are famously in cahoots with themselves, never able to truly pin down whether they desire to be their best selves or give into the voices and spurn good for evil. When Carlos Vargas, the latest addition to the Mariner Bullpen Lab, is on the mound, it’s no different. Deciphering which alter ego of Vargas will prevail will ultimately decide whether or not the Mariners acquired their next relief ace or just another journeyman reliever.
The primary acquisition in the Eugenio Suárez trade this winter, Vargas throws gas like few others on planet Earth can. With his average four-seamer sitting at 99.4 mph, Vargas just edges out Andrés Muñoz (99.2 mph) for the hardest thrower on the team. Perhaps even crazier, Vargas throws a slider (Statcast calls it a cutter) that averages 91.7 mph. That’s pretty ridiculous! Here’s Vargas striking out former top prospect Joey Wiemer with a 93 mph slider.
And here he is dotting up Mariner Legend Chris Taylor with 101 down and away.
This is the good Vargas. The Vargas that chooses to do the right thing and throw his stuff for strikes. Vargas’s 116 Stuff+, a metric created by Fangraphs to grade the raw characteristics of a pitcher’s arsenal, would have been third best in the current bullpen behind Matt Brash and the aforementioned Muñoz. The stuff is good enough to dominate.
Going further into Vargas’ good side, he’s been a master at inducing groundballs. His GB% in the upper minors has sat above 60%, an excellent mark. Perhaps the piece of his game that inspires the most hope, however, is the ease in his delivery and mechanics.
Recent Mariner relievers that have thrown gas with little control (Yohan Ramirez comes to mind) had high effort deliveries with a lot of moving parts. While this isn’t necessarily a bad thing and pitchers should absolutely try to throw harder, a pitcher that can hit 99 on the radar gun with relative ease certainly has a leg up on a guy who has to empty the tank to hit the same mark. Vargas is an athlete on the mound and both his mechanics and release point are repeated well. The dominant relief ace is in there somewhere, but as of now, the demons are rearing their ugly head a bit too much.
Vargas and the little devil on his shoulder whispering “walk him, walk him” every time a hitter comes to the plate have become a bit too close for my liking. Surrendering a free pass to a hefty 15.2% of batters in AAA for Arizona this past season, the last time Vargas had a sub 10% walk rate was 2019 at a level of the minor leagues that no longer exists. He cannot say no to walks and it has largely led to the slide in his prospect pedigree.
Additionally, for a guy with as good of stuff as Vargas has, he’s never been a huge strikeout guy. Throughout his minor league career, Vargas has routinely run mundane K rates, typically a tick or more below average. Having as large of a walk problem as Vargas does with little uptick in K rate doesn’t exactly inspire confidence for his major league career. Strikeouts are king, especially when there’s traffic on the basepaths.
Having both a control problem and a strikeout problem doesn’t necessarily spell disaster for a pitcher, but if there isn’t some other other carrying trait like inducing lot of soft contact or high levels of deception, it’s tough to see a way out other than alleviating at least one of those problems. To date, we’ve yet to see this happen over a meaningful sample size.
From my vantage point, I see a pitcher that has one key flaw and if this flaw is fixed to a level within tolerance for the organization, he’s got a good chance at pitching late in ballgames. Do I think it’s fixable? It’s possible. This needs to be taken with a huge grain of salt as there is a rather small sample size of video and/or Statcast data, but his misses aren’t all that bad. From what I’ve seen, he tends to be a bit too fine and aim for the edges when the pure stuff is good enough to play wherever. Whether or not this is true for the entirety of the season, I don’t know. He very well could be the next Yohan Ramirez and I wouldn’t bat an eye. But, if you squint hard enough, there’s just enough there that makes me want to naïvely believe.
I don’t want to sell you on Carlos Vargas. Hell, I don’t even know if I’m sold on him. He’s a bit of a polarizing profile that can either provide immense value to a club or next to nothing at all. It’s fun to dream on, but last year he wasn’t all that dissimilar from Riley O’Brien, a guy the Mariners gave away for next to nothing. This being said, I don’t think the Mariners would have acquired Vargas if they didn’t see something in him and they deserve the benefit of the doubt for the job they’ve done at developing bullpen arms. Vargas is the highest ceiling guy the Mariner Bullpen Lab has had in ages, but his Mr. Hyde has nearly engulfed him entirely. Should he conquer his demons and cut ties with walks, Vargas will be a boon to this Mariner bullpen and a staple for years to come. If not, he’ll be cast off to fight his battles elsewhere. Only time will tell.