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Jason Vargas was often competent, but always frustrating

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The veteran pitcher was brought in to bring stability to the starting rotation. He more or less did that, even if it wasn’t always pretty.

MLB: San Diego Padres at New York Mets Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been reported that Jason Vargas had told friends in recent weeks that he was hoping the Mets would trade him to a team in playoff contention, which means that he was likely happy upon hearing that he had indeed been dealt to the Phillies. He was most certainly not alone in feeling this way, as it cannot be said that most Mets fans particularly enjoyed watching him pitch. Thank to his struggles to go deep into games and his incredibly hittable stuff, Vargas has long been a source of frustration for this fanbase, and it’s not likely that many people will miss having the opportunity to watch him take the mound every fifth day.

These feelings of antipathy, while understandable, are not entirely fair to Vargas. His performance with the Mets was far from stellar, to be certain, particularly in the early days of his tenure with the team. But he has nevertheless quietly been a relatively stabilizing force in the rotation over the past calendar year, and that is more or less what the Mets were signing up for when they brought him on. He was a frustrating player both on and off the field, but he was ultimately far from the biggest problem facing this team over the past two years.

The Mets—still under the stewardship of Sandy Alderson at the time—signed Vargas to a two-year, $16 million deal (with an $8 million option for a third year) in February 2018. The team’s rotation at the time consisted of the high-upside but injury prone starters (Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, Zack Wheeler, Steven Matz, and Matt Harvey) that the team had been relying on for years, and the idea was that Vargas would be able to provide an unremarkable yet consistent option to that group.

It was a decision which made sense at the time, and Vargas was coming off a 2017 season in which he was an All-Star with the Kansas City Royals. He did suffer a sharp downturn in performance in the second half of that season—as his 6.38 ERA in those 15 starts will attest to—but many assumed that it may have been the result of fatigue, as it was his first season coming off of Tommy John surgery. The hope was thus that an extra year removed from the injury would help him remain consistent throughout the entire season.

Those hopes were immediately complicated when Vargas broke his right hand in a minor league game in spring training, an injury which required surgery and resulted in him missing the first month of the season. When he finally did enter the rotation, the early returns were far from promising. In nine first half starts, he managed to throw only 37.2 innings and had a horrifying 8.60 ERA during that time.

Opponents consistently feasted upon Vargas during his third time through the batting order, which significantly hurt his ability to be an innings eater—something you would hope a pitcher of his profile would be able to do. And while he has always been someone who was prone to the long-ball, that particular problem was particularly prominent during his early days with the team, as his 2.63 HR/9 rate during that first half will attest. To make matters worse, he ended up missing yet another month to injury when he went down with a calf injury in June. These initial struggles certainly made it seem as though the decision to sign him was going to go down as an abject disaster.

But in fairness to Vargas, he did improve over time with the Mets. He put up a much more respectable pitching line of 5-3 with a 3.81 ERA in 54.1 innings over eleven starts in the second half. He still struggled to go deep into games, and hitters still managed to get their share of hits and homers off him, but he became better at limiting the damage. Indeed, Vargas’s improvement played a role in the team’s surprising competence during the final months of the season, which gave many fans hope that the momentum could be carried over into the following year.

The team has not quite lived up to those expectations in 2019, of course, but Vargas himself more or less continued to be the same frustrating yet acceptable pitcher that he was in the second half of the previous season. Despite a particularly rough first month in which he had an ugly 5.75 ERA and in which the Mets seemingly had zero confidence in his ability to even make it past five innings, his overall line on the season—a 4.01 ERA in 94.1 innings and a 1.7 bWAR total—is about as much as any team can reasonably hope for from its fifth starter. He even managed to throw a complete-game shutout with eight strikeouts and just five hits against the Giants on June 5th in what was easily his best performance with the team over these past two years.

Of course, the single most memorable moment of Vargas’s 2019 season—and probably his entire Mets career—did not occur on the field. Indeed, the thing that most fans will likely remember him for is his role in the Mickey Callaway clubhouse incident in Chicago this past June. After threatening physical harm against a reporter and subsequently barely accepting accountability for his role in the episode, it’s safe to say that he brought a fair bit of embarrassment to the organization that doesn’t need any help on that particular front. Phillies GM Matt Klentak, when asked about this incident in the aftermath of trading for Vargas, opined that it was “out of character” for him. Regardless of whether or not he’s right, it was a dark moment for this team, and it casts an ugly cloud over his tenure with the organization.

But if we’re evaluating Vargas’s Mets career simply on his level of production, then the truth is that it was not quite as awful as we might imagine it to be based on how frustrating it could sometimes be to watch him pitch. In his last 26 starts as a Met—dating back to August of last year—he went 11-6 with a 3.56 ERA in 139 innings. It wasn’t always pretty, and there might have been some amount of luck involved in that line—as his 4.44 FIP and 4.74 xFIP will indicate—but it’s nevertheless better than what many of the other starters that the Mets have thrown out there over the past two years could have provided.

The team is certainly better off with the newly acquired Marcus Stroman in the rotation, but in the long line of disastrous free agent signings that this franchise has made over the years, Vargas does not quite make the cut. Instead, he belongs amongst the equally long list of middling free agent signings whose presence on the team will likely be remembered in detail by only the diehard fans. “He could have been worse” may not be the greatest of praise, but it’s the appropriate one to give to Vargas as we say farewell to him.