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Evaluating Miguel Vargas’ first two months at the plate

New York Yankees v Los Angeles Dodgers Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

Dodgers infielder Miguel Vargas entered the year with some hype, a consensus top-80 prospect in MLB who was named the starting second baseman before spring training.

A hairline fracture in his pinkie prevented him from swinging in his first six games of spring training, yet he still drew four walks in 12 trips to the plate. After getting cleared to swing, Vargas hit .306/.405/.472 in Cactus League play.

He didn’t exactly replicate that success through April, while dealing with another thumb injury, this one after getting hit by a pitch. But he had a more than respectable .354 on-base percentage with 17 walks and 19 strikeouts during the season’s first month, which is a fantastic rate for any hitter, let alone a 23-year-old rookie. Despite that strong start though, Vargas’ numbers are reversed over the course of May. His average on the month was .223, up from April, but his on-base percentage in May was down to .289. The easiest explanation for that is he drew just eight walks compared to 21 strikeouts. Seeing a change of that size begs the question: did pitchers figure him out, was Vargas getting power happy or a change in his overall approach?

A change in approach from pitchers

For starters, Vargas saw breaking pitches 27.9 percent of the time in April, but, in May, that number dipped down to 22.2 percent. On the flip side, the number of off-speed pitches he saw over those two months went from 9.1 to 13.2 percent. Not a significant jump, but a noteworthy one, nonetheless. The reason for that change is pretty simple. He posted an xwOBA against breaking pitches of .293 in the month of May compared to a .209 when seeing off-speed pitches. His chase rate against off-speed pitches was 6.1 percent higher compared to breaking balls and his whiff rate when facing off-speed pitches was 33.3 percent which nearly doubled his rate against breaking pitches. We’ve seen that approach from pitchers continue into early June as well as seeing them both 20.6 percent of the time. Until Vargas can change chase and whiff rates, we should continue to see pitchers pitch him in this manner.

Is Vargas getting power happy?

I do think, based on the numbers, that Vargas is trying to hit the ball in the air more which likely means he’s getting homer happy. His overall fly ball rate in the month of April was 25.8 percent whereas it was 33.8 in May. Additionally, the pop-up rate went from 4.8 to 9.5 percent. Those two numbers show he is working under the ball more which is a telltale sign that a batter is trying to hit more home runs. Traditionally, a homer-heavy desire at the plate leads to a worse OBP and a higher strikeout rate, both of which Vargas had in May.

An overall change in approach?

Working on getting the ball in the air, Vargas has made a significant change at the dish over the past two months.

Vargas stats

Stats April May
Stats April May
Swing rate 41.20% 46.70%
Chase rate 17.70% 25.40%
BB rate 17% 7.70%

I don’t know if there are three bigger statistics than those three that indicate that a hitter, especially a young one, is being more aggressive at the plate. Honestly, I don’t understand the change in approach much either. I get the appeal of attacking early and avoiding getting to two strikes, but overall, Vargas’ approach worked in April. In April he had an xwOBA of .347 but May saw that number dip down to .316. Sure, he had six more extra base hits in May l which is nice, but the analytics still show us that he was a far worse hitter last month.

Conclusion

I don’t know where Vargas goes from here as a hitter. Best-case scenario, he returns to what he was in April, but either he or the Dodgers the decision that he has to swing more or he’s struggling against pitching as they adjust to him. Neither of those reasons bode well for Vargas’ outlook this season.

Ideally though, we see him become a far more patient hitter in the month of June and he returns to a player with an above average xwOBA. So far in June (in 31 PA), Vargas is hitting .269/.387/.500 with a 16-percent walk rate, so things are looking up.