Now up in the Pinch Hitters series is Jay Gargiulo, who took a look at Javier Vazquez’s career to examine his reputation as a pitcher who crumbles in clutch situations.
Jay is one of two regular writers for a Yankees blog that’s listed in our blog roll, but has a name Sam and I aren’t quite sure we can post in such a family forum. You know the one . The blog started in 2008, but Jay says he has, “hated Kevin Youkilis since he, his hideous goatee and his obnoxious batting stance showed up in Boston in 2004.”
Jay has a professional background in market research analysis, and that guides much of his writing. He’s done more analysis of Vazquez in a longer post on his site , but the nuts and bolts are right here.
When the Yankees re-acquired Javier Vazquez shortly before Christmas, many fans were less than enthusiastic about the trade. Vazquez was coming off of an excellent year in which he set career bests in ERA along with K/BB, WHIP and several other peripheral stats and finished 4th in the NL Cy Young voting. There were few complaints about his 2010 salary, or parting ways with Melky Cabrera, Arodys Vizciano and Mike Dunn — although neither of those were trivial concerns — so what was the problem?
Simply put, many Yankee fans consider Vazquez to be someone who “can’t handle pitching in New York,” based mostly on his second half in 2004 during which he racked up a 6.92 ERA in his last 14 starts and pitched his way out of the playoff rotation. His first pitch to Johnny Damon in Game 7 of the ALCS only solidified that reputation. More recently, his former manager Ozzie Guillen publicly called out Javy  for not being a “big game pitcher.”
Over the course of his career, Vazquez has excellent strikeout, hit and walk rates for a starting pitcher but sports only a slightly better-than-average ERA of 4.19 and a won-lost record of 142-139. In short, his talents as a pitcher seem to outpace his results. What causes this?
One possibility is that Vazquez gives up hits at inopportune times. After all, a double with the bases loaded has infinitely greater impact on a pitcher’s ERA than one with the bases empty. So how does Vazquez perform with men on base?
In the chart we provided, tOPS+ measures opposing hitters’ production in each split against Vazquez. From the pitcher’s perspective, 100 is average and lower numbers are better. The results are clear: Vazquez gets hit harder with men on base and hardest with the bases loaded. How does Javy perform in relation to the score of the game? He’s roughly the same when the lead or deficit is between 0 and 4 runs but is significantly better when the margin is greater than four.
Combine the presence of men on base and the score of the game (along with the inning the game is in) — as Baseball-Reference.com’s leverage index does  — and we see that Vazquez pitches worse as the significance of the at-bat increases.
Vazquez’s poor numbers with men on base suggest that he may lose something pitching out of the stretch. His tendency to pitch better when the game isn’t close might indicate he doesn’t respond very well to anxiety (which says more about how he is hard-wired  than whether or not he’s mentally tough). But does this mean won’t pitch well as a Yankee this time around?
To say that Vazquez can’t handle pitching in New York requires the assumption that the stress resulting from in-game situations is the same as the pressure of pitching for one franchise or another. And anyway, the expectations of Javy are significantly lower this time around. Instead of being earmarked as a future ace after the departure of Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte and David Wells as he was in 2004, Vazquez is only being asked to solidify the depth of a World Series winning rotation.
Furthermore, there’s a major difference between “hasn’t” and “can’t.” While it’s true that Javy hasn’t pitched well under pressure, it’s inaccurate to say that he can’t. As A-Rod proved this past postseason, it’s foolish to brand a player as a choke artist.
The bottom line is that Vazquez is a very talented pitcher who is likely to throw more than 200 innings while maintaining a better-than-average ERA in 2010. He might be frustrating to watch at times, but probably much less so than the Yankees’ previous fourth starter — Joba Chamberlain — was in 2009.