There is a twisted, anxious fascination in watching Jason Vargas pile up scoreless innings, as he did during Tuesday night’s 4-3 victory over the Reds. Like any moment, the whole blasted start could come tumbling down, like a Jenga stack, first wobbling, then crashing in spectacular fashion.
Lately, his turn in the rotation had become sort of a punchline, the comic-relief break in what was supposed to be an All-Star group otherwise. Unfortunately for the Mets, they’ve been the ones put at risk of being the butt of an unfunny joke.
If not for Vargas, the Mets wouldn’t hear the relentless public lobbying for Dallas Keuchel. Or, in past tense, that of Gio Gonzalez, who is now pitching for the Brewers because Brodie Van Wagenen refused to guarantee him a starting job in Flushing. Vargas’ job, to be more specific.
But here’s a reality check when it comes to Vargas, the Mets’ rotation and any push for the playoffs later down the line. This season, believe it or not, doesn’t hinge on the success of Vargas, a convenient patsy for whenever someone gets upset with the goings-on at Citi Field.
The starters that people need to be chomping their fingernails about are Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard. Vargas, who currently occupies the No. 5 spot, can be messed with, moved around or hidden away. He’s due a guaranteed $10 million this season ($8M salary, $2M buyout), but that’s a sunk cost. It is what it is.
And if the Mets can get what they got from him Tuesday night, they’ll take it every time. Vargas pitched into the sixth inning, and the only run he allowed was a one-out, solo homer to Eugenio Suarez. The doomed 84-mph fastball was his 86th pitch, and if you’re wondering just how short the leash is with Vargas, Mickey Callaway was on his way to the mound as the ball was landing in the leftfield seats.
To put the Mets’ surprising rotation woes in perspective, Vargas lowered his ERA as a starter to 4.19 — second only to Steven Matz, who leads the team at 3.68. That leaves deGrom in third place (4.85), followed by Zack Wheeler (5.05) and Syndergaard (6.35). Even if you count Vargas’ one miserable mop-up outing, he’s still at 5.75 overall, better than Noah.
We’ve obviously having some fun with small sample sizes here. Even so, the fact that there is a measurement in existence that favors Vargas over Syndergaard is stunning, regardless of whatever month you’d like to pick.
To that, we say good for Vargas. And terrible for the Mets, who have two huge days coming up, when deGrom and Sydnergaard go back-to-back against the Reds at Citi. Both are big reasons why the Mets’ rotation is ranked 23rd in the majors with a 5.21 ERA, and second-to-last in the NL, only better than the Brewers.
Do we expect that to continue? Not at all. But as Callaway brings up from time to time — mostly when we question his lineup choices — past performance doesn’t guarantee future success. He’s right about that, and just because deGrom won a Cy Young last season, and Syndergaard has a cool nickname, it doesn’t mean they can coast this year.
I asked Callaway Tuesday afternoon if he was worried about either pitcher, and if not, how long would it take him to get there. At this stage, the Mets are going with the poker face. There’s plenty of time to straighten them out.
“You don’t ever really get concerned,” Callaway said. “You just do what you can to try and fix it as soon as possible. It’s not like we’re ever going to send these guys down or not let them start in the rotation. Those guys are here, and we’re going to win or lose with them. That’s just the bottom line...I feel like they’re both getting close.”
But these aren’t just blips. DeGrom hasn’t looked right in a month, with a 9.69 ERA in his last three starts, when opponents ripped him for a 1.103 OPS. He also had a 10-day stay on the injured list for a sore elbow. As for Syndergaard, he complained after Saturday’s start that the ball “felt like an ice cube” and he didn’t have trust in his slider en route to being waffled for 10 hits and five runs in five innings.
Hardly encouraging signs. And Tuesday again drove home the point the Mets clearly have bigger problems than Vargas. Correctable, presumably. But the Mets aren’t going anywhere unless those issues are resolved.
No. 5 starter Jason Vargas has the second-lowest ERA as a starting pitcher in the Mets’ rotation:
Steven Matz 3.68
Jason Vargas 4.19
Jacob deGrom 4.85
Zack Wheeler 5.05
Noah Syndergaard 6.35