The Yankees announced yesterday that Frankie Montas is going to need shoulder surgery, which should keep him sidelined until at least the late summer. With an unfortunate injury to a very talented pitcher, the Yankees will have to look internally this year to find a 5th starter. The competition for Opening Day will come down to Clarke Schmidt and Domingo German, as they have MLB experience and are the best in-house options for the job. That being said, they could also look at Randy Vasquez as someone who could fill in the rotation mid-season if he performs at Triple-A.
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Randy Vasquez Has Unbelievable Pitch Shapes
I often cite the metric Stuff+ whenever I write about pitching, and that’s for good reason. Having elite-level stuff is one of the easiest ways to dominate in this league. This isn’t to say command-first guys aren’t good, but command isn’t nearly as sticky year-to-year as stuff is. When we look at ZiPS for their top 10 starting pitchers heading into 2023, we see that only Max Fried has a Stuff+ below 100, and that’s because he has a unique profile and unbelievable command. Randy Vasquez’s command isn’t terrible, but his stuff is clearly what shines through here, especially with his ridiculous curveball.
With over 3,000 RPMs of spin and ~20″ of sweep, it’s absolutely filthy and grades out as one of the best breaking balls you could find. When we put it in Cameron Grove’s Stuff Grader, it grades out as a ~70 Stuff pitch, which considering it’s graded on a 20-80 scale, is an elite pitch.
The most horizontal movement from all qualified curveballs last year per Statcast was 19.9″ of sweep from Tim Hill of the Padres. Vasquez would have the most sweep on any curveball in Major League Baseball, and that plays into the aspect of being unique. A pitch that stands out in a positive way in terms of movement, velocity, approach angles, and other important factors of pitch shape is going to perform extremely well. It would immediately become one of the best breaking balls in baseball, and he uses the pitch frequently for a curveball.
Deploying this weapon 32.9% of the time, it’s well above the league-average usage rate for curveballs. He’s identified it as his best pitch and uses it accordingly, which is something that’s critical for sustained success at higher levels of Minor League Baseball. With a 39.6% Whiff% and 35.4% CSW%, Vasquez was dominating batters with this wicked breaking ball. His curveball isn’t the only elite offering he has, though, as his changeup often gets overlooked despite its excellence.
With over 18″ of horizontal run, Vasquez’s changeup has ridiculous movement that would immediately give it some of the most arm-side movement among all MLB changeups. Only 7 qualified pitchers had a changeup with 18 or more inches of horizontal movement in 2022, and despite his four-seam fastball not having much induced vertical break, he still generated 10″ of vertical separation between his fastball and changeup. The sharp run gave it a 37.5% Whiff% and .235 xwOBA and a viable weapon against left-handed batters. A 70-Grade
Lefties still performed well against Vasquez, posting a .326 xwOBA and just a 25.1% CSW%, but as he works in the changeup more and refines his command, he’ll continue to improve. For now, it’s why I don’t consider him someone that should get looks for Opening Day, as he still has some developing to do. That being said, his stuff is most certainly there, and that raises the floor for Vasquez as he climbs through the Minor Leagues. His 2022 season reflected that he’s capable of taking huge leaps in-season, as we saw the Dominican-born starter take centerstage for a championship-winning team.
From Inconsistent to Dominant
Randy Vasquez started off the season with a 2.22 ERA over his first 10 starts, although he had a 3.2 BB/9 in those starts. Heis, 15.2% K-BB%, was marginally better than the league average, but his ability to generate contact on the ground would allow him to prevent runs with a mediocre K-BB rate still. Heading into the start of the summer, he looked to build off of a strong start in the run prevention department by cutting down some walks, but disaster ensued instead. He’d post a 6.45 ERA with a 9.8% BB% over his next 8 starts, as his ERA nearly doubled on the season to 4.15 with a 9.2% BB%.
Just as shocking as the sudden implosion was the inability to get strikeouts at a strong rate all year, with just a 23.2% K% for someone who struck out 36.6% of batters faced at High-A with the Hudson Valley Renegades. The issue is that, as previously mentioned, Vasquez’s command isn’t elite, so he’ll have to rely on getting whiffs and chases to find success. While having big breaking pitches and tons of movement on your changeup is great, the issue lies in getting batters to chase.
We see that sweeping breaking balls generate a measly 24% Chase rate and fewer swings in general compared to their gyro-shaped counterparts. What constitutes a sweeper versus a gyro slider? It all comes down to spin, as gyro sliders are very spin inefficient, relying on seam-shifted wake for movement instead of spin-induced movement. Seam-Shifted Wake is simply how the air reacts to the seams of the ball, causing it to move in ways that its spin direction wouldn’t indicate it could. Sweepers, on the other hand (such as Vasquez’s curveball) rely on a lot of spin-induced movement, thus, they end up being these Stuff+ monsters due to wicked movement.
The problem isn’t that Vasquez throws a sweeper but rather that batters don’t swing enough at his pitches. To combat this, pitchers try to throw a pitch with close to 0″ of horizontal movement (sweep), which you typically see in a gyro slider or a cutter. Vasquez started throwing some cutters in 2022, and while they got hammered (.465 xwOBA), their purpose was to get more swings from opposing batters. While we don’t know the exact date he began heavily using them, we do see a dip in walk rate and an increase in his strikeout rate over his final 7 regular season starts, and his 2 playoff starts.
- Final 9 Starts
- 2.89 ERA
- 2.84 FIP
- 27.2% K%
- 4.8% BB%
Sprinkled in, there was an 8-inning no-hit bid in their final playoff game to win the Somerset Patriots their first-ever Eastern League Championship. Vasquez showed an improved ability to avoid walks and generate more strikeouts, with his highest K-BB% in any 9 start stretch of his tenure at Double-A. Taking such a massive leap in-season bodes well for his ability to progress in Triple-A and potentially get a crack at the Major League roster in the middle of the season.
The Yankees have a seriously talented arm in their hands, but when’s the last time they’ve called up a rookie to fill in a rotation spot mid-season?
How Randy Vasquez Can Help the Major League Team
Back in 2015, the Yankees saw their top pitching prospect Luis Severino rise all the way up from Double-A to the Major Leagues. Called up in August to help supplement a Yankee rotation that was faltering, he would pitch in 11 games to a 2.89 ERA despite a mediocre K-BB% and high GB% (does this sound familiar?). Severino didn’t really become the strikeout artist he is today until his 2017 campaign when he was 23 years old. How old was Vasquez last season as he finally figured out how to sustain a strong K-BB%? 23 years old.
In terms of pitch mix, these two are dramatically different in their fastball shapes, as Vasquez doesn’t have the elite-level velocity or strong backspin that Severino has, opting for more of a two-seam fastball. Where they’re similar is in their breaking pitches being their best pitch and the fact that if the Yankees had a rotation problem they felt like they could solve internally, they wouldn’t hesitate to do so.
In more recent years, we’ve seen the likes of Jordan Montgomery make the 2017 roster as a rookie and pitch to a sub-4 ERA, Deivi Garcia was supposed to be a big part of their rotation plans after 2020 but regressed, and Luis Gil looked like the elite starter of the future before injury.
It’s been a rough couple of years in terms of luck for the Yankees’ farm system on the starting pitching front, but if we look at the previous three starters mentioned (Montgomery, Garcia, Gil), they all lie on a spectrum of starters. Montgomery is a command-first starter with below-average stuff, while Garcia and Gil have high-level stuff but poor command. Randy Vasquez possesses the high-level stuff of guys like Garcia/Gil, but his command isn’t too far off of an arm like Jordan Montgomery. The previous issues with walks seem to have stemmed from large movement profiles that cause batters to not swing much.
Being a mix of both command and stuff, Vasquez’s health is the only variable here, I believe has any sort of uncertainty. Last year he stayed healthy, however, for starters, it’s a challenge to go from the ~120 IP workloads to a full MLB season workload, and we don’t know if his stuff will regress over the course of his first full season. That being said, the Yankees could decide to work Vasquez in a relief role prior to making him a starter and building his innings up that way instead. His stuff is certainly elite enough to do so, and he would be a multi-inning weapon who could reach higher velocities in smaller samples.
Whatever role Vasquez starts out with on the Yankees in 2023, he should get a shot mid-season to play a role on this team. His stuff is elite, and the pitch data backs up the hype. He’s just missing that season at Triple-A, where he builds off of the success he had to finish the season and generates more buzz. He’s ranked consistently around the Yankees’ top-10, but he could get some backend top-100 love if he dominates in Triple-A. The implementation of the new cutter should also carry the added effects of better quality of contact, as his HR/9 decreased in that 9 start finish to his season as well.
With nasty stuff, a new cutter that he’ll have more comfort with this Spring, and the Yankees potentially needing pitching in the summer, Randy Vasquez is someone to keep an eye on in Spring Training and in the Minor Leagues this year. Who knows, maybe he’s a long-term piece to an already stacked Yankees’ rotation down the line.