Can he pitch? That's what Boston wants to find out
Javier Vazquez took the 2012 season off, with the only team he even spoke to much during his free agency the Miami Marlins. When their rotation filled up, though, thanks to the signing of Mark Buehrle, that sort of ended the chances of Vazquez pitching in the majors, and he spent the year in his native Puerto Rico instead.
This little staycation might be at an end, though, as Vazquez is in line to be scouted by the Red Sox when he pitches for Caguas of the Puerto Rican League on Friday. While he's now 36, the last time he was in the majors, he pitched very well. Maybe even a bit better than his seasonal numbers suggest.
Vazquez began his 2012 with a rough patch, with his fastball coming in under 90 miles per hour -- Texas Leaguers, which uses PITCHf/x, lists Vazquez as averaging 88 mph on his heater through these 39 innings and eight starts. As you would expect, Vazquez did not pitch well in this stretch, posting a 7.55 ERA, allowing a .333 batting average on balls in play, all while walking more batters (24) than he struck out (20). Just three percent of his pitches resulted in a swing-and-miss, and he was well below the league-average strike rate. It wasn't very Vazquez-like, but instead looked like confirmation that 2010 was indeed the start of his decline, rather than just a one-year aberration.
Things quickly turned around, though. Vazquez threw his fastball at an average 91 mph the rest of the season, and threw it for strikes looking and for whiffs at rates well above the league average. His curveball and change-up similarly became weapons once more, now that there was a pitch capable of setting them up. With his arsenal back in order, Vazquez posted a 2.70 ERA over his final 153 innings and 24 starts, jumping his strike percentage to 67 percent from 59, earning swings-and-misses on 11 percent of his offerings, while jumping his strikeout rate to 8.3 per nine. Most noticeable, though, was that, after walking 24 hitters in his first 39 frames, Vazquez handed out just 26 more free passes all season.
That's much more like the Vazquez whose career 3.3 strikeout-to-walk ratio ranks eighth all-time, minimum 2,500 innings pitched. It's also very different from the Vazquez who pitched in the American League East in 2010 with the Yankees and posted a 5.32 ERA -- that season, Vazquez's fastball sat under 90 miles per hour, and lefties teed off on him, especially in his home park that encourages such results. Lefties were not as much of a problem in 2011, though, when he put himself back together and regained velocity, but getting out of Yankee Stadium, where opponents slugged .529 against him, was significant as well.
Are the Red Sox expecting to find an iteration of Vazquez that can give them another 2011 season, stat-for-stat? That's unlikely, but if he has his velocity intact, and the year off has helped an arm with over 2,800 major-league innings on it, then there's probably a gem worth unearthing here. Vazquez throws strikes, and he throws quality ones, and if he can be had on the cheap as a lottery ticket for a rotation that already has five members and plenty of Pawtucket back-up, then there's no reason not to do so.
Just, you know, maybe keep him from starting in Yankee Stadium if you can help it.