When he takes a cut, everyone in a three block radius of the ballpark can feel it as the wind changes direction on the plaza. And it is not just dirty breaking balls that have been giving Vargas fits. He is swinging through fastballs in the zone regularly as well. For instance, last year he missed a fastball 17% of the time when he offered. This year that has ballooned to 32% of his swings. Only seven other hitters this season have a higher rate than Vargas.
Trevor Plouffe, who battled through his own adjustments entering the league, recently discussed how the game of baseball is a progression for hitters. Pitchers will start a new player with fastballs in the four-spot of the strike zone and once they prove they can hit that pitch, they will start to pick at other weaknesses. For Vargas, that has been being pitches down in the zone and away. His need to hit the ball as hard as he can has resulted in empty swings or weak groundouts.
In spring training the coaching staff made it clear that Vargas should focus less on hitting for show during batting practice and work on driving the ball where it is pitched.
“I think that's a constant message we have with him and (Oswaldo) Arcia and some of the guys that have a tendency to want to have that home-run competition in BP, which doesn't mean a thing," Paul Molitor told reporters in March. "It's fun once in a while at the end of your rounds to go ahead and do some things that break up the mundane routine of having to perfect your craft, but in general it's not how you want to go about getting better as a hitter."
It was stressed that the message was not to tone down the power but rather prepare for being attacked by major league pitchers with major league velocity. Eddie Guardado’s BP fastball would be no substitute for that of Chris Sale. As the Twins were ready to leave Florida, Molitor announced that he would be starting the year with Torii Hunter or Trevor Plouffe as his cleanup candidates despite the fact that the imposing Vargas was hitting balls into the gulf on the reg. The Twins manager recognized that the young slugger was not ready to assume the demands of batting fourth.
As the first month of the regular season progressed, the question transitioned from where Vargas should hit in the lineup to whether he should be in the lineup at all. From the perspective of the coaching staff, Vargas continued to treat his pregame work as his own personal home run derby which affected his in-game performance.
“You [should] try to take batting practice that is more game-realistic. Don’t become too concerned with how far you hit them when a guy is throwing 60 mph,” Molitor told reporters this week. “It’s about trying to keep it crisp, use your barrel, keep it short, see the ball first.”
Vargas’ 2015 has been marred by not adjusting to how pitchers are approaching him. For example in the Kansas City series, Vargas was in a favorable 2-1 count against the left-handed slopper Jason Vargas (no relation). For most of his professional career, Vargas was likely used to seeing a high percentage of in-zone fastballs by minor league pitchers who were afraid of the count going 3-1. However, the pitcher Vargas threw an offspeed pitch down and away which hitter Vargas was not expecting and turned over.
Like batting practice, the approach was all-or-nothing. He seemed to be thinking fastball the whole way and was only going to swing like it was a fastball.
To be sure, Vargas’ big leg kick and loading process are sound power generators. The issue surfaces when his pitch recognition and anticipation are out of whack and the timing mechanism breaks down. Last season after using the leg kick for the season in the minors, the Twins convinced Vargas to reduce the leg kick and load in order to cover the range of speed and breaks that he would see. In comparison to the Vargas-on-Vargas action above, in this at bat against the White Sox Sale last year shows how balanced he was and not overcommitting to a pitch.
By the end of last season, with his confidence inflated, Vargas had returned to the big leg kick swing. Now hitting .172 and 21 strikeouts in 64 at-bats, is it time to return to the muted mechanics of 2014? Twins hitting coach Tom Brunansky noted how difficult it is to get hitters who did well in the minors to revamp their mechanics - even if it is needed.
“You can't come and change,” said Brunansky. “The hardest thing to do is tell a young hitter who has had success in the minor leagues who needs to change it at the major league level because they are going to say 'I hit like this'...but [the major leagues are] a different animal.”
Brunansky stresses process. The process of making small adjustments outside the game and bring that over to the field following the national anthem. But convincing someone to make changes becomes increasingly challenging when the prep work becomes about seeing how far the ball flies. Then gain, Vargas did just fine last year with the reduced movement swing and was still able to hit the ball a country mile.
The Twins know that Vargas is in need of adjustments and they sat him several games to drive the point home. There is an established track record for Vargas: tone it down or get the timing down. Clearly his potential is worth the trouble but with Josmil Pinto performing well with the bat in Rochester, it may be time to consider the swap.
Chicago White Sox