Monday, August 1, 2016

Vargas Turning A Corner?

The Minnesota Twins have taken their lumps for the majority of the 2016 Major League Baseball season. Racing towards 100 loses, the results have been anything but favorable for Paul Molitor's club. There have been some individual bright spots though, and one of the quietest comes in the form of first basemen Kennys Vargas.

After Byung Ho Park was signed over the offseason, the Twins logjam at first base and designated hitter only got more complicated. Miguel Sano, Joe Mauer, and Park all presented moths to feed. After Park struggled and was sent packing to Triple-A Rochester, it was Vargas who took over in the interim. What's happened since however, is that Kennys Vargas has grabbed the job with a stranglehold, and appears determined to keep it.

Looking at expectations of Vargas, I've long considered him a bench bat. He's a mediocre first basemen, and his swing and miss tendencies have never looked like they'll equate to a guy who can get on base. Surprisingly though, Vargas has bucked that trend this season.

Now, let's preface all of this with the fact that Vargas' time with the Twins in 2016 has totaled an 18 game sample size. However, those 18 games have been significantly better than anything we've seen from him before. To set the stage, here's his first 18 games at the big league level each of the past three seasons:

  • 2014: .292 3 HR 19/3 K/BB
  • 2015: .194 1 HR 21/5 K/BB
  • 2016: .333 4 HR 18/13 K/BB
Power and average numbers aside, the final ratio is of the utmost importance. In his time with the Twins this season, Vargas has displayed a level of plate discipline that we've yet to see from him. He's striking out in 24.3% of the time this season, which is a new career best, but his walk rate has been incredible. After walking just 5.1% of the time in 2014, and 4.9% a year ago, he's currently walking 17.6% of the time in 2016. That number is in line with what he's done at Triple-A, and would no doubt help to bolster all of his production at the big league level.

Then there's how he is putting the ball in play. Prior to this season, Vargas' hard hit percentage has topped out at 30.8%. He's also never had a HR/FB rate better than 17.9%. In 2016, he's making hard contact 44.2% of the time while his fly balls are leaving the yard 22.2% of the time. Both are career highs and significant jumps from where he has been previously.

Now, there's some reason to believe that this all may be a mirage. First and foremost, it's an 18 game sample size. Secondly though, Vargas is currently enjoying the fruits of a .410 BABIP. That level of production isn't realistic to sustain, but the secondary numbers suggest that Vargas could continue to be an asset. If he's going to work counts, draw walks, and demolish baseballs when putting them in the field of play, his average will continue to be well above where it has been previously.

At the end of the day, Kennys Vargas' opportunity came at the expense of Byung Ho Park being sent to Triple-A. Right now, Park is mashing for Rochester and is begging for a call up. As long as Vargas is producing though, the Twins are going to be hard pressed to remove him from the lineup. With him being out of options a year from now, it's important that he continue to show value in every chance he gets.

Hopefully the next 18 games are as good as the first 18 have been for Kennys.

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