OTD in 2011: Javier Vazquez Began the Epic Final Act of his Career
Javi Vazquez, constantly underrated, ended his career on top.
Every athlete wants to go out with a flourish. I don't care what level you reached, no one wants their last ride to be an uneventful one. Some are more fortunate than others, as they were able to "push the sun back up in the sky and give us one more day of summer," as Vin Scully said in For Love of the Game. Others go out with a whimper, a remnant of their former selves, only recognizable by the names on the backs of their jerseys.
Javier Vazquez did not go out with a whimper.
Javier Vazquez pitched for some very bad teams through the steroid era. Whenever he got a chance to pitch for a solid club, he usually underperformed. This is a big reason why he developed a reputation as one of the most frustrating pitchers in baseball. His talent was undeniable, but there always seemed to be an extra gear in him that he couldn't tap into consistently enough.
Nevertheless, his career is decidedly underrated. He only made one All-Star game, yet he compiled a 45.3 bWAR and 53.7 fWAR over 14 seasons. He could miss bats (8 K/9), had good control (2.4 BB/9), and was durable throughout his career, going over 200 innings nine times and never logging less than 154.2. These aren't exactly Hall of Fame credentials, but they aren't too far off. This man never even made it onto a ballot, which is an embarrassment to the BBWAA.
He did always have the dominant streak in him, though. Javier Vazquez could go through unconscious stretches on the mound when his true talent was realized, and none were more brilliant than the tear he went on to close the 2011 season with the Florida Marlins, and his career.
Out of nowhere
Javier Vazquez absolutely sucked for the first half of 2011. He was coming off a horrific 2010 season with the Yankees that was his worst since his rookie year. His strikeout rate plummeted, his walks spiked, and, at 34, he looked like a man at the end of his rope in the Major Leagues. The Marlins, who won 80 games in 2010 and had an exciting young core, signed him to a 1-year, $7 million deal, hoping he could be an effective innings-eater and mentor for a young rotation.
On June 11th, Vazquez gave up 7 ER in 3.2 innings against Arizona, bringing his record to 3-6 with a 7.09 ERA. Opponents had an .887 OPS against him. The Marlins, after a promising start, were fading rapidly in the standings. They were probably wishing he could regain his 2010 form at that point, as Vazquez was likely the worst pitcher in the Major Leagues through June 11th.
Perhaps his horrific early struggles were injury-related. He always had good velocity, yet his fastball would occasionally dip into the mid-80s during the first half of 2011. Whatever the solution was, Vazquez seemed to find it after getting shelled by the Diamondbacks. His velocity returned to the low to mid-90s, and after two so-so starts following the June 11th debacle, Vazquez fired a 7-inning gem against the A's on June 28th, giving up just one unearned run.
He was about to become the best pitcher on the planet.
Vazquez's first month after finding the Fountain of Youth was solid, albeit not great. He went 3-1 with a 3.16 ERA, highlighted by another 7-inning, 0-earned run start against the Astros. One would think this was the best you were gonna get out of the now-35-year-old Vazquez. But things would only get better.
Here we go. Javier Vazquez put up a 2.48 ERA over 40 innings in August of 2011, holding hitters to a .589 OPS with a 40:7 K:BB. He looked like the '09 Braves Vazquez, the 6.2-win pitcher with a 2.87 ERA and 143 ERA+. This had to be all he had left in the tank, right? Wrong. Very wrong.
Javier Vazquez decided to break records in September of 2011. He won all five of his starts, two of which were complete games, and gave up 21 hits and three earned runs over 38 innings. That's a 0.71 ERA for those scoring at home.
He set a franchise record with a 29-inning scoreless streak. Hitters had a comically-low .402 OPS against him. His final start was a complete game, 2-run masterpiece, in which he struck out nine. He won the NL Pitcher of the Month Award, and probably won a lot of people their Fantasy Baseball league championships. It appeared the man with the maddening mix of talent and inconsistency had finally put it all together.
Then he retired.
Maybe Javier Vazquez just felt like it was time. He dedicated 18 years of his life to professional baseball, Minor Leagues included, and his wife and three children missed him back home. Vazquez seemed to have made up his mind that this was it during his '11 season; the Marlins even gave him a tribute video on the last game of the season. He did flirt with a comeback soon after he retired, but a knee injury ended those aspirations.
It is impossible not to wonder what he could have done had he continued playing, though. All in all, he finished 2011 as a 3.4 fWAR pitcher with a 3.69 ERA (3.57 FIP). That's solid, but not incredible. Then you look at everything that happened after June 11th. He went 10-5 with a 1.92 ERA over 126.2 innings, and you can only imagine if he had two or three more years in him. Does he get to 200 wins? He finished with 165. How much more WAR does he compile? We'll never know.
What we do know is that Javi Vazquez ended his career at his absolute peak. Can any other player say that? Who cares about what could have been? For a player that was nicknamed the "Silent Assassin" due to his reserved, unassuming nature, he sure did concoct one epic finale to a 14-year Major League career.
And that's pretty damn cool.