On the mound, when the game starts to spiral, Jason Vargas focuses on his breathing. Impassivity is his crutch. A racing pulse is his enemy.
As a boy growing up with a baseball coach for a father, he learned the importance of composure. As a major-leaguer trying to compete with a fastball in the upper-80s, he learned its necessity.
“There was just a pace about him,” said Troy Buckley, Vargas’ pitching coach at Long Beach State, and a confidante who has counseled Vargas on his mechanics through his eight seasons in the majors. “It doesn’t look like there’s any heartbeat, to a degree.”
In the offseason, the Royals gave Vargas, a 31-year-old lefty, a four-year, $32 million deal, the second-largest ever lavished upon a pitcher in franchise history. The front office considers him capable of helping absorb the departure of Ervin Santana, and a steady presence in the coming years if James Shields leaves as a free agent. Vargas makes his first start as a Royal on Wednesday at Comerica Park.
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His route here required multiple pit stops. He pitched at two high schools and three colleges. He leapt from junior college to the major leagues in a two-year span — and needed six more seasons to establish himself at the game’s highest level. He’s been traded three times. He eludes introspection and avoids fanfare.
In camp, manager Ned Yost cracked when Vargas enters the clubhouse “you hardly know he’s there.” Yet those who know him all hit upon similar themes: His competitiveness, his on-mound serenity and his reliability. Vargas is far from an ace, but he averaged 190 innings with a 3.97 ERA from 2010 to 2013.
“What was attractive about him over here was the innings,” said bench coach Don Wakamatsu, who managed Vargas with Seattle in 2009 and 2010.” You don’t go 200-plus innings unless you know how to pitch a little bit, and get deep into ballgames.”
The journey began in Apple Valley, Calif., about 90 miles east of Los Angeles. Vargas played for his father, Joe, at Victor Valley High before transferring to Apple Valley High. He grew homesick after a season at LSU, transferred to a junior college outside Los Angeles and spent his junior year at Long Beach.
He joined a pitching staff led by Jered Weaver. Vargas’ age granted him a certain gravitas. Inside a clubhouse packed with teenagers who slammed Red Bull and Monster Energy drinks, Vargas sipped coffee. Buckley recalled one memorable outburst, notable for its rarity.
One day after batting practice, then-coach Mike Weathers posted the lineup. Buckley walked by as the team gathered to see their positioning. A backup catcher grumbled about his absence. Vargas tore into the catcher.
“Really?” Buckley recalled Vargas saying. “You think this is (garbage)? I don’t want to throw to you. These guys don’t want to throw to you. So why do you think you deserve to be in here when we don’t want to throw to you?”
“I’ll never forget that one,” said Buckley, who took over as Long Beach’s coach in 2010. “That was a good one.”
That preciousness applied at the professional level. The Marlins selected Vargas in the second round of the 2004 draft. He reached the majors 13 months later. After a sophomore stumble, Florida shipped him to the Mets for a pair of relievers. Vargas required surgery for bone spurs in his elbow after the 2007 season. Then, in 2008, he tore the labrum in his hip and missed the entire season.
“It definitely taught me that it wasn’t going to be very easy,” Vargas said. “At first, you think it is. But you run into some roadblocks.”
He was soon on the move again. The Mets included him in a three-team, 12-player deal in order to acquire Seattle closer J.J. Putz before the 2009 season. He appeared an afterthought. “Vargas could help us out of the bullpen,” Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik said in a news release announcing the move.
Royals hitting coach Pedro Grifol ran the Mariners’ farm system at the time. He shook his head when informed of Zduriencik’s comment. “We knew what we were getting,” Grifol said, and then enumerated his praise for Vargas.
“He’s always under control,” he said. “Poised. Good fielder. Great teammate. The list goes on and on. There are a lot of pros, and there’s very few cons to his game.”
By 2010, Vargas became a regular in Seattle’s rotation. To Wakamatsu, he was a young man learning to trust his arsenal. Vargas now ranks second among the 12 players traded with 7.6 wins above replacement accrued in the subsequent five seasons, according to FanGraphs. Only Franklin Gutierrez, who amassed almost all of his value in one superlative defensive season in 2009, has been more valuable.
Vargas faced the Royals twice in 2013. On each occasion, he logged at least seven innings and allowed only two runs. First baseman Eric Hosmer respected Vargas’ confidence in his changeup, which upsets hitters’ timing and allows his so-so fastball to play up.
“That’s what makes him so good,” said Hosmer, who has one hit against Vargas in 13 at-bats. “He just goes after you.”
His approach can backfire. Vargas does not strike many opponents out and he does not induce many groundballs. So he can be prone to home runs. But the Royals think the spacious confines of Kauffman Stadium and the team’s outstanding outfield defense will benefit their new No. 2 starter.
During interviews, Vargas leans toward laconic. A reporter remarked he appeared hard to rattle, both on the mound and off. Vargas shrugged.
“I don’t feel like I get excited all the time,” he said, adding “I guess it’s just the way I am.”