Dodgers option Miguel Vargas to AAA: taking a look at his struggles so far

The Dodgers have had an almost perfect run of success under Andrew Friedman with promoting top prospects who they thought were ready and were provided the so-called “runway”*, which is basically time to make mistakes and adjustments as they grow into their regular roles.

*Joc Pederson, Corey Seager, Cody Bellinger, Julio Urias, Walker Buehler, and Will Smith, with arguably Dustin May (injuries), Gavin Lux (injuries), and Tony Gonsolin (wasn’t a Top 100 guy until he already pitched well in 2019) as well.

Unfortunately, it seems Miguel Vargas has run into a roadblock recently that was even too great for the Dodgers patience, and they have made the decision to option him to AAA.

While Vargas’ .195/.305/.367/.672 line is bad and he’s basically been a replacement level player overall, I don’t think that would be as big of a concern if he was making progress. And while this is an arbitrary end point, since June 9 he has a .079/.221/.175/.395 line in 78 plate appearances, and one of the five hits he managed was a recent “double” that was lost in the sky. So things were not only getting worse, but were getting terrible.

Pair his offensive struggles with seemingly improving but still poor defense at second (-6 OAA), and the Dodgers are likely to improve their chances of winning on a day-to-day basis by running literally anybody else out there at the moment. Given that the NL West is tight this year, it’s an understandable move.


That said, not all is lost. In fact, it’s somewhat confusing that he hasn’t hit better yet. Vargas has a well above-average walk rate in the majors (12.5%) despite pitchers knowing his line, and he still strikes out less than the MLB average (20.1%). The problem is that he’s simply not hitting the ball with any authority, as his 31.3% hard hit rate ranks 136th out of 150 qualified batters. This means despite what seems like a bad luck .224 BABIP, his expected average of .212 is only a bit higher than his actual, and his wOBA of .296 is close to his expected number of .304.

Thus, basically hitting the ball harder is the solution for Vargas, who has a 87 MPH average exit velocity and 109 MPH max exit velocity this year, with 31% of balls hit above 95 MPH. Last year in the minors, he was at 89 MPH average, 113 MPH max, and 38% above 95 MPH, so he does have the potential to do better against advanced competition.

By the eye test, it seems like Vargas has taken a passive stance at times, almost looking happy to make contact even in counts where he should be more aggressive. You’d like to see him take confident hacks like this while ahead in the count more often:

Instead, he seems to be getting consistently beat to the punch by hard stuff, especially in recent months.

Additionally, as I mentioned back in April, he has a notable hole on pitches above the waist, and that has continued over his career thus far. He doesn’t need to become good at it, but in a league where pitchers emphasize that part of the zone more than ever, competency might be the bare minimum to be a productive major leaguer.

As far as those who actually know what they’re talking about, Dodgers hitting coach Aaron Bates mentioned he developed some bad habits after his finger injuries early in the year even though they don’t impact him from a pain standpoint anymore.

The Dodgers continue to search for reasons Vargas’ compact, all-fields swing from the minors hasn’t translated to the majors. While Vargas and the coaching staff have said a series of finger injuries he suffered early in the year no longer affect him, Bates posited that the resulting bad habits during his recovery are still an issue.
“It’s inconsistent,” he said of Vargas’ progress. “He got into some bad habits from trying to protect that finger, and it’s been an uphill battle since.”

For a hitter that relies on his exact blend of tools working in unison, it could be as simple as working out of those habits to get him back to being productive. While Vargas has never been a metrics beast, the blend of patience, consistent contact, and hitting the ball hard enough seemed to portend towards an above-average MLB hitter at worse. Unfortunately, things have obviously not fell that way so far and hopefully some time in the minors to work on his weaknesses will lead to success going forward.

About Chad Moriyama

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"A highly rational Internet troll." - Los Angeles Times