When the Yankees broke camp in late March, they had to feel confident in the outlook for the starting rotation. With Gerrit Cole leading the way, Nestor Cortes coming off a career year, Carlos Rodón signed to a mega-deal after his own career year, Luis Severino having a mostly healthy offseason under his belt, and Clarke Schmidt and Domingo Germán in competition for fifth starter, there was a lot of promise.
It’s amazing how quickly those plans fell apart. Rodón and Severino began the season on the IL and performed below replacement level upon their returns. Nestor Cortes suffered a season-ending shoulder injury — the team’s second in addition to Frankie Montas’ offseason shoulder surgery — and Germán ended the season on the restricted list. The Yankees had to pivot quickly to fill those innings, and one of the beneficiaries of that scramble for arms was Randy Vásquez.
2023 Statistics: 11 games (5 starts), 37.2 IP, 2.87 ERA (152 ERA+), 4.98 FIP, 5.27 xFIP, 7.9 K/9, 4.3 BB/9, 0.1 fWAR
2024 Contract Status: Remains in first year of pre-arbitration eligibility
Originally signed as a 19-year-old out of the Dominican Republic for just $10,000 in 2018, Vásquez quickly rose through the levels and ranks of prospects to establish himself as a top-20 organizational prospect at the start of the season. He was up-and-down in his first exposure to Triple-A, pitching to a 4.85 ERA with a walk rate well into the double-digits in his first nine appearances totaling 42.2 innings. It therefore might have come as a surprise that his was the second name called up, at least until you realize that the Yankees’ options were few and far between after dealing the majority of their high-majors starting pitching prospects during the ultimately fruitless trade deadline in 2022.
The team handed him his big league debut on May 26th, and much like fellow rookie call-up Jhony Brito, experienced immediate success in his first taste of the bigs. He pitched 4.2 innings of two-run ball on his debut against the Padres before following it up with a pair of scoreless outings, allowing just two hits in 5.2 innings against the White Sox followed by three hits in five innings to the Orioles.
As their more veteran starters began to get healthy, the Yankees transitioned Vásquez into a hybrid multi-inning relief role. While he didn’t quite thrive like in his first three appearances, he was more than serviceable, pitching to a 4.03 ERA across his final eight appearances, striking out more than a batter per inning. All told, he never gave up more than two runs in any of his 11 appearances, completing at least two innings in all but one of his relief outings. What’s more, five of his six pitches (four-seamer, sinker, sweeper, changeup, and curveball) finished with above-average run value per Statcast, giving him a legitimate arsenal should the Yankees opt to return him to the rotation.
It was impressive to see that even in his brief major league sample size, Vásquez flashed truly elite stuff from a pitch movement standpoint. His changeup exhibited the fifth-most horizontal movement vs. average in baseball, running 25 percent more than the average changeup thrown at that speed while his curveball exhibited the sixth-most horizontal movement vs. average — sweeping 75 percent more than average — no doubt aided by the ninth-highest average spin rate (3062 rpm) of any curveball in the sport.
Interestingly, there are mixed signals as to whether Vásquez is better suited for the starting rotation or a longman role. We’ve investigated several times on the site the options available to the Yankees to fill Michael King’s multi-inning relief ace role as they stretch him out to be a starter. Alex identified Brito as the more polished option and the data certainly appears to back that up. Focusing solely on Vásquez and his ideal role moving forward, the metrics are split. On one hand he managed a better ERA and wOBA allowed as a starter (2.42 and .283) than as a reliever (3.52 and .330) — no doubt aided by an unsustainable .117 BABIP as a starter. On the other hand, Vásquez’s strikeout and walk rates were far better as a reliever, leading to a more than one run advantage in FIP and xFIP as a reliever.
It’s also worth noting that Vásquez carried the sixth-largest difference between his ERA and FIP of all pitchers with at least 30 innings pitched. However, rather than jump to the conclusion that he was purely lucky and that his results are due to regress, there may just be some sustainability to an approach that doesn’t excel in the strikeout or walk departments. He placed in the 87th percentile in average exit velocity and 74th percentile in barrel rate among pitchers with at least 100 batted ball events, perhaps aided by the vicious movement he gets on his offspeed pitches. We’ve seen pitchers succeed with a soft contact approach, there’s no reason he can’t either. With another winter to refine his craft, there should be plenty of opportunity for Vásquez to help the Yankees in 2024 and beyond.