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Anthony Vasquez Debuts Tonight

The Mariners have a double header today, literally starting right as I begin writing this post. The advantage of following a team out of playoff contention is that I can look ahead to this evening without talking about the game underway right now. Gotta keep the glass half full, right?

I want to talk about the next player to make his MLB debut for the Mariners this season, Anthony Vasquez. The lefty will get a spot start tonight thanks to the double-header. If I had to hazard a guess, it will be his only start before being sent back down to AAA Tacoma.

Vasquez is interesting in the way that a forester can find a piece of hanging bark remarkable, or a geologist can find a pebble on the beach mesmerizing. He won't sell tickets like Michael Pineda, but a hardcore fan can't help but take a closer look at him, and be satisfied that they did.

The Mariners drafted Vasquez in the 18th round of the 2009 draft, out of USC. The pick didn't exactly turn heads, mine included. Here is my write-up from when he was drafted:
Vasquez was both a pitcher and outfielder for the Trojans, and was not particularly good or bad in either role. The Mariners see more potential in him as an arm, and maybe he can progress significantly as a pitcher once he focuses solely on it.
 I ended up giving the pick a C-, my official way of saying he was an uninteresting pick, but hard to criticize.

A little over two years later, Vasquez will make his MLB debut. It's uncommon enough for an 18th round pick to make the big leagues, much less so quickly. This is what I'm talking about when I say that Vasquez is interesting. It's unusual to see someone fly through a system so fast with so little fanfare.

With that said, there are reasons that Vasquez has flown under the radar. For one thing, he doesn't throw hard. He threw strikes, and dazzled in the lower level minor leagues...but that's where his age comes in. Vasquez was rather old for the leagues he began his career in, so his early success had to be taken with a grain of salt. Given his relatively advanced age, and soft-tossing status, few noticed when he piled up a better than 3:1 K/BB ratio in 2009. He followed that up with a nearly 6:1 K/BB ratio in 2010 though, which probably should have garnered more attention than it did.

I saw one Anthony Vasquez start for the Rainiers, back on July 17 against Salt Lake. It was in some ways a good start for him (6 Ks in 7 innings), and in others a bad (2 home runs allowed). More than anything, I was curious to see what a soft-tossing 18th round draft pick that screams through the minors looks like.

In short, Vasquez looks like the quintessential crafty left-hander. The fastball has no zip, and seemed to be relatively straight too. It's all about deception and location with the pitch. There were times it did not deceive, and it got hit hard.

Early on, Vasquez also featured a slow, looping curveball. However, it tightened up as the game wore on, and he could also throw it consistently for strikes. Once the slow curve was working, Vasquez looked quite good. The fastball snuck up on hitters, and AAA hitters aren't real adept at hitting anything with a good wrinkle. Vasquez looked like a befuddling veteran on the mound.

Looking at game logs for Vasquez, he has days with many strikeouts, days with few, and virtually nothing inbetween. I saw him in an "on" day, but even within the day, he didn't get strikeouts until the curve started working. My hunch is that how sharp that pitch is for him dictates how many bats he misses.

Vasquez's best weapon is his pickoff move (another reason he looks so much like a crafty left-hander). The slow curve is paramount to his success against batters, so it is very good that he can naturally keep runners close. I sat along the first base line when I saw Vasquez pitch, and it was really tough to figure out if he was going to home or first. Runners had to shorten their leads, and wait longer than usual to take secondary leads. It may not seem like a significant skill, but in AA this year Vasquez had a K/9 rate below 6, opponents batted over .300 against him, and his ERA was still under 4.00. While we are talking about a small sample size, Vasquez might be able to consistently outperform his peripheral stats with the way he holds runners.

In the end, I might have just written a short essay about a player who gets one start in the majors. Anthony Vasquez interests me though, so I am happy to see him get his shot, and have the opportunity to pour out my two years of semi-secretly keeping an eye on him. It is tough to project success for command pitchers in the majors, because MLB hitters are much more wise to their tricks than minor leaguers. There is something to be said for progressing through a system in two years though.

I don't know what to expect out of Vasquez tonight, or what kind of career he may or may not carve out. It feels like he should amount to something with how quickly he rose through the ranks, but it also feels like this could be his cup of coffee, given that he is a former 18th round pick that is yet to generate any buzz. The juxtapositions in his stuff and path are what make him interesting - in that geek obsession sort of way.