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Joe Saunders, the Cheaper/Older Jason Vargas

The Mariners pulled a neat trick with their starting rotation this offseason that has not received enough attention. The moves received attention separately, but together the Jason Vargas trade and Joe Saunders signings are worth thinking about.

Vargas was traded to the Angels for Kendry Morales in a deal that made good sense for both sides once the Angels signed Josh Hamilton. Morales gives the Mariners offense, Vargas gives the Angels a pitcher they needed to round out their rotation. Both players were eligible for arbitration one final time before free agency, so financially the swap was a great combination.

Morales agreed to a contract with the Mariners for $5.25 million. Vargas agreed to a contract with the Angels for $8.5 million. Advantage (financially), Mariners - although Vargas left a significant question mark behind in the starting rotation.

The Mariners have since signed Joe Saunders to a $7 million contract, with an option for next season worth $6.5 million. He is a southpaw that relies on a change-up to get batters out. On the surface he sounds a bunch like Jason Vargas, except he will cost $1.5 million less.

I took a closer look at the data to see how comparable Saunders and Vargas are. Similar might not be a strong enough word. They might as well be each other.

Saunders is two years older than Vargas, which might matter if we were concerned about long-term production. We shouldn't be though - both of these guys are on one-year deals, more or less. The question is how they will perform in 2013.

Let's start by looking at some numbers from 2012. Can you tell which line belongs to whom?

HR/FB   10.2%   12.8%

In case you are wondering, the first column is Saunders, the second Vargas. Saunders did get to pitch against NL hitters (the pitcher's spot) for half the season, which likely boosts his strikeout and walk rates a bit. However, he also had to pitch in Chase Field and Camden Yards as his home parks, a couple places pretty friendly to home run hitters. Vargas pitched in Safeco Field in a season where it killed home runs at a historic rate. Saunders still posted a lower home run rate despite the significant park advantage that Vargas enjoyed over him. I find that pretty interesting.

However, we are only considering one year of data, which in the case of starting pitchers means only around 30 starts. Vargas could have simply had a bad home run year, and Saunders a good one for all we know. Below are the same stats as above for Saunders and Vargas, but this time for all the innings they've pitched since 2009, the year that Vargas started pitching for the Mariners:

HR/FB   11.3%   9.3%

Once again Saunders is the first column, and Vargas the second. Vargas comes out ahead in all the categories, suggesting he is the better pitcher, but keep in mind that he got to pitch in Safeco Field that whole time while Saunders spent the bulk of it in Arizona. The difference in home run rates could be totally due to park factors, and it is also plausible that Vargas could afford to be more aggressive in his pitching paradise, which might in turn explain the difference in walks.

Perhaps Jason Vargas is a better pitcher than Joe Saunders. He is definitely younger, and I am also willing to say that he strikes more batters out. However, if Vargas is better than Saunders, he isn't much better. Neither Saunders nor Vargas rely on strikeouts. They rely on soft enough contact to produce results that keep their teams in the game while they are on the mound. Their home run rates, walks, ERA, FIP, xFIP, LOB%, and about anything else related to contact and baserunners are eerily similar.

The Mariners flipped Vargas to the Angels for a caliber of bat they didn't have. Then they went out and signed Joe Saunders, who could very well be exactly what the Mariners were going to get out of Jason Vargas in 2013 anyway - except Saunders costs $1.5 million less, and there is an option in his contract for next year that did not exist with Vargas.

I'm not in love with the Mariners offseason, but I tip my cap with Vargas trade and Saunders signing. These two moves made the Mariners cheaper and better without losing or blocking any prospects.