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Larry Stone gives his take on a wide array of baseball issues and weighs in about the Mariners, too.

May 27, 2010 at 10:43 AM

Fister and Vargas: The best 3-4 punch in baseball

jvargas.jpg

As I wrote last week, the vaunted 1-2 punch of Felix Hernandez and Cliff Lee has not taken off yet for the Mariners, for a variety of reasons. The M’s are a combined 6-9 in the 15 starts by those two pitchers, including a mind-boggling six consecutive losses in games started by King Felix.

At the start of the season, we speculated where the Hernandez-Lee combo ranked among the best one-two punches in baseball, such as Tim Lincecum- Matt Cain, Roy Halladay-Cole Hamels, Adam Wainwright-Chris Carpenter and Josh Beckett-Jon Lester.

One combo we didn’t consider was Doug Fister and Jason Vargas — primarily because all spring, neither of those pitchers was even guaranteed to be in the Mariner rotation. And even if they were to be, they were expected to be nothing more than bottom-of-the-rotation fodder, competing for the right to not get moved to the bullpen or minor leagues once Eric Bedard was ready to return.

dfister.jpg

Yet as we pass the one-fourth point of the season, those two pitchers have been extraordinarily good for the Mariners. Surely, Fister and Vargas have been as good as any two back-end pitchers in the AL (with competition from whichever two Rays’ pitchers you deem to be No. 3 and 4). The Mariners are 9-9 in the 18 games started by Fister and Vargas, which means their combined winning percentage of .500 is .172 points higher than the M’s .321 winning percentage (9-19) in games started by other pitchers.

Here is how the Mariners’ “Big Four” pitchers rank in the American League in various categories:

ERA

1. Fister 2.03

12. Vargas 3.12

29. Hernandez 3.80

(Lee’s 3.44 would rank 18th if he had enough innings to qualify)

WHIP (walks and hits per innings pitched)

1. Fister 0.95

4. Vargas 1.06

39. Hernandez 1.42

(Lee would be third at 1.04)

Quality starts

1. (tied with five others) Hernandez, 8

7, (tied with 10 others) Fister and Vargas, 7

48. Lee 3

Opponents’ batting average

1. Jon Lester (Boston) .198

6. Vargas .207 (Vargas actually led the AL at .193 going into his start yesterday, but he gave up seven hits in five innings).

9. Fister .216

42. Hernandez .267

(Lee would rank 27th at .252)

Opponents’ OPS

1. Fister .536

5. Vargas .591

29. Hernandez .724

(Lee would rank seventh at .612)

BABIP (batting average on balls in play)

1. Mitch Talbot (Cleveland) .235

2. Vargas .238

3. Fister .240

45. Hernandez .329

(Lee is at .341)

This last stat is not necessarily a good thing, because an exceptionally low (or high) BABIP (determined by the average of all balls put into play, excluding home runs) can be an indication of flukiness that will be corrected by regression to the mean.

Yet the body of work by Fister and Vargas shows two pitchers who have excelled beyond any reasonable expectation. And when coupled in a rotation with two pitchers who have dominating potential — Lee and Hernandez — they provide the M’s most realistic hope for getting back into contention in the AL West: A rotation that gives its team a chance to win on most nights.

Assuming Lee is still with the team after July 31 — but that topic is worth a separate post.

(Photos by Associated Press)

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