Debating William & Mary, sports and culture since 2011. Updated every Wednesday.

Is This the End of Ryan Vogelsong?

In Baseball, Long form on September 7, 2012 at 5:53 pm

He’s a 35-year-old fan favorite with an inferiority complex and a well-established history of performing in stomach-churning situations. He’s been the most consistent member of the San Francisco Giants’ starting rotation this year. He’s the best value on the team, and he’s saved an injury-plagued bullpen on dozens of occasions.

Don’t forget, though, he’s 35 years old.

Ryan Vogelsong is Jim Morris with an All-Star pedigree. After a lackluster start to his Major League career, he spent years toiling in Nippon Professional League obscurity before being reacquired by San Francisco in 2011. That season earned him a place on the National League All-Star team, and his first half numbers in 2012 placed him squarely among those snubbed from this year’s Midsummer Classic.

But even Cinderella stories come to an end; and Vogelsong’s latest series of outings suggest that his carriage may actually be a pumpkin.

Pre-season projections warned that Vogelsong would be unlikely to repeat his impressive 2011 campaign, in which he finished fourth in NL ERA rankings with a 2.71. That, along with his .241 oppBA, .671 oppOPS and low batting average in balls in play (.285) did not jive with the quality of his pitches, which many scouting reports dubbed pedestrian or slightly above average.

As he did last year, however, Vogelsong outperformed expectations in the first half of the season, sporting a 2.27 ERA going into his August 13 start against the Washington Nationals. More impressively, he saved the bullpen from overexposure by notching six or more innings in each of his 21 starts that season, 20 of which qualified as quality starts (the one exception being a 4 earned run effort against Cincinnati on April 26).

To coincide with his start against Washington, I sat down to write what was destined to be a homer post arguing his case for the 2012 National League Cy Young Award. With the game on in the background, I looked up the 35-year-old’s rankings among National League leaders in Wins Above Replacement, ERA and wins and was ready to write a tribute to his consistency — a tribute I knew would be cherished by all 14 of Crim Del Harris’s regular readers (Hi Mom![i]).

Then he went and pooped the bed on me. The Nationals went buckwild, driving in eight earned runs over Vogelsong’s 2 2/3 innings.

Every pitcher is bound to have a rough start or two. And after pitching effectively across that many innings with that level of consistency through July, a drubbing from one of the most effective offenses in the National League was probably inevitable. It was also more than enough to stifle any misplaced hopes Vogelsong may have had for a Cy Young.

So I scrapped the post and prepared to write something else — possibly on Matt Cain or Joaquin Arias’s hella awesome August.

But then something special happened — Vogelsong continued to be awful. Here are the lines from his last five starts.

August 13: 2.2 IP, 9 H, 8 ER

August 19: 3 IP, 8 H, 3 ER

August 24: 6.1 IP, 4 H, 3 ER

August 30: 6.0 IP, 7 H, 4 ER

September 4: 3.1 IP, 9 H, 6 ER

Three of his last five starts are garbage, one (August 30) is average (and somewhat impressive, since all four runs came in the first inning), and one was consistent with the performance manager Bruce Bochy had come to expect over the course of the season.

Since that start against the Nationals, Vogelsong’s ERA has jumped from 2.27 to 3.29. That would be fine, except that his ERA/oppBA/oppOPS line over that three-week stretch was 10.85/.385/1.074. His rapid deterioration is alarming — especially when factoring in how important Vogelsong had become amid Tim Lincecum’s struggles and Barry Zito’s inability to overcome the fact that he is still Barry Zito (and not the lead singer of Train).

It would be impossible to attribute Vogelsong’s sudden and recent decline to any one factor, but analysis of a few FanGraphs charts reveal hints as to why hitters suddenly caught fire against him.

Two of the charts show the average and range of velocity of Vogelsong’s change-up and fastball in each of his starts over the last two seasons. The most recent outings are the five furthest to the right.

Change-Up

Fastball

His average change-up velocity has increased in four of the last five starts, while his fastball has remained more or less consistent at 91-93 mph. As an off-speed pitch, the changeup is most effective when thrown considerably slower — up to 15 mph — than the pitcher’s fastball. When the difference in velocity declines, batters are able to better time both pitches, and the pitcher’s effectiveness suffers.

This has led Vogelsong to throw a greater number of both fastballs and curveballs[ii] over his last five games. While he is no slouch with the curve, pitchFX charts (also available through FanGraphs) indicate that he’s placing that pitch less consistently — and more often than not, further up in the zone.

Several pre-season scouting reports noted that Vogelsong does not have one great pitch. Instead, he uses a solid fastball that he can mix with an equally solid curveball, two-seam fastball, change-up and a cutter. If one of those pitches starts to fail, he is forced to rely on his unspectacular fastball.

As a number of writers have pointed out, hitters have been making better contact with his pitches since his troubles began. This has led to a greater number of foul balls, fewer innings and a higher batting average on balls in play (from .250 going into the August 13 start to .286 as of today).

BABIP is determined by luck, to a certain extent. But hitters’s abilities to make contact are also affected by their abilities to approximate what Vogelsong will throw in any given situation — and that gets easier when there is a smaller menu of pitches from which to choose.

Vogelsong isn’t scheduled to pitch against the Dodgers this weekend, with Bochy opting instead to go with Cain, a gradually improving Lincecum and Zito. The added rest may help Vogelsong relax as he heads into his next start against the hard-hitting Rockies at pitcher’s nightmare Coors Field on Monday.

The man needs it. After all, he’s 35 years old.


[i] Can I borrow $100?

[ii] Which clocks approximately 10 mph slower than his change-up.

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  1. Really? Nice! Send me a card.

  2. Quick addendum, Bay City Ball did a similar post not too long ago – definitely worth a look http://www.baycityball.com/2012/09/05/slumping-vogelsong-not-a-concern/

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