Asking Ryan Vogelsong About His FIP

Asking a player how he’s over-performed his peripherals is a tricky thing. I settled on a toe in the water: “Have you ever heard of FanGraphs? WAR? FIP?” From Ryan Vogelsong‘s responses to those inquiries at Giants’ Media day (“No, but Wins Above Replacement I have, all those stats, yeah” he replied), it seemed clear that the right-hander might need a little introduction to any sabermetric statistic I was going to ask him about.

“Given your strikeouts, walks, and ground balls, your FIP, which is usually more steady than ERA, has been higher than your ERA — you’ve been sort of over-performing these stats that people have come up with. I think this is really interesting because given your history, and given all that you’ve had to overcome, you’ve been under-rated in the past, too. Is there anything you can say about the way you pitch that might look like more than the sum of the parts? Is there something you play ‘up?’ How would you define yourself as a pitcher?”

It’s a wonder that Vogelsong had a reasoned, affable response to that mess. In fact, it’s a credit to the pitcher that he didn’t give this reporter the thousand-mile stare. I just asked him why his FIP has been almost three-quarters of a run higher than his ERA over the last two years.

Instead, Vogelsong answered that “The biggest thing about pitching and winning games is not giving up hits with runners on base.” Surely enough, he’s shown a strand rate that has been well above the league average in his last two seasons (80.4% in 2011, 76% in 2012, 72.5% league average both years).

Most advanced pitching metrics don’t give pitchers much credit for stranding runners. As Matt Klaassen just showed us recently, left on base percentage has one of the worst year-to-year correlations in the pantheon of pitching statistics, which suggests that pitchers have little control of their LOB% from season to season.

But there are traits that help some pitchers succeed with men on base — perhaps more often than your league average pitcher in the same situation. Matt Swartz said that his SIERA statistic would not “assume a fixed LOB rate for all pitchers” but would instead “effectively assume an implicit strand rate that is based on strikeout, walk and ground-ball rates.” In a piece he wrote, he pointed out that pitchers with better control were able to dish out walks strategically and strikeout pitchers were able to get ground balls in double play situations more than other pitchers.

With the bases soaked, Ryan Vogelsong‘s walk rate and ground-ball rates go up. So he got the playbook. That isn’t to say that SIERA loves him any more than FIP — actually his SIERA was worse than his FIP most years. But it is to say that Vogelsong is a slightly different pitcher with runners on base.

To some extent, the advanced statistics assume that a pitcher is the same pitcher, more or less, when the runners are on base. Vogelsong said “when guys are on base, the hitters try to go to another level to drive in runs” and that he tries “to get to another level on the mound to get guys out.”

What does that look like? Does it look like the playoff version of himself, where his fastball velocity jumped over a mile per hour on the gun? “That was because of the atmosphere,” Vogelsong said, but the fastball velocity in the postseason really “went up because my mechanics got cleaner” at that particular time. But are there things you do in a regular game, when batters are on, though? “Concentration,” Vogelsong said, “a lot of it is concentration.”

In Vogelsong’s case, that concentration might mean keeping the ball down. The last two years with runners on, his strikeout rate has gone down, his walk rate has gone up, and his ground-ball rate has gone up. Oh, and his home runs per fly ball have been below league average in situations with runners on base, too. Sounds like he might be keeping the ball down to limit the exposure to a big fly with ducks on the pond.

His pitching mix with runners on base looks set up to get more ground balls, too. Here are the pitches Vogelsong went to when he had men on last year, compared to himself when the bases were empty (Runners On % / Bases Empty %), and then compared to the league with runners on (League RO Pitch% / League BE Pitch%).

Ryan Vogelsong vs League, Runners On
Pitch Percentage Use RO/BE League RO/BE
Changeup 0.107 0.934 1.006
Curveball 0.188 0.975 0.957
Fastball 0.323 0.868 0.945
Cut Fastball 0.224 1.303 0.991
Slider 0.141 1.014 1.152

The fastball has one of the worst ground-ball rates among the pitch types, so it’s no surprise that the league uses the fastball less with runners on than it does with nobody on. But Vogelsong takes that tendency a little further than most. And though the league likes cutters (often misclassified) enough, this pitcher might like the pitch even more. (He did say that he wants to spend some of spring training trying to “clean up my cut fastball, that was the only pitch kind of in and out for me,” which is interesting in this light.) Cutters get a bad rap sometimes, but they have better ground-ball rates than fastballs, and often have better strike rates. That’s a good combo to use with runners on.

While there’s reason to doubt that Vogelsong can keep stranding runners at a rate that’s higher than league average, there are also distinct things that he’s doing differently in those situations. And he admits to a personal sense of pride on his performance in those situations. If he improves the cutter this spring, that may help the Giant starter to once again beat his FIP. Or maybe he doesn’t even need a better cutter. Maybe a focused Vogelsong will just find a way to do it again with his current arsenal.

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Graphs: Baseball, Roto, Beer, brats (OK, no graphs for that...yet), repeat. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris.

32 Responses to “Asking Ryan Vogelsong About His FIP”

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  1. tylersnotes says:

    >RYAN VOGELSONG has allowed a runner on base.
    >RYAN VOGELSONG has gained 30XP.

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  2. DrBGiantsfan says:

    As has been discussed here many times, most of the Giants pitching staff has outpitched their FIP, xFIP, etc and have been doing it for a long time. I have a theory based on watching countless Giants games on TV, but it fits what the statistics are showing. Giants pitchers do not give in to hitters! When they get runners on base, they are not looking to avoid walking then next batter. They are looking to get the next batter out. In their mind, it’s not that they are willing to give up a walk to avoid giving up the 3 run HR. The BELIEVE they will get the batter out! I’m not going to say you never see a Giants pitcher throw a challenge fastball down the middle of the strike zone, but you sure don’t see it very often.

    Mike Krukow knows pitching and he knows the Giants pitching philosophy. I can’t tell you how many times there will be a couple of runners on base and the batter has a 3 ball count and Kruk will say something like, “he still has an open base, so he doesn’t have to give in to the hitter here.”

    The Giants success with outpitching their FIP’s over the years can be summed up in one sentence: They don’t give in to hitters!

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    • MikeM says:

      This was Don Sutton’s favorite explanation for Tom Glavine’s success. Better to walk in a single run than to through a meatball and give up 4 runs.

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      • TKDC says:

        And didn’t Glavine give up an absurdly low number of grand slams? Yes, he did. Two grand slams against him in 428 chances.

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    • philosofool says:

      The Giants outperform their xFIP and other regressed stats, but their ERA – FIP is 0.11 over the last 6 years, which doesn’t seem that amazing to me. It’s behind several other teams.

      Their BABIP is very good, second best in the last six years. That looks like a better explanation than any super strategy summarized by one of the many nebulous phrases in baseball (“Giving in”).

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      • Eno Sarris says:

        At the same time, I think the numbers bear out what DrB is saying, to an extent. His walk rate goes up, his strikeout rate goes down, but his ground-ball rate goes up, and his homer rate goes down. Sounds like he’s giving them less to hit in the zone, and keeping it down so they can’t get the big fly.

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        • Jon says:

          Doesn’t a lot of it also come from the fact that they play in a home park where it’s very difficult to hit HRs? You would expect them to outperform their xFIP quite a bit at home. And, as philosofool pointed out, they don’t outperform their FIP by some huge margin.

          I’m not saying Vogelsong in particular doesn’t have some interesting strategic differences that might increase his strand rate over the long term. But I am also a little skeptical that one pitcher in baseball can have the strategy “walk more guys with men on base” and other pitchers can’t figure out to do that too. Especially if guys like Glavine had HOF-type careers and are known for that strategy.

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        • DrBGiantsfan says:

          Dave Cameron addressed this in an article last year: Giants pitchers are just as good at suppressing HR’s on the road over the last 5+ years or so.

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      • DrBGiantsfan says:

        Well the Giants have also been very good at team UZR over the past several years, so that could have in impact on BABIP.

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      • AC_Butcha_AC says:

        ERA – FIP is very misleading here. FIP is using a constant which is league adjusted. The Giants play in a rather run surpressing environment so their ERA will be low while their FIP seems higher than it should, narrowing that ERA – FIP gap you mentioned.
        So IMHO this stat seems useless here.

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        • philosofool says:

          It’s not at all misleading, since a huge part of run suppression is in HRs, which FIP accounts for.

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    • Hurtlockertwo says:

      I agree. I’ve watched nearly all the Giants games the last 10+ years (love that MLB TV package) and Dave Righetti should get a lot of credit for being a great pitching coach.

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  3. l1ay says:

    As far as xFIP, it probably has more to do with the fact that roughly 3/5 of their games are in Petco, Dodger Stadium, and AT&T.

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    • Big Six says:

      The games played in Petco and Chavez are negated by the games at Coors and Chase. And as mentioned elsewhere, Giants pitchers do not chart as more homer-prone on the road, despite AT&T’s HR-suppressing nature.

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  4. glib says:

    I am with l1ay, besides (focusing only on the home park) it is well known that both Cain (R) and Vogey (R) have a large H/R split. Not only ATT is an extreme pitcher park, it also has different park factors for L and R hitters. The park favors RHP who are tough on righties. Cain may have accepted less money to stay, but even his park adjusted stats would look worse elsewhere, not to mention that it is exponentially easier to pitch perfect games in SF.

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    • DrBGiantsfan says:

      I believe Dave Cameron has already shown that to be false. Over the past 5 years or even longer, Giants pitchers have been able to suppress HR’s approximately equally at home and on the road.

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  5. DrBGiantsfan says:

    BTW, that took some serious, uh, fortitude on your part to ask Vogie that question. Dude has a death stare like no other when he wants to. Just ask Brandon Belt! LOL!

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  6. commave says:

    “it isn’t true that there aren’t traits that don’t help”

    Triple-negative whiplash.

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  7. Joshua White says:

    Jeremy Hellickson has the same high LOB%. I’m not sure how his other peripherals stack up compared to Vogelsong, but I believe I read recently that Hellickson is looking to become the first pitcher in baseball to put up a LOB% higher than 80% for three straight years.

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  8. DrEasy says:

    We dismiss “pitching to the score”, but Vogelsong’s arguments don’t sound all that different. Now the numbers may support him better than Morris, but that’s a different discussion.

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    • derp says:

      Because Morris only looks like an idiot saying that. No proper pitcher should ever feel a need to let up on the opposition and give them a chance to rebound; its baseball, and the next thing you know that bloop single RBI leads to a 6 run frame.

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  9. Nathaniel Dawson says:

    Something odd with all that. Typically, flyball pitchers have a greater LOB% than groundball pitchers. That’s overall, of course, so for any one pitcher, a lot of it could come down to how his individual pitch arsenal and mix might play up in that situation. And I’m not saying it’s a bad strategy — a flyball approach may end up stranding more runners, but would probably allow the player at the plate to score more often. It’s just a bit odd that his results seem to buck the trend when he goes for a more groundball approach with runners on.

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  10. DrBGiantsfan says:

    I’d like to see a study of solo vs multi-run HR’s allowed. Again, just working from my recollection of watching a whole lot of Giants games, but I don’t recall very many multi-run HR’s allowed. Maybe HR’s with men on base just don’t occur very often in baseball, but I’d have to guess the Giants are better at limiting them than other teams.

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    • Tying together DrB’s comments, I would also add in Rob Neyer’s study of Kirk Rueter one season (compared to Nate Ornejo), where he found that Rueter appears to change his attack on the hitter depending on the base situation. Basically Rueter would allow the occasional HR with no runners, but avoids walking guys and strike out more, but once somebody was on base, he appeared to work the corners, resulting in more walks, less strikeouts, but also much less HRs.

      This also supports what DrB said above about Giants pitchers not giving in to batters when runners are on base, in terms of what Rueter did.

      This appeared to be related just to Rueter until a saber-debate roared forth on Fangraphs over Matt Cain and his ability to keep HRs and BABIP below average significantly (he now has enough seasons put in to say: YES! to BABIP) and Cameron broadened the scope to the Giants staff and found that Giants pitchers have been able to keep HRs suppressed on the road, as well as home. This further supports the notion that it appears to be a Giants organizational philosophy not to give into hitters when runners are on base.

      Of course, most people know this and presumably all teams try to do this. The uniqueness, obviously, is that the Giants have appeared able to put it into action on the baseball field in a way that can be seen in the stats.

      I would also note that the Giants homepark has been an oddity, starting out as a strong pitchers park early one, but then from 2003-2010, it was roughly neutral, before becoming clearly a pitcher’s park again in 2011. Throughout, though, HRs have been hard for all, but especially for LHH. So while HRs are hard to happen in the park, it is hard to say what the issue is about runs scoring there and thus inaccurate, I believe, to say that AT&T is a pitcher’s park or not, it has been mostly neutral most of its existence, though very much a pitcher’s park when it is pitching oriented, and there is no park changes to explain any of that.

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  11. CB the Dodger H8ter says:

    This article is why I hate you sabermetric people.

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  12. bradley emden says:

    The fact that some pitchers have the resiliency to step it up a notch is not surprising. You hear Kruk talk about the high stress inning. Vogie has developed the ability to have intense concentration. You know, that unlikely quality which some say does not exist, the quality of being in the zone. You can pitch at a high level all game, but still leave room to step it up a notch when needed. It looked as if Timmy completely lost that ability last year, but Voegie has had it the last two years. Maybe it took him ten years to find it, but I certainly hope he does not lose it. Of course no matter how much you step it up, there are times you will get burned, but Vogie has clearly shown the ability to rise to the occasion. I do believe that such ability can be harnessed by some players. Statistically it may be hard to prove, but its hard to deny what we all see with our own eyes.

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  13. Mike Krukow sayz says:

    he’s got 3 open bases, he doesn’t need to give in to the hitter here.
    the pitcher IS due up 4th this inning.

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  14. Mike Krukow sayz says:

    /walks bases loaded
    Barry Zito, you weren’t supposed to walk the pitcher too! Now you’ve got to face an Altuve!

    ah, damn. I shouldn’t be making fun of Barry anymore :(

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