The San Francisco Giants are hoping 2011 was the beginning of great things for veteran pitcher Ryan Vogelsong. After posting mediocre numbers that led to a three-year stint in Japan, the 34-year-old returned to the United States with a vengeance this past season, posting a 2.71 ERA in 179.2 innings. The Giants rewarded that performance on Wednesday and signed Vogelsong to a two-year, $8.3 million extension.
Since they already had him under team control through arbitration for 2012, the contract essentially just buys out his 2013 season (for something like $4 to $5 million in salary) when he would have otherwise been eligible for free agency. Given Vogelsong’s inconsistent career, making the decision to lock him up now seems a little odd. Is there reason to believe that Vogelgong’s 2011 performance represents a true step forward that would justify guaranteeing his 2013 salary in advance?
Certainly, it would be incredibly difficult for Vogelsong to repeat last season’s success. Few pitchers can consistently post a sub-3.00 ERA, so a step backwards should be expected regardless of what his other numbers were. The question is how big of a step back it will be, and now that he’s signed for 2013 as well, whether he would have performed well enough to earn more money on the open market next winter.
So, what should we expect from Vogelsong next year? If he was able to repeat his career-best performances in walk rate (8.1%), strikeout rate (18.5%), and ground ball rate (45.6%), he’d likely be a slightly above average starting pitcher. Those marks were good for a 3.67 FIP, which is a 97 FIP- after you adjust for AT&T Park. Any starter who can post that kind of mark is certainly useful, and pitching in San Francisco might help him maintain his below average HR/FB rate, as we know that the Giants have a long history of getting better than expected performances from the pitchers in that regard.
So, even if Vogelsong’s ERA regressed back to be something closer to his 2011 FIP, he’d still be a pretty valuable player, and would likely be able to command more than $5 million as a free agent next winter. For example, Bruce Chen got $9 million over two years this winter after having two fairly pedestrian seasons – at the same ages as Vogelsong, no less. Even Kevin Correia got $8 million for two years last winter after coming off a pretty bad follow-up to his 2010 breakout performance. Pitchers with short track records but some recent success haven’t had trouble drawing decent paychecks, so Vogelsong wouldn’t need to come close to repeating his 2011 performance to get paid next winter.
Settling on a one year deal through arbitration would have given Vogelsong a chance to put another successful season under his belt and perhaps double what he signed for yesterday. If the Giants believe he can put together another season where he runs a 2:1 K/BB ratio and maintains his ability to get ground balls, then they may have saved themselves close to $4 million and kept from having to guarantee him a salary for 2014 as well. So, there’s certainly some potential cost savings to be had if Vogelsong wasn’t a one-year wonder.
That’s the catch, though. While setting career highs in all of the major categories suggests that Vogelsong is likely a better pitcher than he was previously, his pitch data doesn’t necessarily support the idea that his prior career performances can be so easily ignored.
From 2003 to 2006, his fastball averaged 92.0 MPH. Last year, it was 91.4. Previously, opposing batters made contact with 82.7% of the pitches he threw. Last year, they made contact 83.4% of the time. He didn’t add any new pitches, didn’t make batters miss bats with any more regularity, and didn’t find the ability to pound the zone with strikes like never before. He basically threw the same stuff he threw before he went to Japan, only this time, it got him outs.
Maybe he just learned how to pitch. Maybe he hid the ball better. Or maybe Dave Righetti’s just a magician. There’s no real way to know exactly why Vogelsong got better results last year, and without an obvious explanation for the improvement, the risk of regression has to be considered higher than it would if we had some reasonable cause for the phenomenon. So, while the Giants lined up some potential cost savings, they also are taking a risk that Vogelsong’s performance wasn’t just a monumental fluke.
The cost isn’t high enough that having him on the books for 2013 is going to be all that harmful even if he implodes, but the Giants should at least prepare for the fact that it’s a realistic possibility. Perhaps he’ll show that the improvement is real and justify the risk, but this is one that certainly has the possibility of going either way.