Ryan Vogelsong and Cause For Concern

Right-hander Ryan Vogelsong proved to be one of the feel-good stories of the year in 2011.

The 34-year-old owned an unsightly career 5.86 ERA through 315 major-league innings with the San Francisco Giants and Pittsburgh Pirates coming into the 2011 season. He then seemingly flipped a switch and handcuffed the league with a 2.71 ERA and 3.67 FIP over 179.2 innings for the Giants and became a key part of their starting rotation.

That success has trickled into the 2012 season. Vogelsong tossed 7.1 innings against the Dodgers on Tuesday evening, surrendering only one run on eight scattered hits and one strikeout. That lowered his season ERA to 2.94 and his FIP to 3.51, both of which are better than average in the National League thus far in 2012.

Moving forward, though, this rags-to-riches story has some significant hurdles to overcome.

Many of the concerns are captured in his xFIP, which currently sits at 4.28 and is worse than the National League average (3.74) this year, but more specifically, Ryan Vogelsong will have to improve his control if he hopes to maintain this success.

His walk rate of 3.74 BB/9 ranks above the National League average for starting pitchers. The real concern, however, lies in the fact that Vogelsong struggles to throw strikes in general. Of 114 qualified starting pitchers this season, the following five have thrown the fewest percentage of pitches within the strike zone:

Pitcher Zone%
Randall Delgado 31.3%
Kyle Drabek 31.9%
Hiroki Kuroda 35.8%
Ryan Vogelsong 37.2%
Dillon Gee 37.6%

Simply throwing few pitches within the strike zone does not necessitate ineffectiveness on the mound. For example, Dillon Gee makes the above list, yet has a 3.69 FIP and only a 2.25 BB/9 walk rate. That is due to the fact that Gee generates a ton of swings-and-misses (11.5% SwStr%) and gets opposing batters to chase out of the strike zone with regularity, as depicted by his 38.7% O-Swing%. A pitcher can live outside the strike zone if he can induce swings.

Vogelsong, however, only has a 5.9% swinging strike rate — which ranks 102nd out of 114 qualified starting pitchers — and only draws swings on pitches outside the strike zone a modest 29.4% of the time. That is just below the National League average at 29.5%.

So, how has he suppressed his run totals with shaky control and without the high percentage of swinging strikes to support that habit of not throwing pitches within the strike zone?

Quite simply, his ERA has remained low due to the fact that his strand rate has been well above average for the second-consecutive season. In 2011, Vogelsong had a LOB% of 80.4%, which was the fourth best amongst qualified starting pitchers. In 2012, that LOB% number is back up at 79.2%.

Perhaps some of that success stranding runners this season can be attributed to his ability to limit line drives. His 13.5% line drive rate ranks amongst the ten lowest line drive rates from qualified starting pitchers.

Pitcher LD%
Brandon Morrow 11.0%
Anthony Bass 12.9%
Edwin Jackson 13.0%
Jason Hammel 13.0%
Anibal Sanchez 13.0%
Jeremy Hellickson 13.3%
Ryan Vogelsong 13.5%
Neftali Feliz 14.1%
Henderson Alvarez 14.4%
Jerome Williams 14.6%

That low line drive rate suggests he is generating plenty of ground balls and inducing weak contact. Sure enough, we see that his infield fly ball rate is sky-high at 15.8% and his ground ball rate is roughly league average at 46.9%.

Do not expect Vogelsong to continue to suppress line drives, however. His career average line drive rate sits at 21.3% and nothing in his repertoire suggests he has developed a new pitch or a new approach that would suddenly cause such a precipitous drop in line drives. In fact, his overall stuff this spring should only cause more concern, as his velocity is down across the board about 1.5 MPH.

Higher line drive rates naturally lead to more base hits and more runs scored. As his line drive rate begins to trend back toward his career norms, we can reasonably expect his run prevention to worsen and his ERA to rise.

It has been a great run for Vogelsong. His success in 2011 earned him a two-year, $8.3M contract, and he has rewarded the Giants’ leap of faith with further success in 2012. The above conversation does not intend to suggest that the right-hander cannot continue that success and effectiveness on the mound. It does, however, intend to point out the red flags about his performance this year and why we can reasonably expect some struggles ahead for Ryan Vogelsong.

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J.P. Breen is a graduate student at the University of Chicago. For analysis on the Brewers and fantasy baseball, you can follow him on Twitter (@JP_Breen).

18 Responses to “Ryan Vogelsong and Cause For Concern”

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  1. Sky Kalkman says:

    Pitch f/x stats put Vogelsong at 45% zone%. He was at 47% last year. It’s still low, but he’s sitting near a number of other good pitchers: Lincecum, Gallardo, Lester, Hanson, Shields, Santana, (and more, it’s a fun list)…


    I wonder how much strike% is related to other things, such as in-zone whiff %, out-of-zone whiff%, and ability to get ahead in the count. (Once you’re ahead — perhaps by throwing early strikes — pitches out of the zone are better choices. If you get behind, pitches in the zone are less valuable, as they are hit harder.)

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  2. The velocity drop is the biggest red flag for me. If the stuff was the same as last year, I would be a lot more confident in Vogelsong.

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    • Where in the article does it discuss velocity?

      In any case, if you look at his line of pitches and velocities, while his fastball is down this season, so are all his other pitches, by about the same number, roughly 1.5 MPH, per Fangraph’s Pitch Type data. And as most of us know, separation in velocity between a pitcher’s pitches is a major key to getting batters out, not overall velocity, though that helps if it is high enough.

      But at 35 YO this season, velocity drop is to be expected at some point. As long as he maintains enough speed, plus the separation, he should be able to duplicate his success so far in Vogelsong.v2.

      Still, per the point below about it being spring training for Vogelsong, that could help explain why his velocity is down so far this season. Looking at his velocity graph on Fangraphs, there is clearly an upward curve on his velocity, suggesting that Monterrey Shark’s contention that Vogelsong has been in extended spring training for his early starts is correct, as Vogie builds up strength in his arm during the regular season, instead of spring training when he should have.

      FYI, it would be nice if Fangraphs would provide lines at every 5 MPH interval instead of 10. Hard for me to tell how much MPH he added from first start to last. You need to account for us readers who need bi-focal help now. :^)

      It looks like his FT went from 88 to 92, which is basically the range he was in last season. Same with SL, 86 to 88, which is in range for last season as well. CH too, and his CU was in his range for last year in his last two starts. All in all, his velocity was below what it was last season, but he pitched within his abilities, it seems, and he was back to his regular range for 2011 in his last start, per Fangraphs charts (middle one is Velocity): http://www.fangraphs.com/pitchfx.aspx?playerid=1011&position=P

      And the following two graphs under the velocity appears to support this explanation, as his horizontal and vertical movement was right in range with last year’s performance.

      This chart shows a nice overall view of his FA velocity: http://www.fangraphs.com/pitchfxo.aspx?playerid=1011&position=P&pitch=FA

      His last start was the best of this season, but still low-ish relative to last season for FA, though it looks like you could put it in with last season and it would not have looked out of place. For FT, it was like last season and the prior start was on the low end for last season, CU last two starts were like last season, SL all starts, CH all but middle start.

      Yeah, I think Monterrey Shark’s contention that he’s been in Spring Training mode for his first few starts is accurate, based on the results of each start and the trending from start to start.

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  3. Monterey Shark says:

    Ummm, dude was injured and missed almost all of Spring Training. Now you take a SSS in 2012 and conclude, blah. How about we could also say that the first few games of 2012 for Voglesong were in essence his Spring Training but in MLB games. You could also say beating Kershaw is his first real game back (more than 6 innings pitched) and that his compete level is very high – he won the damn game. Or did you miss that stat?

    \stat fail

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    • Ironically, per my PQS comment below, he had DOM starts in his first three starts, he just started having problems in his last two starts. That suggests that he arrived ready to pitch.

      Still, this is an apt comment because it is something the author should have noted, that he was out injured and thus that could have affected his pitching thus far this season. Just because he pitched well does not mean that he could not have pitched better had he not been recovering from an injury and was behind in his preparation for this season.

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    • I commented above with velocity analysis, game by game, that suggests that you are spot on with this observation, as his velocity has been rising with each start and in his last start or two, been throwing in the range where he was last season.

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  4. Hurtlockertwo says:

    Watching the game last he was able to get the ground ball when he needed it and kept the ball down the entire game. It often seems that if he gets a low strike umpire he is more successful. has anyone ever looked statistically at the impact the umpire has on pitch calling? We shouldn’t just assume it’s equal across the board.

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    • walt526 says:

      I’ve watched most Giants games over the past two years and less favorable strike-calling from umpires in 2012 was the first thing that popped into my mind when I read the bit about his “command” problems. My impression is that Vogelsong is essentially pitching the same now as he did last year, he’s just hasn’t gotten as generous a strikezone in several of his five starts. Over the course of the season, that should even out.

      He’s a ~55 gamescore pitcher: a little above-average, but nothing special. But the Giants don’t need him to be special, but rather just give them 6-7 solid innings every five days. And that’s exactly what he’s done.

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    • I’ve asked the same question, nothing but silence. I’d also like to see someone look at accuracy to target (glove), as opposed to SZ.

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  5. LAGiantsfan says:

    It’s worth noting he has 3 IBB already (only Matt Moore has more, at 4) accounting for 12/525 pitches (or 2.3%).

    I think these are counted in Zone% ?

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    • Good point.

      Also, if Bochy had taken him out last night and had the reliever throw the four wide ones (right move to have Vogelsong do it, but asking what if), Vogelsong’s BB/9 would be 3.48 BB/9. And if it were the roughly 10% IBB of last season, his BB/9 would be 3.37 BB/9, which is not bad (but not good either). Still, reducing by 1 BB would put his K/BB ratio at a good 2.0, which is the minimum that you want your pitchers at.

      Showing how one extreme outing by any starter could warp his overall numbers early in the season, making prognostications about a pitcher so early in the season a much more difficult thing to do, especially one on the borderline as Vogie was in this case, and also considering that he was still getting himself into shape for the season.

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  6. Sky Kalkman says:

    Via Brooks, Vogelsong throws somewhat more sinkers and curves on 0-0 counts, and those are the two pitches he throws most often for strikes. The sinker has a very low whiff rate, and hitters rarely swing at the curve. Seems like a good way to either get ahead in the count or get an early ground out.


    (Sample size from 2012, for sure, but the concept of this approach is intriguing.)

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  7. Baltar says:

    This was a very interesting and informative post.
    My only quibble is that Vogelsong’s being the #5 starter should have been mentioned.

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    • That is a good point.

      Though I would note that most Giants fans acknowledged Vogelsong as the #4 starter pre-season, it was only because he was injured and missed much of spring training that he ended up the 5th starter.

      Still, the performance level of most team’s #4 starter is usually much worse than what Vogelsong has been producing so far in Vogelsong.v2 era. Even if he were to perform at a much worse performance level, as long as he is similar enough to his current self, he would still be better than most team’s #4 starter, as well as #5 starter. Heck, he could be better than some team’s #3 starter.

      People like to point out that Vogelsong won’t repeat 2011, but they are missing the point there. What they don’t realize is that the Giants #5 starter outside of Lincecum, Bumgarner, Cain, Vogelsong, was pretty bad among Dirty, Zito, Surkamp, and thus as long as we get an OK performance out of Zito, we don’t need Vogie to match 2011 in order to have a good season in 2012 overall for the starters, we just need him to have an OK season. Two OK seasons out of Vogie and Zito (like Zito 2009-10) would be about equal to Vogie 2011 and 2011 #5 starters, and that is all we can really ask out of the two of them, anything more is whip cream on top with fudge.

      Mix that with good performances out of Lincecum, Bumgarner, Cain (admittedly hard to conceive considering Timmy’s struggles, but I still think he’ll have a normal season the rest of the way), and the rotation will be very similar to what we got last season.

      I think the bigger worry is surviving the loss of Wilson. Casilla with Lopez working as a paired closer when there are tough lefties to get out, has been doing a good job so far, but Casilla is coming off a 2011 season where he too was DLed with arm issues. I think our bullpen’s overall performance will hinge on both when Hembree comes up and how well he does in coming up, as his K/9 rate is pretty sad so far this season, considering his prior performances. But the season is still very early, especially for relievers.

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  8. DrBGiantsfan says:

    (Yawn). Another post about another Giants pitcher who is going to regress any day now. Hey, I have an idea! Maybe you could write one about Matt Cain tomorrow. I don’t think we’ve had one on him for awhile.

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  9. I have a number of points I would like to make.

    First off, if I remember right, xFIP assumes that pitchers have no control over HR/FB ratio. However, Fangraphs has authored a series of articles discussing the fact that under Righetti, the Giants have been able to sustain a much lower rate of homeruns hit, both at home and on the road (started with Cain articles, then Giants/Righetti). Given that, discussing xFIP for any Giants pitcher does not seem apt.

    Second, I would like to point out a sabermetric I like to use that Ron Shandler’s org created and pioneered: Pure Quality Starts or PQS. Here is a link to their discussion of it: http://www.baseballhq.com/free/free03.shtml?src=hqf

    It is basically a sabermetric oriented way of determining whether a start was a quality start (DOM in their lingo) or a poor start (DIS in their lingo; there is also a middle area that they did not label). I think this will illuminate how well Vogelsong has done this season and how it compares (yes, SSS, but still) with 2011.

    In 2011, his DOM% was 61%, that is, 61% of his starts were DOM starts. Shandler’s group never discussed levels, but I went through all the data and basically pitchers with DOM% in the 40’s are good, those above 50% are great, and those above 70% are elite. His DOM% in 2012 so far is 60%.

    Also not really discussed explicitly but noted in a table, is that low DIS% is a key to keeping a pitcher’s ERA low. Looking through their data set, I saw that pitchers who were not that good in DOM% were still able to maintain a decent ERA if they could avoid the DIS starts. The best are under 20%, the elite are under 10%: Vogelsong had a DIS% of 7% in 2011, 0% so far in 2012.

    Now, I’m not saying that Vogelsong is among the elite of the game: what I’m saying is that his performance is up there with the elite.

    I have no idea how he does it either, but am thankful he hated the Dodgers enough to ignore their offer and ask the Giants one more time to sign him.

    I don’t know how others here feel, but to me, Vogelsong today is clearly not the pitcher he was early in his career. So while comparing his numbers today to how it was before might be interesting, I don’t know that you can make any strong statements regarding any differences between now and then. He clearly learned something in the hinterlands between his MLB stint before and where he is now. How he does it, I don’t really care, other than I hope he teaches it to the other Giants pitchers.

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  10. Matt says:

    Lots of good info about Vogelsong.
    Can anyone tell me why the MLB site and the Giants site just leave out Vogie’s stats altogether from 2007 to 2010 when he was in Japan?
    Is no one one interested in these stats and how well he pitched there which obviously helped strengthen and improve his pitching to get him back in the majors?
    His stats are available on the Hanshin Tigers and the Orix Buffaloes but its a pain to look for.

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