Trying to play the “If you thought…” game with Ryan Vogelsong can get so out of hand, that we’ll just start here — if you thought Ryan Vogelsong was a good pitcher heading into the 2011 season, you were undeniably crazy. Everything that has happened since then has been completely unpredictable. Not only did Vogelsong re-emerge in the majors after nearly five seasons, but he managed to establish himself as an effective pitcher when injuries forced him into the rotation. After 13 starts and a 2.13 ERA, Vogelsong’s miraculous season continued as he was been named to the NL All-Star team last Sunday. While his selection is fairly controversial — Bruce Bochy did make the selection — no one can deny that Vogelsong is having an exceptional season. Even if his performance isn’t All-Star worthy, Vogelsong is proving that he’s a completely different pitcher.
Just six starts into his season, Tommy Rancel took a closer look at Vogelsong’s stats. Rancel concluded that while Vogelsong looked like an improved pitcher, there were some signs that regression could be coming. Still, his peripherals seemed solid enough that regression might not hurt Vogelsong as much as we would expect.
For the most part, Rancel’s prediction has been correct. Although Vogelsong’s peripherals haven’t regressed all that much, his FIP and xFIP has risen despite the fact that his ERA has dropped over that same period. Even with that tiny regression, Vogelsong’s 3.61 xFIP tells us that his improvements are real. How exactly has he been able to come back and pitch effectively after five years out of the league?
There are two factors that seem to be propelling Vogelsong’s strong season. The first of which seems to be that he loves pitching at home. As Dave Cameron has profiled many many times on this site, there’s magic in the air at AT&T Park. Vogelsong has been a huge beneficiary of not only the park in general — where he’s allowed only five runs in 44.1 innings and carries a 1.01 ERA — but he has also benefitted from it’s magical home run preventing powers. Over those 44.1 innings, Vogelsong has only given up one home run at AT&T Park — good for a .20 HR/9 rate. While that number is ridiculously unsustainable, there’s something going on in San Francisco that limits home runs. We know his HR/9 rate is going to rise as the season progresses, but it’s still likely to remain pretty low.
The second factor behind Vogelsong’s emergence has been the effectiveness of his fastball. Despite never really being a strong weapon for Vogelsong, his fastball has been worth 13.8 runs above average this season. If you look at Vogelsong’s wFB/C — the average value of his fastball per 100 pitches — his current 1.82 rate leads all of major league baseball. For some reason, batters have had a much more difficult time picking up Vogelsong’s fastball this season. Since our PitchFx data on Vogelsong is so limited, it’s extremely tough to pinpoint exactly why his fastball has become a useful weapon at this point in his career.
Armed with a shiny new fastball, and some good fortune at his home park, Ryan Vogelsong has emerged as a useful mid-rotation starter for the San Francisco Giants. Perhaps he’s not All-Star worthy, but Vogelsong’s already exceeded expectations this season. If he can use his fastball to continue to strike out batters at a career-high rate, Vogelsong should continue to post solid stats even if his peripherals start to slip. We’ve expected regression from Vogelsong since May and it still hasn’t fully set it yet. Even when that regression comes, Vogelsong looks he’s done enough to overcome a total collapse.