Through eight starts, Ryan Vogelsong has an 8.06 ERA. He’s confused. The San Francisco Giants’ coaching staff is confused. Well, everyone is confused, which is understandable.
Perhaps confused isn’t the right way to describe Vogelsong’s struggles. Maybe “frustrated” is the better word choice. And delve a little deeper into Vogelsong’s biography, and you will quickly find that frustration has been a common theme in his roller-coaster ride of a career.
In case you haven’t had time to read Vogelsong’s story, here’s the gist of it: He’s endured a lot of struggles, going from one of the Giants’ top-five prospects in 2000 to bust. Then, he went to international leagues, and now he ultimately finds himself back with the Giants, the organization that drafted him in the fifth round of the 1998 draft.
So, when you put his numbers since returning to the Giants in 2011 (27-16, 3.05 ERA) into that context, the situation is put into a unique perspective.
However, Vogelsong is gradually working himself out of San Francisco’s rotation. As Andrew Baggarly of CSN Bay Area reports, manager Bruce Bochy did ponder upon the idea of not start him Monday against the Washington Nationals.
Bochy not ready to say one way or the other who will start Monday on Vogelsong’s day. Will be discussed on flight.
— Andrew Baggarly (@CSNBaggs) May 16, 2013
Alex Pavlovic later reported that Vogelsong will make his next start, but not without the sharp eyes of San Francisco’s coaching staff watching his every movement.
Let’s put some things into context. It’s only May. Though the season is getting to the point where the “short sample size” and “it’s early” excuses are becoming old and, well, inaccurate.
Vogelsong’s start on Wednesday was his eighth of the year. If he doesn’t miss any starts, that’s about a quarter of the starts he’s projected to make. So, his current 8.06 ERA and .369 BABIP (Batting Average on Balls In Play) is bound to eventually decrease. After all, that .369 BABIP is the 20th highest total in baseball, and is far from the mean of .294.
However, his stats aren’t just going to revert to more realistic levels just because that’s the general consensus. There have been cases where a pitcher’s numbers never improve, and those pitchers find themselves looking for work. It’s premature to forecast Vogelsong’s future if his struggles continue, but a demotion to a lesser role could be in the cards with another dud on Monday.
As for what he’s doing wrong…
One thing is very clear about Vogelsong’s style to pitching: He heavily relies on his fastball to induce outs. When effectively located, it’s not just a fastball. It’s multiple pitches. When it’s not located, though, it’s a useless pitch, as it is with any pitcher. To put how effective Vogelsong’s command was in 2012 into perspective, opposing batters hit .220 off the pitch. This year, it’s yielding a .274 mark.
There’s a simple explanation behind the struggles: He’s not throwing it for strikes as frequently as he’s done in the past. His fastball walk percent is 12.5 percent through eight starts this year. Compare that to his 2012 fastball walk percent of 7.5, and the disparity is quite large.
Vogelsong’s command is certainly a problem, but a bigger issue is his location–he’s not hitting his spots, and that’s led to 11 home runs hit off him, which is the second-most in the National League. For someone like Vogelsong, who has a fastball-heavy diet, location is pretty much the end-all-be-all.
With the help of Vogelsong’s player profile on Baseball Prospectus, we can explore his location issues. Take a look at the frequency of where he throws his fastball in 2013. There should be lots of blue, a little purple in the middle and one red mark in the top right of the zone. Now, switch the frequency tab to batting average. Lots of red, right? Lastly, I want you to switch the year to 2012 with the batting average filter. Lots of blue, right?
If I wasn’t mistaken, I’d say that opposing hitters have a good sense of what Vogelsong’s going to throw. He’s throwing his fastball 53.2 percent of the time, which is just about where he was at last year. He’s put more emphasis on his cutter, which he’s throwing 17.2 percent of the time. A cutter is in the fastball group, though. He’s using his curveball and change-up with the same tendencies.
In short, his pitch selection and approach hasn’t changed dramatically, which leads me to think that the league has partially figured him out. Take a look at the chart below. Every off-speed pitch in his arsenal except for his cutter is getting pummeled.
You can read about the below statistics in more detail here. The gist, though, is that zero is average, and it’s on a 100-pitch basis.
Again, the concern revolves around his fastball. His change-up weighted value is also well below the average of zero, but he only throws that pitch 10.8 percent of the time.
It’s hard to say with confidence that the league has figured him out entirely. He is a fastball-heavy pitcher, which is no secret, and he’s making mistakes that opposing hitters are capitalizing on. Vogelsong can be fixed, but it might require him changing up his style to a more balanced diet of off-speed pitches.
And of course, command and good placement of his fastball will ultimately decide his fate.
All stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference, FanGraphs and ESPN.com unless otherwise noted