One-Year Deals: Will Ryan Vogelsong or Dan Haren Be More Valuable In 2014?


Sep 21, 2013; Bronx, NY, USA; San Francisco Giants starting pitcher Ryan Vogelsong (32) pitches during the first inning against the New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports

Ah, yes, one-year deals.

The San Francisco Giants re-signed Ryan Vogelsong to a one-year, $5 million deal–Vogelsong can add another $1.5 million to that if he hits jackpot on some incentives.

Less than a week earlier, the Los Angeles Dodgers signed Dan Haren to a one-year, $10 million deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers, portraying even the deep-pocketed Dodgers as wise, low-payroll bargain miners. For now, at least.

So let the debate begin…

Vogelsong and Haren have both had rocky track records since 2010. Both were struck by the injury bug in 2013, albeit the injuries were entirely different–Vogelsong broke his pinky, robbing him of 89 games. Haren’s medical card reads shoulder inflammation and low back stiffness, costing him just 28 games.

Indeed, much different. And if you’re looking to pick sides, Vogelsong would be the smart choice. Whereas Haren has dealt with nagging back pain in the past, Vogelsong’s track record is clean (since he returned to the majors in 2011), clouded by one fluky injury.

So now feels like an appropriate time to impose this question: Will Vogelsong’s or Haren’s deal rate higher on the bargain meter? Put another way: Which contract will get more bang for its buck?

It is an interesting question to ponder, and it’s also a question that has a pretty clear-cut answer. More on that later.

Sep 11, 2013; New York, NY, USA; Washington Nationals starting pitcher Dan Haren (15) pitches against the New York Mets during the first inning of a game at Citi Field. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

First, let’s just get some numbers out in the open.

From 2011-2013, Haren mustered a respectable 3.96 ERA–a 96 ERA+ says he was 4 percent worse than league average. So the implosion isn’t evident yet. Now, extract 2011 from the sampling. The results? A much-worse 4.50 ERA in 346.1 innings. It should now be very evident.

What isn’t obviously noticeable in that “meh” ERA, however, is Haren’s turn-back-the-clock-like effort in his final few starts of 2013. He rattled off a 2.89 ERA in his final five starts (28 innings), while limiting opponents to a paltry .624 OPS.

If you prefer a larger sample size, perhaps a 3.34 ERA and an opponents’ .640 OPS over his final 12 games (11 starts, 64.2 innings) will do the trick. Either way, Haren ended the year on a darn good note, and for a once-impending free agent, that’s indeed a good thing.

August 20, 2013; San Francisco, CA, USA; Boston Red Sox right fielder Shane Victorino (18) rounds the bases after hitting a solo home run off of San Francisco Giants starting pitcher Ryan Vogelsong (32, left) during the third inning at AT

Vogelsong’s last three years follow a similar-ish trend (more on this in a moment). From 2011-12 (369.1 innings), he mustered a 3.05 ERA and 115 ERA+. Good and good. And then came a massive clunker–2013, a year in which he posted a 5.73 ERA and 58 ERA+ in 103.2 innings.

In Vogelsong’s case, identifying an encouraging stretch is a bit harder. Sure, we could easily point to his five August starts, during which he mustered a 2.93 ERA. If the season stopped there, that’d be the encouraging stretch of starts to circle, similar to that of Haren’s.

It didn’t, though, and instead, Vogelsong hung a 6.41 ERA in five September spots, basically canceling out August.

So let’s tally everything up: Haren had two bad years during our three-year sampling, Vogelsong had one. That makes Vogelsong our winner, right?

Not quite. Under the constrains of ERA and ERA+, Vogelsong has indeed been more valuable since 2011. The caveat, of course, is that ERA and ERA+ are good for obtaining a quick, general idea of a comparison like this, but there are far better and fancier stats we can examine.

Observe (stats from 2011-2013)

[table id=11 /]

Pointing out the obvious: Vogelsong’s mere 3.6 WAR pales in comparison to Haren’s 9.4 mark. That’s nearly six wins worth of separation. And no, that can’t be hidden in some fancier stats.

It’d be behoove of me to also point out that Haren has a lofty edge in the innings pitched department (more than 100). And that’s just Dan Haren doing typical Dan Haren things, as he’s fourth in baseball since 2006 in chewing up innings (although, he has taken a few mighty steps back, averaging just 173 innings per year since 2012).

In case you’re wondering, no, the nearly six-win WAR gap can’t entirely be chalked up to their varying workloads. It has its place, and it certainly can’t be ignored, but it’s only a small piece of the puzzle.

Aug 17, 2013; Atlanta, GA, USA; Washington Nationals pitcher Dan Haren (15) pitches against the Atlanta Braves during the fifteenth inning at Turner Field. The Nationals defeated the Braves 8-7 in fifteen innings. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

As for the bigger pieces of that puzzle…

Here’s a big giveaway: Strikeouts and walks, two metrics that go into the process of calculating a pitcher’s FIP, a stat that is factored into a pitcher’s overall WAR. Hence Haren’s lofty edge–the K% gap (20.1 to 18.1) isn’t too big, but the BB% (4.2 to 8.1) is bigger.

So when you amalgamate all the factors–Haren’s superior walk and strikeout numbers, his superior peripherals(FIP, xFIP) and the gap in innings pitched–the considerable WAR difference makes a lot more sense.

Now … let’s clear up a potential misconception: Is Haren’s 2013 K% the most tantalizing mark baseball has to offer? Certainly not. He induces fly balls (FB% of 42 in 2013, fifth-highest in baseball), which isn’t much of an aberration, as his 39.6 percent FB% since 2012 earns him a seat in baseball’s top 25, in that specific department. I’d call him a fly-ball pitcher, not a strikeout pitcher.

Vogelsong is similar in the sense that he’s not a strikeout pitcher, but by the same token, he’s a step down from Haren in that department. His 14.4 K% in 2013 can vouch. Had Vogelsong qualified, that 14.4 percent would smush him in between Jerome Williams and Kyle Kendrick for baseball’s fifth-lowest K%.

Aug 9, 2013; San Francisco, CA, USA; San Francisco Giants starting pitcher Ryan Vogelsong (32) reacts in the dugout during the fourth inning against the Baltimore Orioles at AT

And yes, Vogelsong’s K% nosedived in 2013, plummeting from 20.1 percent in 2012. In case you’re wondering, Vogelsong’s K% in 2011 was 18.1 percent.

To be fair, 2013 wasn’t, let’s say, an “easy” year for Vogelsong. As I already mentioned, there’s the pinky injury that precluded him from making a full season’s worth of starts, and beyond that, the injury, compounded with the missed time, sucked some life out of his fastball. Both his four-seamer and sinker were above 90 miles-per-hour prior to the injury on May 20. When he returned on Aug. 9, both pitches dipped to the high-80s range.

So there there would be some obvious unfairness in basing Vogelsong’s future value solely off his 2013 performance. But here’s something we can conclude: Haren is the better bet for strikeouts going forward.

For a better look, how about a table?

[table id=10 /]

To put the table in a sentence: Haren has notched league-average strikeout numbers since he started pitching full-time in the major leagues. Pretty good.

Why are we making such a big fuss over strikeouts? Well, Strikeouts eliminate a handful of other possibilities–errors, bloopers, infield hits, unluckiness, bad defense. The batter simply takes a seat, no strings attached. Put simple: Projection systems love strikeouts because they dismiss defensive vagaries.

So behold, Steamer’s projections for Vogelsong and Haren in 2014.

[table id=12 /]

Tally em’ up, and Haren goes a perfect 5-for-5. It’s now a good time to crown Haren the winner of our little debate.

The Steamer Projection System seems to agree. And if anything, the 2014 projections serve as a confirmation for our previous findings.

So with that my friends, it’s safe to say that Haren has more upside and bargain potential. Yes, even for an extra $5-or-so million.