When Barry Zito went down with a foot injury on April 17th against the Arizona Diamondbacks many wondered how the Giants would replace his steady, if not grossly overpaid, production. Mentioning Barry Zito’s name will likely draw a wide range of responses from fans, but the fact remains that Zito, at his core, is essentially a league average starting pitcher in the National League. And no matter how much you dislike the guy, there’s some value there. Yes, the Giants paid for Cliff Lee and instead got Randy Wolf. That hurts, but if, and that’s a big if, you can get around his bloated salary, cooler heads will note that Zito does have some value — it’s not what the Giants paying him for, but he does have value.
Fast forward to today: Ryan Vogelsong, who’s known more for being a
high draft pick (edit: I fixed this, Vogelsong was drafted in the 5th round, so not really a ‘high draft pick’) failed prospect than an actual pitcher or the guy included in the Jason Schmidt trade with Pittsburgh, has stepped into Zito’s rotation slot and filled in admirably. In 28 innings pitched in the starting role, Vogelsong has compiled a 2.25 ERA to go with a 8.4 K/9 and a 3.21 BB/9. Vogelsong hasn’t been the product of a “lucky” ERA, either. His FIP is currently 3.05 as a starter and it tells us that Vogelsong is controlling the things (K’s, BB’s, HR’s) that we like to see from successful pitchers. Vogelsong’s success, albeit brief and unexpected, has led many people to ask the age old question, “Is he really this good?”
First, let’s take a look at what kind of pitches Ryan Vogelsong throws. Below is a sort of frequency graph, by pitch-type, that tells us the velocity on each of Vogelsong’s offerings.
|Pitch-type||# Thrown||Avg. MPH|
As you can see, Vogelsong is a five pitch guy. His pitches, in order of the total number thrown, are as follows: Four-seam fastball, two-seam fastball, curveball, slider, and changeup. By the graph, Vogelsong has some nice separation, in terms of velocity, on his pitches. The curveball is generally around 76-78, the changeup 83-85, the slider 86-88, and both of his fastballs (two-seam, four-seam) work around 90-92. We would expect the four-seamer to be a little faster than the two-seamer, and this bears out in the numbers. The average four-seam fastball is right at 91.1, and the average two-seam at 90.5.
In addition to looking at Vogelsong’s pitch-types, I wanted to check out his whiff-rate (swings/misses) on his five pitches.
I think this is where things get a little interesting. Vogelsong’s curveball, when compared to this post on benchmarks for pitch-types by PFX, actually looks like a decent little swing-and-miss pitch for the 33-year-old right-hander. Of course, it’s way too early to draw any solid conclusions from this data — especially when we’re talking about a total of 92 pitches — but the curve has been good to Vogelsong. The drawback for Vogelsong — and I would wager this is true for most curves — is that he often throws the pitch for a ball. Out of the 92 total curves, 43 have been called balls.
Lots of misses down in the zone = good
The pitches up in the zone = not so good
All of Vogelsong’s other pitch-types are below average when it comes to the whiff-rate.
The most surprising thing about Vogelsong this season is his walk-rate. As discussed above, it’s currently at 3.21 walks per nine innings, and I think that’s where it gets difficult to try and project Vogelsong. For example, the ZiPS updated projections — which will take into account Vogelsong’s excellent start — have his current updated walk-rate at 5.00 for the entire season. ZiPS thinks his K-rate is largely real, which is interesting. That’s where the question lies in Vogelsong being a useful starter or not. He still has a couple of numbers that are alarming — namely a very low BABIP and a high LOB% — but, I think, it comes down to his walk-rate. If Vogelsong is truly a sub-4.00 walks per nine pitcher (with a 7.5-ish K-rate) he’s mighty useful. However, I’ll have a hard time betting on the guy that had a 5.9 BB/9 just a year ago in AAA. Though, a point of hope is that while in Japan from 2007-2009 Vogelsong’s walk-rate was a more reasonable 3.2 per nine.
So, is Vogelsong really this good? I honestly have no freaking clue. And that’s what’s great about baseball. He certainly wouldn’t be the first to come in and spin 30 masterful innings before tanking. We’ve seen it time and time again. That’s not take anything away from Vogelsong, and how hard he’s worked. His story is impressive and 100% feel-good. It’s impossible to root against a guy like Ryan Vogelsong. It often feels like players with such a great story, the ones that fought through adversity to get back where they were, lose that skill, or talent, or bit of luck, whatever it may be, just as quickly as they found it and they’re sent packing again. I hope this doesn’t happen to Vogelsong. Heck, I’m as skeptical as anyone, but that doesn’t mean I’ll stop rooting for him. However, experience tells us that we should continue to watch him pitch with reasonable expectations before kicking Barry Zito to the curb. In the meantime, enjoy the story, and hope that he’s more Andres Torres than Ryan Sadowski.