Quite a lot, actually. And, I think it’s been one of the main reasons why Ryan Vogelsong has had such an amazing year.
Entering today, Ryan Vogelsong has thrown 84.1 innings while striking out 68 batters to just 27 walks. If you like the per-nine-innings ratios, that’s a 7.26 K/9 and a 2.88 BB/9. If you total things by WAR, the FIP-based version on FanGraphs has Vogelsong at 1.4 wins above replacement. The more ‘results-based’ version on Baseball-Reference has Vogelsong at 2.6 wins above replacement. If you split the difference, Vogelsong is on pace for a 3-4 win season. That’s quite good (borderline insane for a 33-year-old pitcher that’s struggled over his entire career), but you already knew that, and he’s been a major reason why the Giants have been able to weather the storm of Zito’s injury.
We’ve written a lot about Vogelsong on this site since the season started. Simply clicking his tag will lead you to several posts on his season. It’s cliche, but Ryan Vogelsong is why it’s fun to be a fan of the game of baseball. He’s the reason that watching the sport can be so fun, amazing, weird, and mystifying.
Earlier in the year, I looked at some PITCHf/x data on Vogelsong and came to the somewhat unsatisfying conclusion of:
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.
Since then, Vogelsong has tacked on another 50 innings of very good pitching. A cursory glance at the updated ZiPS projections will tell you that the projection systems still buy Vogelsong’s strikeout-rate, however, his walk-rate is still something of a mystery.
What has stuck out to me this season when watching Vogelsong is his control of the fastball. It’s a pitch that he throws with two different grips (2-seam, 4-seam), and by my eyes, he has located the pitch well this year. I decided to take all of the fastballs that Vogelsong has thrown this year — 750 in total — and plot them by ‘heat’ or ‘density’ maps. The graphs are based on a simple density based on location thrown. The more pitches in a location, the darker the colors. I also split the graphs by batter handedness.
I’ve included a small data table for the called strike% (called strikes/total pitches), whiff% (swinging strikes/total swings), and ball% (called balls/total pitches). Here’s a link to Harry Pavlidis‘ extraordinarily useful bench marks for pitch-types post on The Hardball Times.
Batter Called% Whiff% Ball% L 20.3% 18.4% 38.5% R 19.4% 19.9% 30.3%
Against left-handed batters (LHB), Vogelsong works his fastball away. His called strike percentage against LHB’s (20.3%) is nearly identical to his called% against RHB’s (19.4%). When using his fastball against lefties, Vogelsong works away, away, and away. AT&T Park is death to lefties, and I imagine that for most lefties, trying to hit for power away from your pull-field is hard to do. There is a tradeoff to working away; Vogelsong’s away approach to LHB’s results in more called balls, nearly an 8% increase over his fastball approach with RHB’s. As a RHP, working away from LHB’s seems like a pretty normal approach, but Vogelsong’s execution looks solid.
Vogelsong is more included to ‘bite off’ more of the zone against right-handed batters (RHB) when throwing his fastball. The heat map pattern isn’t nearly as defined. Vogelsong’s fastball is getting nearly 3-4% more whiffs than your league average fastball, and at an average of 91.3 mph, he shouldn’t be too afraid to work in the strike zone.
Because it’s hard to look at a single heat map and get meaningful results, let’s compare Vogelsong to another pitcher on the Giants that sometimes struggles with control — Jonathan Sanchez.
Unlike Vogelsong, Sanchez doesn’t have the ability to work to one side of the plate. He misses up in the zone more than Vogelsong and his spread seems to be much wider, and more erratic. This plays into my theory that Sanchez often doesn’t know where he’s going to throw the ball. Still, he’s an effective pitcher, but one that’s different from Vogelsong. One brief data point on Sanchez, his fastball velocity is down to 89.7 mph this season. One has to wonder if a full season of starting in 2010 plus playoff baseball has taken a toll on Sanchez’s arm?
By FanGraphs pitch-type values, Vogelsong’s fastball (+13.9 runs) ranks as the 14th best heater in baseball among starting pitchers (min. 70 IP). That’s better than: Michael Pineda (12.7), Tim Hudson (12.6), Cole Hamels (7.7), and Clayton Kershaw (6.8) just to name a few. Not too shabby for a guy pitching in Allentown, PA a year ago.
I have no idea — and no one really does — if Vogelsong can keep pitching as well as he has. I think his success or failure will be tied directly to his ability to throw strikes — and his control of the fastball. He struggled to throw strikes last year in AAA, but during his time in Japan, his walk-rate was more reasonable (though, I have no access to league averages for Japan). At this point, I’m ready to call Vogelsong a deserving All-Star and I’m glad Bochy is taking him to Arizona. It’s a great baseball story, but more than that, Vogelsong has earned it this year.