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June 8, 2011

On the Beat

A Giant Late Bloomer

by John Perrotto

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The first thing you notice about Ryan Vogelsong is his eyes. They are dark and penetrating, the eyes of a serious man.

Thus, when the right-hander looked straight at a reporter one morning at the Giants' spring training camp in Scottsdale in March and said that he was not only going to pitch in the major leagues this season but succeed there, you knew that at least he believed it was going to happen. Still, it would be hard for anyone to fathom just how well Vogelsong has succeeded in his return to the big leagues following a five-year absence.

The 33-year-old has gone 4-1 with a 1.68 ERA in 10 games, eight of them starts. In 53 2/3 innings, he has allowed 42 hits, three home runs, and 14 walks while striking out 42, giving him per-nine-inning ratios of 7.0 hits, 0.5 home runs, 2.3 walks, and 7.0 strikeouts.

To put into perspective how stunning Vogelsong's success has been since he was called up from Triple-A Fresno on April 17 to replace injured left-hander Barry Zito, consider that his lifetime ERA coming into this season was 5.86 in 315 innings, a whopping four-plus runs higher than this season's mark. Furthermore, Vogelsong had given up 9.9 hits, 1.0 home runs, and 4.4 walks per nine innings while striking out 6.2. His strikeout-to-walk ratio was 1.40 in his seven previous seasons but has jumped to 3.00 in 2011.

If that isn't amazing enough, consider that Vogelsong got knocked around at the Triple-A level in both the International League and Pacific Coast League last season after spending the previous three campaigns pitching in Japan. He had a combined 4.81 ERA in 95 1/3 innings with the Phillies' Lehigh Valley farm club and the Angels' Salt Lake affiliate. He was touched for 10.1 hits per nine innings, and while he struck out 10.4 per nine, that was offset by his issuing 5.9 walks per nine.

Vogelsong became a minor-league free agent at the end of last season and generated little interest. However, the Giants decided to take a flyer because of their familiarity with him. Vogelsong was their fifth-round draft pick in 1998, out of Division II Kutztown University in Pennsylvania, and he made his major-league debut two years later.

"It's one of the best stories I've seen since I've been in the game," said Giants manager Bruce Bochy, who is in his 36th year of professional baseball.

Explaining why Vogelsong has been so successful this time cannot be done succinctly, since various factors have played a role. Chief among them, though, is that he has matured as a pitcher.

"I've really learned to slow the game down," Vogelsong said. "When I was younger, I'd let things speed up on me when I got in a jam. Instead of taking a deep breath and finding a way to get out of it, I'd just to try to throw harder. One of the things I've learned as I've gotten older is that throwers add and pitchers subtract. I'm a pitcher now."

Vogelsong has thrown 60 percent fastballs this season, but he has also been willing to use his other pitches, including a curveball (18 percent), cutter (12 percent), and changeup (10 percent). According to Baseball Info Solutions data available at Fangraphs, Vogelsong has lost barely any velocity on his heater since last pitching in the major leagues. His fastball is averaging 91.1 mph this season, compared to an average of 91.2 during his 2006 stint with the Pirates.

Japanese pitching coaches stress that their pitchers throw more breaking and off-speed pitches than their American counterparts. Thus, Vogelsong had no choice but to diversify his arsenal if he wanted to keep earning his paychecks overseas. Vogelsong said he learned so much about pitching that he would start feeling antsy when he watched major-league games on television.

"Because of the time difference, the games back in the United States would be on in the morning, and I'd always be watching them before I went to the ballpark," said Vogelsong, whose next scheduled start is Friday against the Reds at AT&T Park. "I knew I could come back home and compete at the major-league level if I had the opportunity. I was sure I could be successful if I got another chance because I was a lot smarter pitcher than when I left."

The primary question surrounding Vogelsong's performance is whether he can keep it up. Bochy believes so, as he has said that Vogelsong will remain in the rotation when Zito comes off the DL, which is likely to occur later this month.

A .258 BABIP allowed figures to be tough for Vogelsong to maintain, and his 4.4 percent HR/FB rate might also regress toward the mean. He also has easily outpitched his Fair Run Average (3.70) and Skill-Interactive ERA (3.78), two more indicators that things should level off somewhat. Yet Vogelsong's strikeout rate and strikeout-to-walk ratio are solid and suggest that he should not fall off a cliff and morph back into the overmatched pitcher he was during the first phase of his major-league career.

"He had a long way to travel to work his way back to the big leagues, but he's taken the opportunity we've presented him and done a great job," Bochy said. "He's pitching as well as anybody in the game right now. He's been outstanding."

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Rumors and Rumblings:

Royals catcher Jason Kendall, who had his rotator cuff surgically rebuilt last fall, has started taking batting practice and could return around the All-Star break… Padres catcher Nick Hundley is expected to be activated from the disabled list tonight… Those close to Andy Pettitte say he is being truthful when he says he has no plans to come out of retirement… Mariners manager Eric Wedge plans to use right fielder Ichiro Suzuki at designated hitter at least once a week in an attempt to keep his legs fresh. Suzuki's range has diminished greatly this season and his streak of 10 consecutive Gold Gloves seems in jeopardy.

---

Scouts' views:

Blue Jays right-hander Brandon Morrow: "He really hasn't looked right all season. He's fighting his command, and he's not as sharp as he was last year. I really thought he was going to build on what he did last year and have a breakout season, but it's not happening."

Rays left-hander David Price: "Everyone knows he's one of the best pitchers in the game, but what I like about him is that he really elevates his game when his team needs him. It seems like whenever the Rays are struggling, he comes up with a dominating performance. That's the sign of a true number-one."

Twins outfielder Ben Revere: "This kid makes things happen. He'll take a walk, he sprays the ball around, and not only can he fly, but he's an intelligent baserunner. The Twins have been playing much better lately, and he's given them a spark."

Yankees right fielder Nick Swisher: "He struggled for two months, but he's coming out of his funk now. He's hitting the ball hard, and it's jumping off his bat. He might have a hard time getting back to 30 home runs this season, but you can tell he's back on track."

Cubs right-hander Carlos Zambrano: "I don't know why some people were so shocked about him saying the Cubs were a Triple-A team. If we're going to be brutally honest, he's right. The Cubs are awful. Secondly, he's always been a guy who has spoken his mind and, anger management classes aside, everyone should have known it was only a matter of time before he'd have enough and do something."

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see John's other articles. You can contact John by clicking here

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