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June 13, 2012

Punk Hits

Pitching In the Age of Comebacks

by Ian Miller

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Jeff Francis was the ninth-overall pick for the Rockies in 2002, sped through the low minors, and was a mainstay of the Colorado rotation by 2005. In 2007 he led his team to the World Series, starting all three Game Ones. A torn labrum sidelined him for all of 2009, and although he was moderately effective in 2010, the Rockies decided not to pick up his option. After a stint with the Royals in 2011, he began 2012 in the Reds minor league system.

Ryan Vogelsong was the fifth-round (158th overall) pick for the Giants in 1998. Prior to 2011, if you remembered Vogelsong at all, it was as one of the guys shipped to the Pirates for Jason Schmidt. Vogelsong sat out the whole 2002 season (the year Francis was drafted—symmetry!) recovering from Tommy John surgery, and pitched unremarkably for the Pirates after that, finally heading over to Japan to ply his trade in the Far East for three seasons. He pitched in the minors for the Phillies and the Angels in 2010, and made the Giants in April 2011 only because Barry Zito went down. All he’s done since then is pitch 250 innings with an ERA+ of 136, and make an All-Star Game appearance. No big deal.

On Saturday, both of these guys started games for the teams that drafted them—NL West teams, facing AL West powerhouses. One was the losing pitcher, the other, the winner. I’m a sucker for symmetry, so let’s take a look at how these guys did it (or, in Francis’ case, didn’t do it).

The Hero’s Return

A physics major, Francis was the Rockies' first round pick in the 2002 draft. He had posted an ERA under 1.00 as a sophomore, and faced wooden bats in summer leagues in Alaska, so he was ready to adapt quickly. He already has equivalencies better than most pitchers in their system. He gets ahead quickly, and works with four finished pitches. Big body. Fast track. Think Mulder.
Baseball Prospectus 2003

Last week, Jeff Francis opted out of his Reds contract and signed a new deal with his original club. Francis won’t be a difference-maker for the Rockies this year: just 58 games into the season, Colorado is already 13 games out of first place and 10 games under .500. But with the Rockies throwing out one of the worst rotations in all of baseball, they need guys who will eat some Coors Field innings. Francis was available, still lives in the area, and, by all reports, is a great clubhouse guy. This was a no-brainer for GM Dan O’Dowd and skipper Jim Tracy.

Unfortunately for Francis, he was thrown to the lions, or at least the baseball equivalent: he had to face a suddenly hot-hitting Angels team at high altitude, and it got ugly early. Five pitches into the game, the Angels were up 1-0, and they would never relinquish the lead. Francis lasted 3 1/3 innings, giving up 8 runs (all earned) on 10 hits. He didn’t pitch poorly per se—all 10 hits were singles, and he walked only one batter—but he didn’t pitch well, either (he only struck out one batter).

And while the box score doesn’t show any Colorado errors, his defense didn’t help him much. Jordan Pacheco played a bunt into a base hit, Tyler Colvin missed the cutoff man and allowed Torii Hunter to take an extra base, and Jason Giambi failed to fall onto a groundball hit about 18 inches to his right. Guillermo Moscoso also allowed Francis’ two inherited baserunners to score.

I asked BP’s resident pitching expert, Doug Thorburn, for his take on Francis’ encore performance. Doug thought that, while his command was good overall, his offspeed pitches weren’t effective enough to keep hitters off balance against 86-mph fastballs and sinkers. “With no fear of the breaker and early recognition of the change,” Thorburn said, “Angels hitters were just sitting dead-red on the fastball/sinker (especially with less than 2 strikes). His sinker and his changeup were flat while the curve was not sharp - a recipe for disaster.”

Can Francis be an effective stopgap for the Rockies this season? Manager Jim Tracy has already said that Francis will get at least one more start, so we’ll have at least one more opportunity to form an opinion. Thorburn thinks Francis can hold down a job if he makes some adjustments (but admits that’s a pretty big “if”):

Francis plays so close to the margin that he needs to be almost perfect with his repertoire. A lot of the hard-hit sinkers from yesterday were within a couple inches of on-target, and some were even dead-on the glove, but the hitters were able to get a good piece of the ball anywhere in the zone. The movement on the sinker and the changeup depend on pre-set pronation and supination, and Francis could still be finding the feel for those pitches. So some of the issue could just be shaking off the rust.

The Emergence of VogelStrong

Unhittable for Salem-Keizer, but for San Jose, while he had excellent peripheral numbers (26 K and 4 BB in 19 IP), he got banged around pretty hard. A pitcher who can throw but not pitch, but he has time to learn.
Baseball Prospectus 1999

It’s OK if you don’t believe in Ryan Vogelsong. No sensible person does. He was a great story last year; he came back from Japan and went 13-7 with a 2.71 ERA as a 33-year-old. Total fluke. It’s the only explanation.

Except he’s still doing it.

As of this writing, Vogelsong is third in the majors in ERA among qualified starters. Yes, ERA is nonsense, but still! That’s crazy! (In the interest of fairness, his FIP is 3.80 -- 55th in the majors—and his xFIP is 4.59, good enough for 105th.) Everything about him screams “regression to the mean.”

Part of it is the ballpark. Vogelsong has pitched nearly two-thirds of his 2012 innings at AT&T Park, which BP ranks as fifth-stingiest in the bigs. (Jeff Francis’ home park, Coors Field, is no. 1 overall for offense—more symmetry!) As Vogelsong pitches more innings on the road, and as the weather warms up and AT&T regresses to a friendlier offensive environment, we should see corresponding bumps in his runs allowed.

Vogelsong is also doing all this with reduced velocity. According to his player card on Brooks Baseball, his velocity is down about 1 mph on every pitch. It’s very possible that this decrease is related to the lower-back soreness Vogelsong has been dealing with since spring training, so it could be temporary, but it’s yet another warning sign.

But none of that seemed to matter when he took the hill last Saturday against the assassins from Arlington. He held Texas’ high-octane offense to just 3 hits and 1 run in 7 ⅔ innings. (The lone run came on a homer from Mitch Moreland to begin the 8th, when his fastball had slowed by a critical 1 to 2 mph.) So how is he doing it?

Near as I can figure, it’s good fastball control and a heavy sinker. He’s able to spot his four-seam fastball on the outer half of the plate to righties early in the count, and induce weak contact with the sinker inside to put them away. His four-seam fastball is also an effective weapon against lefties, who tend to either swing through it or pop it up. Vogelsong’s curveball and change are also decent offerings and help keep hitters off-balance and set them up for the sinker and the fastball.

As always with a sinkerballer, infield defense in critical, and the Giants’ this year has been awful. San Francisco is tied for the league lead in errors per game with Baltimore at .93, so the fact that Vogelsong’s BABIP stands at .252 is something of a miracle. That figure will almost certainly regress some toward .300, and Vogelsong’s stats will suffer accordingly. Then again, people—people far smarter than me, even—said this same thing last year, and Vogelsong made them look kinda dumb. But as a writer on this site, I am contractually obligated to mention “regression to the mean” at least twice in every article, so I’m just trying to be accountable here.

Twenty-five or 30 years ago, neither of these guys would be pitching at any level. The recovery rate from Tommy John surgery was lousy, and shoulders, well, those might as well have been the Hodge conjecture. So the fact that Francis and Vogelsong both started games on Saturday is kind of awesome. Jeff Francis, the former first-rounder, got hit hard and didn’t escape the fourth inning. Will he make the necessary adjustments and become an effective stopgap for the Rockies? Vogelsong dominated one of the best offenses in the game and helped his team avoid a sweep. Will Vogelsong’s underwhelming peripherals catch up with him and ultimately undo him?

I don’t know, man. That’s why they play the games. And that’s why we watch.

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

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