August 13, 2012
Painting the Black
Same Vogelsong, Second Verse
When Ryan Vogelsong takes the mound tonight against the Nationals, he has the chance to finish the sixth inning for the 23rd consecutive start. The old parlance about death and taxes doesn’t include a bit about Vogelsong going six innings just yet, but it might soon in San Francisco; if Vogelsong pitches every fifth game over the remainder of the season, he could break Juan Marichal’s club record for the longest streak (31) in a season. Vogelsong already owns the franchise’s best post-expansion streak, having last month surpassed Matt Cain’s 18-game stretch in 2011.
The impressiveness of Vogelsong’s streak extends beyond the Giants organization. Since the most recent round of expansion, in 1998, there have been 45 streaks as long as 22 starts with six-plus innings. Just 14 of those 45 streaks were able to last 30 or more games. Once you reach that level, your company is mostly Hall of Fame-quality.
Ryan Vogelsong’s Streak Versus the Longest, 1998-2012
There is no guarantee Vogelsong will join the above fraternity. But sitting this close to names like Johnson, Schilling, and Martinez is an accomplishment within itself. Citing Vogelsong as a potential back-of-the-rotation starter prompted guffaws as recently as two years ago. This wasn’t a case of the availability heuristic, where everyone had to see it work before buying in. This was a case of a team turning to one the league’s demonstrated worst starters. Back in 2004, his only 20-plus start season prior to last year, Vogelsong allowed nearly seven runs per nine innings. The story from there is incredulous and indelible. He washed out of a few organizations, went to Japan, came back, washed out of a few more, and finally landed on his feet with the Giants. Now he’s competing for the National League’s ERA crown, for the second year.
Explaining a breakout candidate, particularly one who seemingly came back from the graveyard, involves some backfitting of narrative to data. The key components for Vogelsong’s revival seem to be as follows.
During Vogelsong’s last outing against the Cardinals, he displayed good fastball command. Take an at-bat against Tyler Greene in the third. Vogelsong threw a four-seamer down and away, a two-seamer down and in, and then a fastball up above the strike zone. Greene had no chance of doing damage with any of these pitches. None leaked over the plate or drifted into a danger zone. They all were located where they needed to be. He kept the ball down in the zone and showed an ability to work both sides of the plate. Giants announcer Mike Krukow summed up the pitcher well, “The fact that he can locate on the corner so consistently, outside, inside, that’s what makes Vogelsong Vogelsong. Not many guys can do that as consistently as he can.”
Go back to the at-bat against Greene and listen to Krukow, or just read his quotes here. He starts speaking after the second pitch of the at-bat, “A first-pitch four-seam fastball that hangs outside corner, you change grips you throw a two-seam fastball on the inside corner at the knees. They’re both fastballs, but they’re both different pitches in the eyes of the hitter.” At this point Vogelsong throws the fastball above the zone and Krukow concludes, “Now you elevate the fastball. There are three pitches, but three different pitches in the eyes of the hitter. All fastballs. Outside-down, inside-down, outside-up.”
Vogelsong throws five pitches: a four-seamer, a two-seamer, a cutter, a curveball, and a changeup. None stand out individually due to their movement or wiggle. Put all together, with their location and usage, and it works. The repertoire plays up because of Vogelsong’s functional intelligence on the mound. He seems to read hitters, swings, and situations. Take Vogelsong’s first at-bat of the night. He started Jon Jay with a fastball away for a called strike. In many cases, the pitcher would throw another fastball and keep tricks in his bag for later. Vogelsong didn’t, opting instead for a curveball. Jay must’ve been thinking fastball, too, as he began to swing; his efforts to hold up went for naught and he was in an 0-2 hole right away. Those small things can add up. Combine it with his ability to locate and it’s an effective, if unsexy combination.
"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."
You can see his self-confidence on display in the Cardinals game. He shakes off Buster Posey with Matt Holliday up, disagreeing with the breaking ball selection and instead jamming Holliday with a fastball up and in (the ball goes foul). Later, he challenges Carlos Beltran with fastballs inside, too. There’s such a thin margin for error involved. Vogelsong has to believe in his stuff, his ability to locate, and his strategy; it’s an all or nothing proposition.
As abstract as the concepts of command, feel, and confidence are, they could be the components behind Vogelsong’s rise. Thus proving that, sometimes, the most important parts go unseen.