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September 18, 2012

Painting the Black

Vogelsong (Remix)

by R.J. Anderson

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Analysis, like comedy, is about timing. I wrote a flattering profile on Ryan Vogelsong’s pitching, in mid-August, praising his command, feel, and confidence. The key statistic was Vogelsong’s 22 consecutive starts without an outing shorter than six innings.

On the night of the piece’s publication, Vogelsong allowed eight runs and failed to complete the third inning, ending his streak. The bad outing appeared to be a hiccup in an otherwise tranquil season, but the problem is that hiccups often come in spurts. Vogelsong took the mound a few days later. He threw 96 pitches over three innings before his removal. One quality start later, Vogelsong appeared to be back on track. Except he then went and allowed three home runs. Over his three most recent starts, including Sunday, Vogelsong has allowed 17 runs in 11 2/3 innings. Hiccup.

You learn more from being wrong than right. And so, I took to Vogelsong’s most recent outing to see where I had erred, to see if my opinion on Vogelsong would change, to see if the pitcher I praised still existed (in some quantity or another), and to see if I could figure out his ailments. Before getting to all of that, here is an inning-by-inning summary of important events and/or sequencing that caught my eye during the game. 

The first inning
Vogelsong started the game, against the pint-sized Adam Eaton, in his typical manner. He threw a pair of fastballs on the inside paint, working to a 1-1 count. Then came a changeup away (fouled off), a curveball away (fouled off), a curveball inside (fouled off), and another changeup away. Though the pitch moved off the plate, Eaton took it to center field for a hit. Vogelsong would work through the leadoff single with a strike’em out, throw ‘em out double play. With two outs and the bases empty, Vogelsong coaxed Justin Upton into a harmless flyball, on a 3-0 count, to end the inning. 

The second inning
A seven-pitch walk to Miguel Montero put Vogelsong on the ropes to start the inning again. He strikes out the next three batters on 13 pitches. A nice sequence against Ryan Wheeler sees Vogelsong locate a fastball down and in, another down and away, another up and inside (fouled off), and a cutter up and away for strike three. 

The third inning
After retiring the first two batters effortlessly, Vogelsong locks horns with Eaton again. Eight pitches, a questionable call or two, and a frustrated reaction later, Vogelsong has issued a free pass. His immediate bounce back is fine; he gets to 0-2 on Aaron Hill. But the second baseman takes advantage of a fastball that leaks over the plate, and hits it through the infield for a single. Vogelsong falls behind Upton, and this time isn’t fortunate enough to escape. He throws a cutter on a 1-0 count that Upton barrels up and hits off the top of the center field wall. Two runs score, and the Diamondbacks claim the lead. 

The fourth inning
Vogelsong gets Paul Goldschmidt to hit a grounder to shortstop, but Joaquin Arias bobbles the ball and allows the first baseman to reach. After striking out Wheeler for the second time, Vogelsong gets into a full count with Cody Ransom. Unlike their first encounter, Ransom is thinking along with Vogelsong, and takes the thigh-high fastball on the outside corner into deep center for a double. Bruce Bochy calls for an intentional walk against Gerard Parra, bringing up the pitcher Patrick Corbin, and then has the corners play in, as if anticipating a squeeze play.

Vogelsong gets to a 1-2 count against Corbin and opts for an inside fastball. Corbin hits a grounder, just inside the bag, that sneaks by the in-drawn Belt and skirts down the line for a three-run triple. Eaton is up again but Vogelsong, perhaps exasperated with the previous play, has nothing for him. He misses badly with two fastballs, a changeup, and a curveball, thereby issuing his fourth walk of the day.

Bochy pops his head out of the dugout and ends Vogelsong’s day after 88 pitches, 3 1/3 innings, five runs (though two more will be tacked on), four walks, five hits, and six strikeouts. 

The reaction
It’s easy to look at the line—along with the recent run of poor starts—and suspect something is seriously wrong with Vogelsong. In watching him, it appeared the stuff is still there. He wasn’t throwing batting practice to the Diamondbacks, nor was he making constant mistakes. There were two issues prevalent throughout the start worth talking about.

The first issue is location. Vogelsong is known for his ability to command his pitches. On Sunday, he seemed just a bit off. Granted, this could stem from Jim Joyce’s strike zone, but a pitcher has to adjust to the zone, not bull-headedly attempt to expand the umpire’s zone by throwing to the same spot. There were a few calls—the changeup called a ball on Eaton’s walk, for instance—that, had they went Vogelsong’s way, might have changed the dynamic of the game. Narrow misses aside, Vogelsong did encounter patches where his control seemed to waver. These instances came in clusters, which could be a tip that something was amiss in Vogelsong’s mechanics.

The second is finishing. Six of the nine batters that reached base against Vogelsong via hit or walk did so in two-strike counts. (The other three occurrences were the intentional walk, the non-competitive walk to Eaton, and Upton’s 1-0 double.) Here, Vogelsong’s lack of a true out pitch comes to the forefront. Arizona’s hitters were able to spoil good pitches, like his attempts at putting them away with a fastball, by keeping their wits about them. When Vogelsong is on, he’s a lot like a pitching slot machine: You don’t know what’s going to pop up, but you know your chances of hitting the jackpot are slim to none. It’s worth noting that Vogelsong assisted the D’Backs by improperly executing on a few two-strike pitches, as well.

Lengthy at-bats turn into lengthy innings, and lengthy innings turn into short outings.  Vogelsong threw 17 pitches in the first inning, 20 in the second, 26 in the third, and 21 in the fourth before his removal. Pitch economy has been an issue for Vogelsong as of late. He averaged 15 pitches per inning during his first 21 starts this season; that number has increased to 20 pitches per inning over his last seven tries. How Vogelsong will go about fixing this is unclear. While his pitch usage rates have remained relatively static, the interplay between the pitches is more important (and less quantifiable) in determining whether the sequence is a good one or not.

While no one can be sure Vogelsong’s sequencing is to blame, the Giants seem confident that the issue is not Vogelsong’s health. “The good news is that he's healthy and he's shown how well he can throw at times," Bochy told Chris Haft of MLB.com, before offering his own theory. "He's fighting himself a little bit. He just has to back off a little. I think he's going a little too hard."

“Going a little too hard,” as Bochy puts it, can manifest itself in a few ways. I asked our Daniel Rathman, a Giants fan, about his interpretation of Vogelsong’s recent stretch. Rathman pointed out two issues. One is Vogelsong’s emotion on the mound; he’s “pitching angry” lately, according to Rathman. The other is Vogelsong’s decreased insistence on pitching in on the hands to right-handed batters. This circles back to the location issues discussed above. The question is if the two changes go hand-and-hand.

If Vogelsong’s anger were leading to overthrowing then you would expect his pitches to flatten and miss over the middle. Go back to Sunday’s game. Vogelsong did miss over the middle on occasion, but it only burned him in two instances: the Hill single and the Upton double. Ransom doubled on a 3-2 thigh-high fastball away, and Corbin tripled on a pitch that Joyce might have called a ball; had Belt been playing in his normal position, it’s possible the Corbin ball turns into a double play and Vogelsong continues his outing.

The tidy theory that ties together all of these symptoms—the bouts of poor location, struggling to finish batters, Vogelsong’s anger—is that the league has figured him out. It’s too convenient for my tastes. Perhaps if this breakdown had occurred last season, when the new Vogelsong were still fresh to the league, then maybe this would be a believable explanation. As it is, it seems like Vogelsong is being beat by some occasionally poor pitching and some poor timing, as well as by his own emotions. 

Because of the stuff, the wit, and the command displayed by Vogelsong over most of the past two seasons, I’m still choosing to maintain my confidence in him. But this game can work in funny ways, and does so here. I saw the foil to the three attributes I highlighted as the keys to Vogelsong’s success. Without them, he isn’t a good pitcher. With them, he’s a capable middle-of-the-rotation starter. The question the Giants and Vogelsong face is how to get him back to competence. The question we on the outside face is what to expect moving forward. As John McPhee once wrote, of his longtime editor, “[He informed] me that the future was actually the second-worst subject in the world, the worst being the Loch Ness monster.”

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

Related Content:  San Francisco Giants,  Ryan Vogelsong

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