In January, Ryan Vogelsong signed a minor-league contract with the San Francisco Giants. He compiled a 3.27 ERA in 22 solid innings in spring training but was sent to Triple-A Fresno to begin the year. He followed that up with two strong starts at Fresno, allowing three runs and striking out 17 in 11 1/3 innings. On April 17, Vogelsong joined the big club when Barry Zito went on the disabled list with a foot injury, and on April 28, he took Zito’s place in the Giants starting rotation.
Once Vogelsong took hold of that rotation spot, he didn’t let go. Nine starts later, his ERA stands at 1.81, a mark bested only by Josh Johnson at 1.64 and Johnny Cueto at 1.68, and ahead of the leader among official qualifiers, Jered Weaver, whose ERA is 2.06.
Vogelsong’s performance this year is all the more surprising because he entered the year with a 5.86 career ERA, compiled in 315 innings pitched for the Giants and Pirates from 2000 to 2006, as described in John Perrotto’s article last week. He spent the 2007-2009 seasons in Japan and returned to the United States for the 2010 season, hoping to catch on with the Phillies but being sent to the minors instead. His performance in the minors in 2010 was not particularly stellar. How is it, then, that Vogelsong has been among the best pitchers in the league in 2011?
Perseverance is part of it, as he described in this April interview with Chris Haft. A couple articles by David Murphy and Troy Nelson also give a good account of his effort and dedication. Certainly, these factors are important components of Vogelsong’s success, but what else can we learn about his pitching approach this year? Let’s take a look at the detailed PITCHf/x data.
Vogelsong throws five pitches: a four-seam fastball, a two-seam sinking fastball, a cut fastball, a circle changeup, and a curveball. The following chart shows how his pitches have moved over the last 40 feet of travel to home plate.
In 2011, his fastball has averaged 91-92 mph, which is close to league average for a right-handed starting pitcher. He has gotten four inches of tailing movement and eight inches of hop from the spin on this pitch, which is fairly typical for a fastball thrown from a three-quarters arm slot. The four-seamer is his primary pitch, used 37 percent of the time to right-handed batters and 26 percent of the time to left-handed batters. You can see a photo of his four-seam grip here.
Vogelsong’s sinker has averaged 91 mph, with seven inches of tailing movement and six inches of hop from spin, giving it just over four inches of movement relative to his four-seam fastball. The sinker has been his most-used offering against lefties (31 percent), and his second-most-common choice against righties (26 percent) You can see his two-seam fastball grip here.
Vogelsong’s cutter has averaged just over 87 mph, about four mph slower than his fastball. The spin movement on his cutter has been two inches of cutting movement and five inches of hop, giving it just over six inches of movement relative to his four-seam fastball. He has used the cutter 12 percent of the time to right-handed batters and nine percent of the time to left-handed batters. A photo of his cut fastball grip can be found here.
Vogelsong’s changeup has averaged 83-84 mph, or eight mph slower than his fastball. The spin movement on his changeup has been eight inches of tailing movement and four inches of hop. The difference in spin and the slower speed have produced eight inches of drop relative to the fastball across the final 40 feet of travel to the plate. He has used the changeup 15 percent of the time to lefties but only five percent of the time to righties. His circle-change grip can be seen here.
Vogelsong’s curveball has averaged 76 mph, with four inches of cutting action and eight inches of drop due to spin. The topspin and slower speed of the curveball have produced two feet of drop relative to his fastball. He has used the curve 20 percent of the time to right-handed batters and 19 percent of the time to left-handed batters. A photo of his curveball grip is here.
Next, let’s look at how Vogelsong has mixed his pitches in different ball-strike counts, split out by batter handedness.
In some ways, Vogelsong has been a typical pitcher in his approach to the count. He has thrown his breaking ball more often when ahead in the count and his fastballs more often when behind the hitter.
He has often started lefties with a sinker (44 percent of first pitches), and he has stuck with the sinker (41 percent of pitches) when behind left-handed hitters, but when he has gotten ahead of them, he has turned to the four-seam fastball, particularly with two strikes. Many pitchers use a changeup or a breaking ball off the plate as their two-strike out pitch, and Vogelsong has done that to some extent with his curveball, but to lefties, his four-seamer has been his go-to strikeout pitch. He has used the changeup to lefties early in the count, with the 1-1 count the most likely time for them to see a changeup (33 percent).
To right-handed hitters—though he has shown something of the same preference to use the sinker more often when behind in the count—the four-seamer has been a more important weapon in most situations, including as a first pitch (43 percent).
Let’s examine each of Vogelsong’s pitch types in more detail. The following charts show where each of his pitches crossed the front of home plate, from the catcher’s viewpoint, along with the result of each pitch.
Vogelsong has kept his four-seam fastball on the outside part of the plate to right-handed batters and mostly on the inner half to left-handed batters. The pitch has been effective at garnering swings and misses up in the zone and above the zone. His four-seamer has resulted in whiffs on 21 percent of swings, as compared to the league average of 16 percent against four-seam fastballs, and Vogelsong has recorded 27 of his 48 strikeouts with this pitch. He has done an excellent job of commanding the pitch against right-handed opponents. Against lefties, it has still been a decent offering, but Vogelsong has been more apt to leave it over the plate or to miss for a ball than he has against same-handed batters.
He has spotted his sinker in on the hands of right-handed batters to great effect. Though 34 percent of sinkers have been put in play by right-handers, 58 percent of those have been on the ground, and another 15 percent were popped up. Only 22 percent of sinkers to righties have been taken for balls. His command of this pitch has been outstanding.
Vogelsong says that he learned a lot from being able to study major-league games while he was pitching in Japan, since games were broadcast in the morning due to the time difference across the Pacific. One of the most important things he learned during that time was the importance of pitching inside. Vogelsong observed, “All the best pitchers seem to be able to get up underneath the hitters' hands, and I knew that if I got the chance to get back to the majors that I had to pitch inside to be successful.” We can see that philosophy successfully put into action this season with his sinker, which bores in on righties.
Against left-handed batters, Vogelsong has aimed the sinker away. He has gotten a lot of called strikes to lefties, and they have managed only six hits on 28 balls in play off the sinker.
The cutter has been Vogelsong’s least-used pitch, and probably for good reason. He has not displayed the outstanding command of this pitch that is evident with his other fastballs. He has gotten whiffs on only 12 percent of swings against the cutter, as compared to the league average of 21 percent, and batters have gotten 10 hits in 23 balls in play off this pitch.
Vogelsong has mostly used the changeup away to left-handed batters. Rather than keeping the changeup down to elicit whiffs as a punch-out pitch, Vogelsong instead has chosen to keep the pitch up. The approach has worked for him so far, with left-handed opponents netting only two singles and a double from 14 balls in play.
Vogelsong’s curveball usage displays an interesting pattern. He has done quite well at keeping the curve down. He has gotten some whiffs—27 percent of swings, which is near league average. However, he has gotten an inordinate number of groundball outs on curveballs below the strike zone. Eighteen of 24 balls in play off the curveball have been on the ground, with 14 of those turning into outs.
Overall, Vogelsong has done a good job of allowing weakly-hit ground balls, with only 14 hits on 83 ground balls. In addition, batters have not been able to pull the ball with much authority against him. Only 19 of 89 air balls have been pulled to the outfield, with three of those going for home runs. For comparison, league average for 89 air balls is 24 pulled to the outfield, with five home runs.
Vogelsong’s positive results on batted balls are probably not completely sustainable going forward. However, it will be interesting to see whether batters can learn to lay off the low curveball that has generated a lot of that weak contact, and whether Vogelsong can maintain the outstanding command that has helped him jam righties with the sinker. Vogelsong credits that improved command this year to learning to trust his stuff: “I believe I can throw all my pitches for strikes now, and they are good enough to get hitters out.”
He has two fastballs with average speed and good command, and a curveball that qualifies as a plus weapon. His changeup and cutter seem to be weaker pitches, but with the strength of his fastball-sinker-curveball combination, he has not had to rely on either the change or the cutter as an out pitch. The pitcher who produced that 5.86 ERA five years ago appears to be gone, replaced by one who knows how to use his stuff to good effect.
As Scott Ostler of the San Francisco Chronicle wrote, “Vogelsong doesn’t appear to be doing anything special, but when he pitches, the catcher’s mitt rarely moves.” That’s a key skill, and if Vogelsong can continue to display it, his chances of success are good.
Thanks to John Perrotto for his assistance with this article.