Right-hander Ryan Vogelsong proved to be one of the feel-good stories of the year in 2011.
The 34-year-old owned an unsightly career 5.86 ERA through 315 major-league innings with the San Francisco Giants and Pittsburgh Pirates coming into the 2011 season. He then seemingly flipped a switch and handcuffed the league with a 2.71 ERA and 3.67 FIP over 179.2 innings for the Giants and became a key part of their starting rotation.
That success has trickled into the 2012 season. Vogelsong tossed 7.1 innings against the Dodgers on Tuesday evening, surrendering only one run on eight scattered hits and one strikeout. That lowered his season ERA to 2.94 and his FIP to 3.51, both of which are better than average in the National League thus far in 2012.
Moving forward, though, this rags-to-riches story has some significant hurdles to overcome.
Many of the concerns are captured in his xFIP, which currently sits at 4.28 and is worse than the National League average (3.74) this year, but more specifically, Ryan Vogelsong will have to improve his control if he hopes to maintain this success.
His walk rate of 3.74 BB/9 ranks above the National League average for starting pitchers. The real concern, however, lies in the fact that Vogelsong struggles to throw strikes in general. Of 114 qualified starting pitchers this season, the following five have thrown the fewest percentage of pitches within the strike zone:
Simply throwing few pitches within the strike zone does not necessitate ineffectiveness on the mound. For example, Dillon Gee makes the above list, yet has a 3.69 FIP and only a 2.25 BB/9 walk rate. That is due to the fact that Gee generates a ton of swings-and-misses (11.5% SwStr%) and gets opposing batters to chase out of the strike zone with regularity, as depicted by his 38.7% O-Swing%. A pitcher can live outside the strike zone if he can induce swings.
Vogelsong, however, only has a 5.9% swinging strike rate — which ranks 102nd out of 114 qualified starting pitchers — and only draws swings on pitches outside the strike zone a modest 29.4% of the time. That is just below the National League average at 29.5%.
So, how has he suppressed his run totals with shaky control and without the high percentage of swinging strikes to support that habit of not throwing pitches within the strike zone?
Quite simply, his ERA has remained low due to the fact that his strand rate has been well above average for the second-consecutive season. In 2011, Vogelsong had a LOB% of 80.4%, which was the fourth best amongst qualified starting pitchers. In 2012, that LOB% number is back up at 79.2%.
Perhaps some of that success stranding runners this season can be attributed to his ability to limit line drives. His 13.5% line drive rate ranks amongst the ten lowest line drive rates from qualified starting pitchers.
That low line drive rate suggests he is generating plenty of ground balls and inducing weak contact. Sure enough, we see that his infield fly ball rate is sky-high at 15.8% and his ground ball rate is roughly league average at 46.9%.
Do not expect Vogelsong to continue to suppress line drives, however. His career average line drive rate sits at 21.3% and nothing in his repertoire suggests he has developed a new pitch or a new approach that would suddenly cause such a precipitous drop in line drives. In fact, his overall stuff this spring should only cause more concern, as his velocity is down across the board about 1.5 MPH.
Higher line drive rates naturally lead to more base hits and more runs scored. As his line drive rate begins to trend back toward his career norms, we can reasonably expect his run prevention to worsen and his ERA to rise.
It has been a great run for Vogelsong. His success in 2011 earned him a two-year, $8.3M contract, and he has rewarded the Giants’ leap of faith with further success in 2012. The above conversation does not intend to suggest that the right-hander cannot continue that success and effectiveness on the mound. It does, however, intend to point out the red flags about his performance this year and why we can reasonably expect some struggles ahead for Ryan Vogelsong.
J.P. Breen is a graduate student at the University of Chicago. For analysis on the Brewers and fantasy baseball, you can follow him on Twitter (@JP_Breen).