In a week that featured such ugly stories as the Carlos Zambrano situation and the Logan Morrison debacle, the sweet story of Ryan Vogelsong continues its merry tune. He won his tenth game yesterday against two losses to continue such an "out of the blue" season that you can't help smiling when thinking about it. Vogelsong's season is serendipity, friends. There is no other word for it.
The American Heritage Dictionary defines "serendipity: as "The faculty of making fortunate discoveries by accident." Yes, that about sums up the San Francisco Giants finding Ryan Vogelsong off the scrap heap of vagabond baseball players. Well, saying the Giants found him is a little misleading. They more rediscovered him since they drafted him in the first place way back in 1998. He had a cup of coffee with them in 2000 and pitched well for six innings in four relief appearances. Then he was awful in 2001, losing three games for the Giants before they traded him along with Armando Rios for Jason Schmidt and John Vander Wal.
Vogelsong lost two more games for the Pirates after that trade before being shut down for Tommy John surgery. He missed all of 2002 after the surgery and most of 2003 but the Pirates pitched him for five starts in six appearances that season. After finishing 2001 with a 6.75 ERA, he finished 2003 with a 6.55 ERA. The Pirates then put him in their rotation full time in 2004. It did not go well.
How bad was it? It was historically bad. His season in 2004 was one of only fifteen seasons in major league history where a pitcher made at least 26 starts and finished with an ERA of 6.50 or higher. That's in Jose Lima and Jason Bere territory.
The Pirates scrapped the starting idea the next season and Vogelsong made 40 relief appearances for the Pirates in 2005, mostly as a long man. That was at least a somewhat decent season. His ERA that season was 4.43, which in those offensive-minded seasons was at least good for a 96 ERA+. But 2006 was back to the bad times as he made 20 relief appearances, splitting the year in the minors and majors and finished with an ERA of 6.25. So let's recap Vogelsong's seasons to that point:
- 2001 - ERA: 6.75, WHIP: 1.702
- 2003 - ERA: 6.55, WHIP: 1.773
- 2004 - ERA: 6.50, WHIP: 1.617
- 2005 - ERA: 4.43, WHIP: 1.500
- 2006 - ERA: 6.39, WHIP: 1.579
That wasn't exactly a recipe for success. At that point in his career, Fangraphs had him at a .3 WAR and Baseball-reference.com has him at -3.9. It was little wonder that when the Japanese team, the Hanshin Tigers, came calling in 2007, he went. And it's not like he was great in Japan in his three years there either. His Japanese record finished with a win/loss record of 11-14 with a 4.22 ERA.
Back in America in 2010, the Phillies signed him and sent him to their Triple A team in Lehigh Valley. He was unspectacular with a 4.91 ERA. They released him. Then the Angels signed him and he pitched the remainder of the 2010 season for the Angels' Triple A team in Salt Lake City. He finished there with a 4.66 ERA and the Angels did not re-sign him in 2011.
For some reason, perhaps because of his high strikeout rate in his mostly ineffective innings in Triple A in 2010 or because they were familiar with him, Vogelsong was given a Spring Training invite by the Giants this season. And that is where the serendipity started. He pitched brilliantly in the spring. He then went to the Giants' Triple A team and pitched brilliantly there, going 2-0 with an 1.59 ERA. Then Barry Zito got hurt. The rest has been...well...serendipitous.
In a season where the Giants are really struggling to be a factor in the NL West division so they have a chance to repeat as champions, Vogelsong is 10-2 with an ERA of 2.48. His WHIP of 1.283 is easily the best of his career. Fangraphs is still somewhat dubious as they give him a FIP of 3.53, which is +1.05 above his actual ERA. But even that is far and away the best he's ever pitched.
So how is he doing it? For one, he is using a plus fastball in the lower 90s and a plus curve around 76 MPH and mixes in a circle change that is a tick above league average. A big part of his success is a lack of patience by opposing batters. They are chasing 31.9 percent of his pitches out of the strike zone. Part of that has been facilitated by getting a higher percentage of first-pitch strikes than at any point of his career. His BABIP is pretty much league neutral, but his strand rate is an incredibly high 82.6 percent.
But do we have to talk about all that? Do we have to look for flaws in the armor of a 34 year old pitcher having success for the first time in his professional career? Let's just enjoy the story. Let us simply smile at the improbability that this guy who has been around the world, had Tommy John surgery and spent a career allowing 1.5 or more base runners per inning is suddenly 10-2 for a contending team. The name, "Vogelsong," means those that listen to the birds sing. Let's just listen to the birds sing and enjoy this improbable success story.