Ryan Vogelsong is Really Good…Somehow
The headline says it all. With his start tonight, Ryan Vogelsong is officially the National League leader in ERA. Needless to say, his journey has been interesting, and admittedly a tad perplexing. Some like to compare him to Colby Lewis as another once promising pitcher who worked himself out in Japan and returned to the Majors in a blaze of glory. As inspiring as Lewis’ story is, I’d say Lewis’ and Vogelsong’s are similar only in that they played overseas.
Lewis spent his two years in Japan with an ERA below 3 and a K/9 rate over 9, and burst onto the scene stateside with similar success. Vogelsong on the other hand spent three years in Japan pitching mostly in relief with a pedestrian strikeout rate and unimpressive peripherals. He came back to the United States and spent 2010 in the Phillies’ and Angels’ minor league systems with curiously high walk and strikeout rates to go along with giving up a ton of runs. He got the call back to the Majors after Barry Zito went down in April and from there never looked back.
What makes this whole Vogelsong situation difficult to evaluate is that there isn’t a set of data with which to compare his current success to his past struggles. We can’t look at his 83.8% strand rate or his .256 BABIP and say it’s an anomaly when measured up against his career numbers because his career numbers from 6-7 years ago simply aren’t relevant anymore. When a player starts succeeding this much after a prolonged absence from the Majors, his past numbers no longer act as an accurate barometer, as they represent a guy who obviously isn’t the same pitcher we see in front of us today.
Then how do we determine how flukey Vogelsong’s successes are? The truth is that there’s no real easy answer. Sometimes things happen that simply don’t make sense. Jose Bautista went from a journeyman utility infielder to an elite power hitter because he miraculously found the right hitting coach. Matt Cain continues to be a successful pitcher despite every peripheral statistic pointing towards a regression that stubbornly refuses to come about. Ryan Vogelsong is just good, and until his statistical success falls off of a cliff like his peripherals suggest it will, he will continue to be good.
You could really point to any number of factors that would raise alarms. Explaining away a .120/.250/.200 opponent’s line with runners in scoring position is one such factor. The stathead could make a strong case that such success is completely unsustainable and that Vogey is a ticking timebomb, but until the regression actually happens, he’ll continue to be an anomaly of epic proportions. You can pour over Fangraphs and Baseball Reference for some sort of explanation, but let me save you the time: you won’t find any good answers there. I’d instead prefer to ride the Vogelsong wave of success until the very end, whenever that may be; I recommend you do the same.
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