As a failed prospect who came back from oblivion to establish himself in his mid-30s and help his team to a world championship, Ryan Vogelsong led a storybook existence in 2011 and 2012. His story has taken a turn for the worse recently, however, and the 35-year-old righty may be on the verge of losing his spot in the Giants rotation.
Vogelsong lasted just two innings against the Blue Jays on May 15, and in the aftermath, it wasn't clear whether he'd get a chance to take his next turn, which comes against the Nationals on Monday night. Questioned about Vogelsong's status after the Toronto drubbing, manager Bruce Bochy initially refused to commit to giving him another turn, but a day later declared, "No moves yet, no changes… This guy has done a lot. He has earned some things, including a longer leash."
Indeed, Vogelsong spent the previous two seasons as a particularly pleasant surprise for the Giants, who drafted him in the fifth round way back in 1998 but got just 34 2/3 major league innings out of him before dealing him to Pittsburgh in the Jason Schmidt deal in July 2001. Rocked for a 6.00 ERA in parts of five seasons with the Pirates from 2001-2006, Vogelsong spent three years in Japan and one split in Triple-A before resurfacing with San Francisco in 2011. Suddenly, everything seemed to click; he notched 13 wins, pitched to a 2.71 ERA in 179 2/3 innings and made the NL All-Star team in 2011, a performance that earned him a modest two-year, $8.3 million extension. He followed that up with another strong season in 2012, with 14 wins and a 3.37 ERA in 189 2/3 innings in the regular season, plus a 3-0 record and a 1.09 ERA in four postseason starts while helping the Giants win their second World Series title in three years.
The Giants can only wish they had that version of Vogelsong this season. Just one of his eight starts has been quality, and his ERA is now a gaudy 8.06. His past four starts, against the Padres, Dodgers, Braves and Blue Jays, have all been disaster starts, with more runs allowed than innings pitched. Only Roy Halladay has as many such starts this year, and he at least had a good excuse; he underwent shoulder surgery last week.
Vogelsong's problems aren't entirely his fault. He's striking out hitters at almost exactly the same rate as his previous two seasons (19.1 percent this year, 19.3 percent prior), but both his .372 batting average on balls in play and 2.4 homers per nine are league-worsts among pitchers with at least 30 innings. His BABIP is 86 points above his 2011-2012 mark, while his home run rate is roughly three times as high his recent numbers thanks to a staggering 21.6 percent rate of home runs per fly ball, more than double the 8.2 percent from the previous two seasons.
Looking more closely at Vogelsong's PITCHf/x data at BrooksBaseball.net, he's lost a bit over 1 mph on his four-seam fastball, sinker and cutter, which together constitute two-thirds of his pitches thrown — not a huge drop, but perhaps a symptom of larger problems. Almost entirely across the board, batters appear to be making far more solid contact with all of his offerings (FF is four-seam fastball, SI is Sinker, FC is cut fastball, CU is curveball, CH is changeup):
Vogelsong is getting fewer whiffs per swing on four of his five pitches, more home runs per fly ball plus line drive on four out of five and more line drives per batted ball on all five; the exceptions to those trends are in bold. He's had particular trouble keeping lefties in the park, yielding seven homers and a .284 isolated power in 96 plate appearances against them, compared to four homers and a .223 isolated power in 103 PA against righties. Since the calendar turned to May, batters are battering him at a .400/.484/.727 lip in 64 PA.
Vogelsong isn't the only Giants pitcher who has struggled this year. Matt Cain has pitched to a 5.43 ERA while allowing 2.1 homers per nine, and Tim Lincecum to a 4.70 ERA while walking 4.2 per nine. As a unit, the rotation's 4.87 ERA ranks second-to-last in the league despite their pitcher-friendly home, while their 43 percent quality start rate ranks third-to-last. Over their last six games — five of which were losses, four of which included at least 10 runs allowed — the starters have been tarred for a 9.81 ERA while allowing 10 additional earned runs and lasting less than five innings per start. Yet despite that skid, the team is 24-20, tied for second in the NL West and just two games out of a wild-card spot thanks largely to a strong bullpen and an offense that ranks fourth in the league in scoring at 4.59 runs per game.
Those units are buying Vogelsong time, though it doesn't hurt that the lack of alternatives isn't much to write home about. Long reliever Chad Gaudin has a 2.10 ERA in 25 innings this year, but he hasn't started a major league game since 2009 and has a career 4.72 ERA in that role. Retreads from their Triple-A Fresno staff such as Boof Bonser, Shane Loux and Yusmeiro Petit don't offer hope beyond spot start duty, and none of the team's top pitching prospects are anywhere close to ready. That leaves 25-year-old righty Chris Heston and 24-year-old lefty Michael Kickham as the top candidates. Both have ERAs around 5.00 thus far — par for the course in the Pacific Coast League — but Baseball Prospectus' Jason Parks included both among his "Factors on the Farm" for 2013, as players who could receive major league looks. Here's what he wrote about the pair:
Heston: After a solid Double-A season, former 12th round pick Chris Heston positioned himself for a major league look in 2013. It’s not an impact profile, but if he can spot his heavy two-seamer down in the zone and use his off-speed stuff to keep hitters off the fringe velocity of the fastball, he can find some success at the highest level.
Kickham: The 24-year-old has good stuff from the left-side—including a plus fastball—with feel and utility for a deep secondary arsenal. Some scouts think Kickham would be a better fit in the bullpen, where his velocity could play up and his command issues could play down, but he has the body and the arsenal to develop into a back of the rotation workhorse. Either way, Kickham is a major-league arm and should see action in 2013.
As the San Francisco Chronicle's Henry Schulman pointed out, both pitchers have been throwing better lately, with Kickham putting up a 1.80 ERA and 25/6 strikeout-to-walk ratio over his last four starts. The Giants aren't ready to call upon either pitcher, and they don't have anything brewing on the trade front this early in the season. So in the meantime Vogelsong will face a Nationals lineup that's without Jayson Werth and Wilson Ramos, both on the disabled list, and possibly without Bryce Harper, who has missed the past two games with swelling in his knee, one of many injuries he sustained in last week's collision with the Dodger Stadium wall. Perhaps that will help Vogelsong reverse course, but it will take a lot more than one outing against a depleted lineup to turn him back into the rotation stalwart from the past two years and write a new chapter in his storybook comeback.