There are pitchers who break out, there are pitchers who come out of nowhere to succeed, and then there's Ryan Vogelsong. Straight from the Files of WTF?!? came Vogelsong's 2011 season, a year that saw him finish fourth in the National League in ERA and sixth in ERA+ despite not having thrown off a major league mound since 2006. Vogelsong's year was one of the most inexplicable baseball stories you'll ever see, and he probably helped earn a championship for more than one manager lucky enough to nab him off waivers when he joined the Giants rotation in May.
Of course, the question beckons: Is this new, improved Vogelsong 2.0 here to stay, or was he here to simply tease us and tempt some poor sap into drafting him too high, only to ride off into the dust bin of baseball history? Should we be confident in Vogelsong come draft day? Is he really this good now that he's had a strange career awakening? Exactly how skeptical should we be about his 2011?
Ryan Vogelsong began his major league life as essentially a punchline, the B-grade prospect that the Pirates traded Jason Schmidt for, only to see Schmidt morph into an All-Star. The Pirates tried desperately to justify the trade by giving Vogelsong opportunities year after year, but trying to get value out of him back then was like trying to shove a square peg into a triangular hole. He was bad. Very bad. His 2004 line (6-13, 6.50) is one that could make angels cry. Not surprisingly, the Vog quickly washed out of the league, never to be seen again. Or so we thought...
Vogelsong inexplicably resurfaced last season with the Giants, the team that had originally drafted him, and (even more inexplicably) found himself in their starting rotation when Barry Zito went down with an injury. With observers all around raising a skeptical eyebrow, Vogelsong proceeded to turn the baseball world on its ear. He was pretty much unstoppable through the first few months, entering the All-Star break with a 2.17 ERA and earning a trip to the mid-summer classic (which had nothing to do with Bruce Bochy being the NL All-Star manager. Nothing at all). He ended up winning thirteen games and finishing among the league leaders in ERA. Waiver wire lurkers hailed to their new junk yard king.
Everybody is dying to know, of course, if Vogelsong can do this again. When a pitcher has this kind of out-of-the-blue season, we should probably first look at his peripheral numbers and see if any chicanery lies within. If a pitcher succeeds and wins a lot of games despite having a low strikeout rate or a crappy K:BB ratio, it's an indication that he was probably just really lucky, and was aided by a friendly ballpark or the defensive acumen of his mates. Remember Kent Bottenfield in 1999? For me, he's like the poster boy for this kind of random breakout guy. He won 18 games, made the All-Star team (for some reason) and got himself traded for Jim Edmonds (talk about an awful trade), but his peripheral numbers were bad and anyone could see the looming meltdown. The meltdown came with a vengeance and he was out of the league in two years.
Is Vogelsong like this? Not so much. His strikeout rate in 2011 was a pretty danged respectable 7.0 per nine innings pitched, a career high. His walk rate was a stable 3.1 per nine, so he wasn't walking a tightrope all the time and just getting lucky. So his BABIP must have out of control good, right? Not really. It was .285, better than the league average, for sure, but not insanely so. He only gave up fifteen homers, which is partially due to pitching in a home park that squashes power, but he'll be right back in that park again in 2012 and most Giants pitchers benefit annually from AT&T Park.
Maybe we're just dealing with small sample size shenanigans. Vogelsong came on like gangbusters right out of the gate, so his end numbers were skewed by a monster first half, right? Well, yes and no. Yes, Vogelsong cooled off in the second half, and his ERA rose. The thing is, it rose to...wait for it...3.26. Yep, that's still pretty awesome. Not only that, his strikeout rate remained essentially the same and his K:BB rate actually improved a little. His worst month ERA-wise was in August, but he rebounded immediately to have a September that was pretty much just like the rest of his year.
Vogelsong is a strange case. He had a great year all around, there's no indication whatsoever that he's going to completely collapse, and yet I can't bring myself to recommend him, mostly because he'll be 34 and his breakout was so...bizarre. He disappeared to the Japanese leagues after being horrible as a big leaguer, and now he comes back and is instantly an All-Star. Something seems rotten in Denmark. Vogelsong attributed his comeback to an improved mental state, but whether it was that or magic beans or a new arm forged by a demon smith, I have to see this again to believe it. Even if he does do it again, and if I then believe it, he'll be entering his mid-30's and I'll be skeptical again.
Even though I love his story, there's limited upside here. He's a fairly high risk for a not so great reward, so he's probably best seen as a "Moneyball"-type undervalued asset pickup in a keeper league where managers horde every player under 30. In leagues deeper than 10 teams, he's probably going to be worth a late-round pick because of his league and ballpark. In leagues with 10 or less, take a chance on a younger guy who could break out and be a star before even considering him.