Asking a player how he’s over-performed his peripherals is a tricky thing. I settled on a toe in the water: “Have you ever heard of FanGraphs? WAR? FIP?” From Ryan Vogelsong‘s responses to those inquiries at Giants’ Media day (“No, but Wins Above Replacement I have, all those stats, yeah” he replied), it seemed clear that the right-hander might need a little introduction to any sabermetric statistic I was going to ask him about.
“Given your strikeouts, walks, and ground balls, your FIP, which is usually more steady than ERA, has been higher than your ERA — you’ve been sort of over-performing these stats that people have come up with. I think this is really interesting because given your history, and given all that you’ve had to overcome, you’ve been under-rated in the past, too. Is there anything you can say about the way you pitch that might look like more than the sum of the parts? Is there something you play ‘up?’ How would you define yourself as a pitcher?”
It’s a wonder that Vogelsong had a reasoned, affable response to that mess. In fact, it’s a credit to the pitcher that he didn’t give this reporter the thousand-mile stare. I just asked him why his FIP has been almost three-quarters of a run higher than his ERA over the last two years.
Instead, Vogelsong answered that “The biggest thing about pitching and winning games is not giving up hits with runners on base.” Surely enough, he’s shown a strand rate that has been well above the league average in his last two seasons (80.4% in 2011, 76% in 2012, 72.5% league average both years).
Most advanced pitching metrics don’t give pitchers much credit for stranding runners. As Matt Klaassen just showed us recently, left on base percentage has one of the worst year-to-year correlations in the pantheon of pitching statistics, which suggests that pitchers have little control of their LOB% from season to season.
But it isn’t true that there aren’t traits that don’t help some pitchers succeed with the bases empty, perhaps more often than your league average pitcher in that situation. Matt Swartz said that his SIERA statistic would not “assume a fixed LOB rate for all pitchers” but would instead “effectively assume an implicit strand rate that is based on strikeout, walk and ground-ball rates.” In a piece he wrote, he pointed out that pitchers with better control were able to dish out walks strategically and strikeout pitchers were able to get ground balls in double play situations more than other pitchers.
With the bases on, Ryan Vogelsong‘s walk rate and ground-ball rates go up. So he got the playbook. That isn’t to say that SIERA loves him any more than FIP — actually his SIERA was worse than his FIP most years. But it is to say that Vogelsong is a slightly different pitcher with runners on base.
To some extent, the advanced statistics assume that a pitcher is the same pitcher, more or less, when the runners are on base. Vogelsong said “when guys are on base, the hitters try to go to another level to drive in runs” and that he tries “to get to another level on the mound to get guys out.”
What does that look like? Does it look like the playoff version of himself, where his fastball velocity jumped over a mile per hour on the gun? “That was because of the atmosphere,” Vogelsong said, but the fastball velocity in the postseason “went up because my mechanics got cleaner” at that particular time. But are there things you do in a regular game, when batters are on, though? “Concentration,” Vogelsong said, “a lot of it is concentration.”
In Vogelsong’s case, that concentration might mean keeping the ball down. The last two years with runners on, his strikeout rate has gone down, his walk rate has gone up, and his ground-ball rate has gone up. Oh, and his home runs per fly ball have been below league average in situations with runners on base, too. Sounds like he might be keeping the ball down to limit the exposure to a big fly with ducks on the pond.
His pitching mix with runners on base looks set up to get more ground balls, too. Here are the pitches Vogelsong went to when he had men on last year, compared to himself when the bases were empty (Runners On % / Bases Empty %), and then compared to the league with runners on (League RO Pitch% / League BE Pitch%).
Ryan Vogelsong vs League, Runners On
The fastball has one of the worst ground-ball rates among the pitch types, so it’s no surprise that the league uses the fastball less with runners on than it does with nobody on. But Vogelsong takes that tendency a little further than most. And though the league likes cutters (often misclassified) enough, this pitcher might like the pitch even more. (He did say that he wants to spend some of spring training trying to “clean up my cut fastball, that was the only pitch kind of in and out for me,” which is interesting in this light.) Cutters get a bad rap sometimes, but they have better ground-ball rates than fastballs, and often have better strike rates. That’s a good combo to use with runners on.
While there’s reason to doubt that Vogelsong can keep stranding runners at a rate that’s higher than league average, there are also distinct things that he’s doing differently in those situations. And he admits to a personal sense of pride on his performance in those situations. If he improves the cutter this spring, that may help the Giant starter to once again beat his FIP. Or maybe he doesn’t even need a better cutter. Maybe a focused Vogelsong will just find a way to do it again with his current arsenal.