Just three days into spring training and Ryan Vogelsong is suffering from a back strain that occurred while doing squats a few days ago. The injury is supposed to sideline the Giants fifth starter for the next week and a half. This certainly isn’t the start that Giants fans expected from Vogelsong, especially fresh off of signing a new two year deal. Given the current construction of the pitching staff – with the wild card being one fifth starter that doesn't need naming – it seems pretty important that he is consistent this year. But that got me to thinking – how much should we really expect from him in 2012?
How Vogelsong Adds Up
Giants fans fall into the tendency of comparing every pitcher to the performances of their ace, Tim Lincecum. Although this may be a natural tendency, it isn’t all together fair. Knowing that Timmy is a special talent doesn’t seem to be enough to separate him from the rest of the pack. Every pitcher on the staff is expected to pitch at an extremely high level when placed next to him, and this may be expecting too much.
Even if Vogelsong’s 2011 season had been mediocre, he would have gotten a pass for two reasons. The first was that he emerged from the obscurity of the Giants' minor league system, a place that the average fan rarely pays any mind to. The second was that he was replacing Sanchez, a man who had sufficiently worn out his welcome thanks to his fragile mind state and his affinity for getting a little more than wild on the bump.
Luckily, his season was a special one, and that pass was never needed. Now it’s been used up, and he won't enjoy that same leeway. He is coming off of a 13-7 season highlighted by a 2.71 ERA, so the tendency for Giants fans will be to demand more of the same. After all, that is exactly the kind of pitching that we are used to seeing from the Giants.
There are two types of voices chattering about him right now: the average fan who saw him win last year and are now expecting more of the same, and the pessimist who believes that his 2011 statistics predict a letdown. I’m of the mind that Vogelsong’s 2012 season will fall somewhere in between. And that should be okay with Giants fans given his role in the rotation and the amount of money the Giants are paying him.
Speaking of money, let's talk contract. The Giants are paying him $3M for his services this season. Based off of this offseason’s transactions, this is an astronomical steal. Take these examples:
5 yr 77.5M
2012: 10M, 2.5 SB
Boston Red Sox
1 yr 4.5M
New York Yankees
New York Yankees
1 yr 4M
New York Mets
Los Angeles Dodgers
2 yrs 10M
San Francisco Giants 13-7
San Francisco Giants (Resigned)
2 yrs 8M
All Contract Details: ESPN.com
These numbers should speak for themselves. Of the five free agent signings in the above chart, Vogelsong had the lowest ERA. He is getting paid the same amount as Chris Capuano, who had a losing record for the Mets last year. He is getting paid $9.5M less than Wilson (including the signing bonus), who had 3 more wins, but shares the same number of losses.
Taking into account the season that Vogelsong had last year, some would say that he’s well underpaid. The variable that drives his price down is his career history leading up to 2011. Vogelsong possesses a career ERA of 4.71, which he earned while bouncing from club to club before eventually going international. His history equates to more than a few question marks, which explains why his price tag was dragged down below the rest of the pack.
Evening the playing field
When it comes down to it, Vogelsong is the Giants fifth starter – nothing more and nothing less. It’s true that he had a breakout season in 2011, and hopes should be high that he will again impress. Many eyes will fall upon him as he recovers from his back injury and begins to test his arm in Spring Training, but it will do Giants fans well to temper their expectations for the coming season.
Here's something to consider:
Some MLB Fifth Starters:
2011 W-L Record
San Francisco Giants
San Francisco Giants
All Statistical Info: ESPN.com
Because the fifth starter spot is usually one marred by poor play and frequent change, it was particularly difficult to come up with solid information; especially with statistics that cover an entire season’s body of work. Of the fifth starters listed above, Ryan Vogelsong is the only pitcher who boasted an ERA under 3. He also has the best win-loss record of any of the above listed pitchers. He came in second in total games pitched to Mike Leake by only one game. The average ERA of the pitchers named above is 4.63, which sounds about right for fifth starters in the majors. Vogelsong’s ERA was 1.92 lower than that – not bad for a journeyman, but it is his journeyman history that suggests it won't last.
Another variable that may affect how Vogelsong performs is this recent injury. How he responds to it will be a key point early in the season. 2011 was his most active year pitching since 2004 in Pittsburgh, where he went 6-13. His arm needed adequate rest in the offseason, but now he can’t throw for at least another week. How his arm responds to this schedule delay is still undetermined.
Regardless of how he responds, this is where our expectations should lie for Ryan Vogelsong. We shouldn’t expect him to have as good a year as he did in 2011, nor should we expect him to have an Andres Torres-like drop off. Rather his results should fall somewhere in the middle. Bill James of Fangraphs.com predicted that Vogelsong will end up 10-12 with a 4.09 ERA, and I tend to agree with that. This certainy isn’t stellar work by any means, but it would be solid for a fifth starter, because after all, that's what he is.