The Mystery Surrounding the Ryan Vogelsong Reclamation Project

BRADENTON, Fla. – Every year it seems like Ray Searage gets a bigger challenge with his reclamation projects. Francisco Liriano had injury and control issues that plagued his career. Edinson Volquez had one good season that happened a long time before joining the Pirates. J.A. Happ had no good seasons. And all of these made the A.J. Burnett situation — both of them in fact — look incredibly easy.

This year, Searage has one of his biggest challenges yet — making Ryan Vogelsong a productive pitcher again.

Vogelsong is coming off a 4.67 ERA/4.55 xFIP in 2015 over 135 innings, which was a replacement level performance. He’s not far removed from success, with a 4.00 ERA/3.96 xFIP in 184.2 innings in 2014, and a 3.37/4.15 combo in 189.2 innings in 2012. But he’s also in his age 38 season, and turning 39 by the middle of the year. So there should be concerns about whether he has anything left in the tank.

But the Pirates still saw something they liked in Vogelsong, enough to bring him in with a near guarantee for a starting role (and it’s only “near guaranteed” because of the success Juan Nicasio is having).

“In Vogelsong, we still saw stuff,” Pirates’ General Manager Neal Huntington said. “We saw another guy who had a strong first half. Struggled a little bit in the second half. Bounced between roles, and our scouts still saw stuff. We still saw some indicators. We see a guy that’s hungry, a guy that’s coming back to a place and didn’t leave on the best of terms, and is fired up to come back here and help this team win, most importantly, and help us continue to move forward.”

Normally there would be some kind of story about what the Pirates saw beneath the numbers, and that usually involves Ray Searage fixing something with Vogelsong. That appears to be the case here, but all sides are quiet on the work that is being done. Searage declined to comment on specific changes, stating that it was a personal conversation with Vogelsong. And we’ll just say that Vogelsong took a different approach when asked about the specifics.

“I can tell you, but then I’d have to kill you,” Vogelsong joked, hopefully. “We have our stuff that we are working on for sure. It is simple stuff and it is up to me now, just to repeat it. That is all that I am really trying to do. I am getting good results, so it is making it a lot easier to go forward. It is a little difficult sometimes when it doesn’t work. We are going in a really, really good direction right now. I am excited about it.”

That comment came after his most recent start, where he showed some good stuff going up against Sean Rodriguez, Matt Joyce, and Jung-ho Kang. The lone mistake was a cutter to Joyce, which was crushed, in a situation where he’d never throw a cutter to a lefty during the regular season.

One thing the Pirates have been very vocal about has been Vogelsong’s work last year, bouncing between the rotation and the bullpen. The idea is that this was detrimental to his results last year.

“For me, moving back and forth from the pen to the rotation to the pen, that can mess with you and also ruin your routine,” Searage said.

Neal Huntington has mentioned many times that Vogelsong had a good first half, then struggled when he was moved back and forth. The first half numbers don’t really hold up. He had a 4.23 ERA versus a 5.72 ERA in the second half. The advanced metrics don’t do these splits any favors. The monthly splits show a good stretch from May (when he entered the rotation) through July (when he started moving to the bullpen). But those are arbitrary end points, and ignore that he moved to the bullpen and had success in a relief role initially.

The one argument you might be able to make is that a starter role could be easier on Vogelsong than a reliever role, since it would allow him to maintain a better structure at his age.

“It will definitely be a lot easier on me, especially physically,” Vogelsong said. “It took its toll on be physically and mentally, bouncing back and forth. It is going to be good. I am excited and I am looking forward to it and it is going to be a good year I think.”

Realistically, the Pirates would only need Vogelsong as a starter for the first half of the 2016 season. At that point, Tyler Glasnow and/or Jameson Taillon could arrive and take over. Until that point, it’s not out of the question that Vogelsong could be a productive member of the rotation. The “he’s better staying in one role” isn’t the strongest analysis, but there could be some basis to it. The work he’s doing with Ray Searage is a mystery. This combo doesn’t give a lot of hope that Vogelsong will have a strong year.

Then again, there wasn’t much hope for the previous guys, until they actually started showing results. I don’t think Vogelsong has a huge upside like the previous reclamation projects, and I don’t think he’s got the upside of a Juan Nicasio. But it’s not out of the question that he could put up league-average numbers and eat up some innings, getting a boost by some quick hooks and a strong bullpen. This has a better chance of happening if he shows the command and movement he showed in his last start. This won’t be enough to make him the next great Ray Searage reclamation project, but it could be enough to bridge the gap until the top pitching prospects arrive.

  • I am just curious – isn’t a cutter something that RHP’s throw almost exclusively to LHB?

  • Can’t understand why they wouldn’t answer your queston. What are they afraid of?

  • Just as an aside, but what a historic moment watching the MLB/Cuba game with the President and Castro sitting next to each other. A small step, but I think it will be a precursor to many changes in the future in Cuba. Very cool to see.

    • This, for me, is a good sign. Searage has been able to get some of the more successful reclamation jobs to buy into pitch selection changes in a big way. If one part of the equation to get Vogelsong to “useful #5 arm” is simplifying his pitch selection that at least makes me think it can work.

      Get smart about what you are throwing and how it works, and keep the ball down.

      • You thinking Castro still has something left in the tank? Searage tho! 😉

        • Lol i dont think Vogelsong has much in the tank, but i sure do like the idea of never throwing that change up he has again.

          Let us limit the suck and pray for many ground balls, amen.

        • Castro throws a mean slider, Liriano like. Can be a little wild though. Maybe Searage can help out his game 😉

    • I agree Mallorie. It’s very nice to see the respective leaders of two countries that have had such terrible relations over the last number of decades sit together and watch ⚾. It’s the true “Universal Language “.

  • For what it’s worth, here’s my (admittedly novice) take on what they might be doing with Vogelsong:

    http://www.fangraphs.com/community/squeezing-a-little-more-out-of-ryan-vogelsong/

    • Really interesting article! I vaugely remember reading about the Pirates removing poor pitches from a pitcher’s arsenal so I’d hope that they’re maybe trying the same with Volgesong, but as you stated there is probably more to the story than we’re seeing. I’m optimistic about him being below 4.50 ERA

    • Nice article! Should be interesting to see if he takes your advice.

  • John Smoltz was on the rotographs podcast recently, and there he mentioned both how much harder it was to be a RP vs. SP, and how the off-season prep is totally different. So, I’ll buy that there may be a small amount of improvement to be gained by simply defining his role for him. However, I can’t say I believe one way or another that the amount of improvement would be more than the age-related decline at 38.

    I don’t love that he’s in the mix for the rotation, but I have an open mind and I am willing to see how it works out.

    • The issue here is that 39 yo marginal pitchers hanging on the fringe of making a big league roster don’t get to call this shot. Ryan Vogelsong will almost certainly be called upon once again to flex between rotation and bullpen in 2016, if he’s to actually remain on the roster for anywhere near an entire season.

      • no disagreement from me on this. At some point he will be removed from the rotation, and whether he is useful in the ‘pen or not will determine whether he has a job…

  • Very well done, Tim, but the beginning line to your last paragraph got sloppy.

    There most certainly *was* hope for every reclamation project prior to Vogelsong, and you’ve said as much in the rest of your text. Vogelsong is the mystery, although sometimes these situations are the most simple.

  • I think they are stuck for now. Vogelsong and Locke aren’t necessarily good options in the pen and Nicasio is. And they need a back up plan – Locke and Vogelsong until the end of April. If one is tremendously struggling, build Nicasio’s innings back up. If by mid-late May others are struggling, call up whoever is ready. Forget about super-two because Glasnow is likely to go back down to sort something out and Taillon will run out of innings.

  • Hey Tim, have you gotten in any episodes of season 2 of Daredevil yet? I’m halfway thru episode 5 and I must say Jon Bernthal is awesome as Frank Castle. Not to mention, some of the fight scenes have been unreal.

  • SufferinBuccotash
    March 22, 2016 12:00 pm

    No good seasons for JA Happ?
    Except for the 12-4, 2.93 ERA, 4.2 WAR, second in Rookie of the Year voting in 2009 one, sure….

    • Everything about his periphs in 2009 suggested he wasnt nearly as good as the ERA suggested. 3 ERA with over 4 FIP and xFIP. Him and Randy Wells can thank their stars for the shiny ERA’s they had that year.

      Low and behold the rest of his career came to confirm that notion.

      • Two additonal seasons of sub-4 xFIP’s would beg to differ. We all missed on how much talent Happ had.

        • Yes, those 3.95 xFIP and 3.92 years were huge indicators that he was ready to break out.

          Its not unfair to say he was every bit a 4-4.5 xFIP guy his entire career until he came to PGH. A few years able to slide under 4 but far from a way that suggested he was suddenly reliable. 40 innings in 2012 is the closest he came to showing plus ability.

          Thats not good, unless we are missing on how much talent Locke might have since he also has thrown out some plus half seasons. I like Happ, and hope he does really well. But he was consistently not good his entire career save 40 innings in 2012.

          • I used those two seasons to show that he was far more than only successful as a fluke his rookie year, but there were obvious signs we (general public) missed when he was acquired. 92 mph fastball from the left side (topping out at 96), a crappy curveball he ditched for an improved slider, and K-BB rates that matched AJ Burnett’s the year before he was acquired.

            Obviously none of that pointed to a sub-2 ERA guy, but I’ll be the very first to raise my hand and admit I missed very real positive signs for JA Happ, and give the Pirates credit for seeing something almost nobody else did.

            • Gotcha gotcha, thats fair. There were reasons to think he might be successful based on his stuff than people missed, for sure.

  • I like the idea of trying Nicasio as a starter but I wonder if we’re best off using Vogelsong and Locke in the rotation and using Nicasio’s innings in higher leverage situations. If Niese, Vogelsong, and Locke will be held to 5-6 innings per start (as some have suggested), then Nicasio and Feliz will be picking up a lot of innings in the 6th-8th. So while I like the potential Nicasio is showing as a starter, I also like the idea of a bullpen that has Nicasio and Feliz waiting to take over as early as the 5th if needed (having both of them in the pen would mean that one of them should be available every game).

    If I become convinced that Nicasio could not only start but also reliably pitch 7 or more innings per start, then I’d clearly opt for him as a starter. I’m basing the above on the idea that Niese, Vogelsong, Locke, and Nicasio would all follow the Happ-model of rarely if ever going more than 6 innings and often only pitching into the 5th.

    • noone in our starting rotation can reliably pitch 7 or more innings including Cole. You might want to recalibrate. Not sure why Juan would have to pitch better than Cole to be worthy of a rotation spot

      • Cole pitched 7 or more in 17 of his 32 starts, and 10 of his last 16 starts when they were pushing for the division. That’s much different than a pitcher who can’t face a lineup a third time through.

        A better way to state things is that I’d want to know that Nicasio will get significantly more innings as a starter than as a reliever before I’m convinced that his greatest value isn’t in the pen.

        • 17 out of 32 is not reliable, that’s barely half TNBucs. I’d say reliably (75% or more) pitch 6 innings as being more realistic and reasonable level

    • You don’t mean to suggest that Locke and his steely resolve couldn’t adopt to the bullpen? After all nothing phases him….when he gets shelled it was just ” a couple of poorly placed pitches.” After all he says the new/old motion feels really good.
      If Nacasio is the best performer by far in spring training then he wins a starting rotation job…we are going for a good start, not coddling underperformers.

    • I’m expecting this scenario to be the one that plays out, barring any injuries of course. The 3,4,5 guys are all on a super short leash and we try and ride the hell out of the bullpen. IMO its not a bad idea and it could work, but there’s no chance if our offense takes a while to get going like last year.

      • Yes, that’s what I saw in their pattern of pitching acquisitions and in some of the comments they’ve made since then (lots of emphasis in Hurdle having relievers who can pitch multiple innings). It may be taking the KC model a step farther.

  • Tim, off topic. Baseball America has an article about pitchers throwing 100mph that have not reached the US yet and one is a pirate, Cruz I think. He is not even mentioned in the prospect guide under the international players. Do you have any information on him?

  • Age 38 and a reclamation project seems odd. If he is a short-term option the critical element is if Glasnow/Taillion are ready to assume his starting role. That is an unknown at this point. If they do truly find a magical 5-6 inning quality starter out of his arm then it makes sense. His role unfortunately will be defined by who is better in the bullpen. Nicasio, Locke or him.

    • Well, since Locke has never been tried in the ‘pen outside of a few ‘token’ appearances how do we determine if he is good in the ‘pen?

      • We don’t which makes it all the more puzzling. I’m not sold on Taillion/Glasnow being ready to contribute this year. I know everyone will think I’m nuts. I think you go with Nicasio as a starter after that you be creative.

        • I’m not sold on those lottery tickets either. I’m not counting on them until they dominate AAA.

          • This is where this narrative rolls off the rails a bit.

            Equating those types of prospects to lottery tickets just isnt accurate to the scale of how likely they are to contribute in some way in their career at this point. They arent a mostly upside A ball guy with projection but little results.

            They have work to do to reach their upside, but i dont go into the gas station to buy my lottery ticket and think i’ve got a decent shot of making at least some money. I do think i’ve got a decent shot of seeing a guy like Taillon give some value.

            • agreed, it’s a relatively safe bet that they will pitch this year and won’t have a negative value to the team

          • glasnow already more or less dominated AAA, just doesn’t have good control.

    • The age is the big thing to me…I see this pickup as more of a “hoping he has something left in the tank” than a fixer-upper.

      Bud Norris? That would’ve been the reclamation project to grab…

  • I say let him bounce between a long reliever and a seldom used reliever.

    🙂 🙂

    • Did Vogie run your dog over? You sure do have a dislike for him for some reason.

      • 2005 has a lot to do with that i’d imagine. I have a deep seeded hatred for him as well

        • 2005 – when Perez, Fogg and Wells all had eras of 5.00+. I wasn’t aware that Vogelsong was responsible for their horrendous pitching…

          • No, he was responsible for his own. – We never resigned Perez and Fogg, and Wells was actually a pretty decent pitcher in his time in Pittsburgh.

        • Scott Kliesen
          March 23, 2016 5:33 am

          2005? Deep seated hatred? Wow!

      • For some reason?!?

        • Scott Kliesen
          March 23, 2016 5:34 am

          You still holding onto some angst from his first time as a Pirate, too, NMR?

          • Nope, my “angst” comes from the fact that he’s turning 39 and has been below replacement level in two of his past three seasons. Other than that tho…

      • He ran over our hopes of not using sub optimal starting pitchers to start the season.

  • I actually feel he might be more effective as a reliever, since he is SO bad against LH bats- it might allow him an opportunity to be used strategically and avoid his weak side. With 3 LH starters, even though he’s a long man, this might just be possible.

    • If I understand your point, those 3 LH starters would mean some of the opponent’s LH hitters are on the bench waiting for their chance against someone like Vogelsong. And since our pen is short on lefties, we’d have trouble countering use of LH pinch hitters against Vogelsong.

      • One thing to consider is that CH and the team in general doesnt use lefty specialist like that anyway, so really not having two lefties is a bit less of a need if he isnt using guys for 1-2 hitters and yanking them anyway.

        Im not sure how often its a sure thing to assume its Vogelsong facing those lefties anyway. If the starter does poorly and gets kicked out early in the game it’ll be Vogelsong as a long relief man, but from the 6th inning on it doesnt seem to be a super high percentage of the time that they’d roll with Vogelsong over Hughes/Caminero/Feliz

        • I wish we had a lefty specialist whom was at least servicable against righties.

          • For sure, though i think that is close to the idea the team uses to come to the conclusion that they just want the best arm that can go an entire inning.

            Put it shortly, they are fine with a guy who can get lefties out enough while being good against RHP, or a lefty with the traits you covered. For me, id always stash one lefty that is a specialist and use him that way.

            • yeah, I think for huge game situations i’d love to have that ace in the hole where unless he accidentally walks or hits you, you are going to be out. We haven’t that since…….saurbeck? is that right?

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