ALTOONA, PA – With Ryan Vogelsong eligible to come off of the 60-day disabled list on July 23rd, the veteran right-hander took another step towards a comeback by making his second rehab start with the Altoona Curve on Friday night. Vogelsong threw six innings of shutout ball, only allowing two measly first inning ground balls up the middle.
The 38-year-old was injured on May 23rd in Pittsburgh after being hit in the eye with a pitch. The pitch caused fractures to occur around the eye. Before the injury, Vogelsong had a 3.74 ERA in 12 games, including two starts, for the Pirates this season.
He began his rehab assignment last Sunday for the Curve in their last game before the Eastern League All-Star break in Erie and went five innings, allowing three runs on six hits. His start on Friday night in Altoona was another extremely big step in the right direction for the pitcher on the mend.
As long as everything checks out well on Saturday for Vogelsong after his Friday start, as well as during his side session on Sunday, the plan is for him to travel to Indianapolis on Tuesday to pitch again on Wednesday for the Indians. He is scheduled to pitch a shorter outing, possibly only a couple of innings.
Vogelsong recorded ten straight outs to close out his start in Altoona. He induced 11 ground balls compared to only four fly balls, and two of those four were infield pop ups.
“I felt much better today than I did on Sunday in Erie,” Vogelsong said after his six shutout innings. “I felt my secondary stuff was much better today, which is what I was hoping for.”
His slider and curve ball were both used to get strikeouts looking tonight, with Vogelsong freezing a batter with a 75 MPH curveball in the second inning and a 87 MPH slider in the fourth. The last batter he faced in the sixth inning fell victim of the slider, too, as you can see here.
Overall, the velocities of his secondary pitches were all within his season norms with the Pirates. The curveball consistently sat at 75 MPH, the slider between 86-87 MPH, and the changeup in the low 80s between 81-83 MPH.
“That’s kind of my game now,” Vogelsong said of his secondary pitches. “I’ve transitioned from a guy that throws hard to a guy that has to command and locate pitches. I want to make pitches when I want to — on the plate and off the plate.”
He showed off quite a few good breaking balls, but he still struggled with some command issues early in the outing. The home plate umpire was not being very generous on the lower portion of the strike zone, where Vogelsong was attacking early and often. Also, he admitted that his fastball simply isn’t quite back to its normal self yet, either.
The fastball topped out at 90 MPH in the fourth inning from what I tracked, and he sat mostly between 88-89 MPH for the majority of the game. According to Fangraphs, Vogelsong had averaged a 91 MPH fastball this year in the majors with it topping out at 94.2 MPH.
“My fastball is still not all the way back, but I feel like I’m kind of in Spring Training mode where I’m building up arm strength again,” Vogelsong said. “The fastball felt better today, too, but it’s still got a ways to go.”
He went on to say that he has been working extremely hard through a throwing program to get back into game shape, and he has felt a little fatigued from it. Overall, he isn’t worried about his current lack of velocity on the pitch.
“I’m not really concerned as long as I’m locating my pitches and feel good about my delivery, which is happening,” he said of his fastball. “In Erie the other day, I felt like I located pretty well. I’ve been able to repeat my delivery, and I was able to repeat it again tonight. I know the velocity will come when it’s time.”
Vogelsong also “checked another box” off by stepping in against a professional pitcher on Friday night for the first time since the injury occurred. He wore a full face mask on his helmet tonight, using it until he “gets more comfortable in the box again”. (He does have a helmet with a half shield — think Jason Heyward — but he is not sure if he will transition to that helmet this season or not.)
In his first at-bat, he almost looked disinterested against Harrisburg pitcher Michael Brady, standing and looking at five pitches go past him before gearing up for a big swing and miss on for strike three.
He had just started taking batting practice again off of pitchers, and that was the first time that he faced any sort of velocity in the box since the injury occurred.
Everything got a lot more interesting in his second at-bat, where Vogelsong squared to sacrifice runners to second and third on a bunt attempt; however, Brady went high and tight with a fastball that soared towards Vogelsong’s face. Somehow, some way, Vogelsong was able to get the sacrifice down in a creative, yet almost breathtaking and unnerving, way.
— Sean McCool (@NotSoMcCool) July 15, 2016
“I saw it the whole way so that’s a good thing,” Vogelsong said of the bunt. “I kind of get on top of the plate when I’m bunting anyway. That’s kind of how I do it. I feel like I’m more comfortable there.”
However, he wasn’t quite ready for where that pitch came in.
“I wasn’t really expecting one at my head, but I got it down and got out of the way. So I guess that’s just checking another box.”
Although it would’ve been better off not happening, he had a good take on the situation after the game.
“It’s been a while since I’ve been in a game situation and had some adrenaline going,” Vogelsong said. “I got [the bunt] down.”
Otherwise, he was able to see the ball well while batting.
“I saw all of the pitches good, so that’s the big key,” he said. “My vision is where it needs to be. My hitting has gone down drastically the past few years with age anyway, so I’m not too concerned with hitting. I’m just doing what I’m supposed to do like getting bunts down.”
He said he does feel close to being able to return, as he would be eligible to return to the Pirates off of the 60-day disabled list on July 23rd. The Pirates haven’t communicated with him any sort of plans to pitch in the rotation or bullpen yet, but Vogelsong said that does not concern him as of now.
“I’m just really getting ready to pitch,” he said. “I haven’t had any conversations on what it will look like when I’m ready, but I’m not really concerning myself with that right now. I just want to keep checking boxes off. When that time comes, I’ll worry about it then.”
If he can continue to pitch like he did tonight, using his secondary pitches well, and recover some of that fastball command, the Pirates may be very welcoming of Vogelsong’s services as soon as next week.