Ryan Vogelsong pitched like the Vogelsong of old during the San Francisco Giants' last homestand. He allowed two runs on eight hits and two walks over 15 innings while striking out 10. He's delivered a quality start in three of his four outings since returning from the disabled list.
Vogelsong went 27-16 with a 3.05 ERA in 61 games from 2011-12. He also went 3-0 with a 1.09 ERA over four postseason starts last October to help the Giants win their second championship in three years.
Thus, Vogelsong's $6.5 million option for 2014 looked like an easy call heading into this season. However, he posted a 7.19 ERA over nine starts before hitting the disabled list with a broken hand. Even though he's pitched better in three of his four starts since returning, his velocity remains a concern.
Last year, Vogelsong's average fastball was 90.8 mph. This year, his average fastball is down to 89.2 mph. His fastball velocity was up to an average of 90.4 mph in his final start before the injury. In his last four starts, his average fastball velocities have been 87.8, 87.7, 88.0 and 88.1.
The Giants seem likely to pick up Vogelsong's option despite his declining velocity and his 5.58 ERA over 13 starts this season. Carl Steward of the San Jose Mercury News wrote after Vogelong's last start, "Suffice it to say Ryan Vogelsong may not be on the wane as so many here have conjectured. As if there were any question beforehand, the Giants picking up that 2014 option is assured now."
The 36-year-old Vogelsong still has another month in the season to recapture his lost velocity. If he continues to pitch like he did during the last homestand, it seems like a foregone conclusion that he'll be back next year regardless of the radar gun readings. However, should the Giants pick up his 2014 option?
Vogelsong will turn 37 next July. There are no guarantees that he'll regain velocity going forward. While he's thrown well in three of his four starts since coming off the disabled list, the Giants can't just ignore that he's been shelled in seven of his 13 starts this year. He's allowed at least five runs in six of his 13 starts thus far in 2013.
The best method to evaluate a player is to use the largest sample size possible. While there's still another month left in the season, to this point, Vogelsong has taken a major step back from last year.
His velocity is down almost two full ticks, his strikeout rate is down by more than two percent, his walk rate is up slightly and his home run rate has shot up from 0.81 per nine innings pitched (HR/9) to 1.65.
The Giants have the second-worst rotation ERA in the National League this season. The only rotation members under contract for next season are Madison Bumgarner (2.84 ERA) and Matt Cain (4.43). The Giants will likely make the one-year qualifying offer to free-agent starter Tim Lincecum, so there's a good chance that he'll be back in the fold as well.
If the club picks up Vogelsong's option, four of the five rotation spots will be the same going into next season. Does it make sense to bring back most of a rotation that failed so badly in 2013?
The free-agent market has some interesting starting pitching options including A.J. Burnett, Matt Garza, Josh Johnson, Phil Hughes, Hiroki Kuroda, Ricky Nolasco, Ervin Santana and Jason Vargas. If the Giants could add one of those starters on the free-agent market to move Vogelsong into the fifth spot in the rotation, picking up his option would make more sense.
Vogelsong has pitched well in three of his last four starts. However, he's had a really bad season, and his velocity is down significantly. He'll turn 37 next year, so he could be undergoing an irreversible age-related decline.
The Giants have another month to evaluate Vogelsong, but right now his option should not be guaranteed. The starting rotation is the biggest reason the Giants haven't been competitive this season. That means standing pat this winter is not a great solution. The rotation is broken, and it needs fixing.
Ryan Vogelsong needs to spend the rest of 2013 proving that he's part of the solution for next season. Right now, the jury is still out on him despite what he did over the prior two years and last postseason.
Baseball is a bottom-line, what-have-you-done-for-me-lately business. If the Giants are going to contend in 2014, they'll have to avoid making nostalgic decisions over the winter.
Ultimately, the onus is still on Vogelsong to prove that he can pitch effectively once more.