Ryan Vogelsong

Ryan Vogelsong gets back up to speed

“Don’t call it a comeback. I’ve been here for years.” LL Cool J is the man who made those lyrics famous, but those two sentences can just as easily apply to Ryan Vogelsong after his last three starts.

Vogelsong didn’t look like he was on the verge of anything positive in Colorado on April 21. In just an inning and a third, he allowed five runs and three home runs. Things looked bad. He had put together a decent line in his previous start, six innings and one run allowed against the Dodgers on April 16, but that was seen as a fluke by many and Vogelsong’s ERA sat at 7.71 after getting rocked by the Rockies (a team that’s done quite a bit of rocking this year).

VogelsongSince the embarrassment of that outing, Vogelsong has looked an awful lot like the guy who smashed all expectations and enjoyed two outstanding seasons after rejoining his first big league team. The expectations for Vogelsong weren’t high this year, even after the Giants gave him a $5 million contract that was near what he would’ve gotten had San Francisco picked up his 2014 club option. They ended up buying him out after a disappointing 2013, but there were folks in the organization who had the same faith and hope in Vogelsong shared by the thousands of fans he’s made since 2011. After a fantastic 7.1 inning outing in Los Angeles in the Giants’ 3-1 10th inning win last night, Vogelsong gave props (as LL Cool J might’ve said back when “Mama Said Knock You Out” ruled the airwaves) to the people in the Giants organization who never left his corner.

“A lot of my focus is not to prove people wrong, but to prove people right that believe in me,” Vogelsong said. “I know there are certain people that had a big say in me coming back this year and I want to do right by them. There were people that wanted me back and people that didn’t. I want to reward the people who believed in me.”

Last season Vogelsong had difficulties from the start. Then, during the start where things started to fall into place, he swung at a pitch that hit his hand. A long disabled list stint followed, and when Vogelsong came back he again looked like a pitcher who was near the end. The command wasn’t excellent, but mostly it was clear that he wasn’t confident in his stuff. Both his fastball and sinker were in the 88-89 mph range on average, and Vogelsong averaged 93 mph on both pitches during a dominant 2012 postseason run.

He’s still averaging closer to 91 mph on his power pitches, but that’s an improvement from last year. And against the Dodgers last night his maximum velocity measurements were 93.7 mph on his fastball and 92.7 mph on his sinker. That’s up from 92.1 mph (max) on his fastball and 91.8 (max) on his sinker in his last start, six innings and one run allowed in Atlanta (and 92.1/92.2 in seven shutout innings against the Indians on April 27, his first start since the Coors Field disaster).

Velocity isn’t everything, and it’s not like he’s striking out 10 guys a night. He’s actually pitching to contact (a lot better than Tim Lincecum has been lately), and it takes an incredible amount of confidence to throw pitches to spots where you know contact can be made while believing that the contact is going to be poor. Now, after allowing two runs in his last three starts (20.1 innings), his ERA is 3.93 — the first time it’s been under 5.00 since 2012. Even though it’s only May, Bruce Bochy thinks this positive trend will continue.

Bochy threw out any talk of small sample sizes, saying he thinks Vogelsong has turned a corner in his past three starts. “He’s been consistent, coming off a tough year,” the manager said.

Vogelsong is an open book, which makes him unlike pretty much any pitcher I’ve ever covered. Tim Lincecum has developed a very disarming vocal tone in postgame interviews when he struggles, while Madison Bumgarner and Matt Cain sound more annoyed than introspective after less-than-stellar outings. When Vogelsong doesn’t pitch up to his standards, it’s almost like you can feel what it must be like to experience major league pressure and come up short. It’s great as a member of the media (albeit somewhat painful at times), but most baseball players and coaches don’t want to think all that much. The game is full of so much failure, to dwell on it is almost to get sucked inside an abyss of negativity and self-doubt. But it takes a special kind of pitcher to come out of the funk Vogelsong experienced at his age, and maybe the honesty and trueness of self is where he draws his confidence.

“I’m sleeping a lot better,” he said last night.

That’s Vogelsong’s way of saying there were a lot of sleepless nights since April 2013. It takes a unique professional athlete to make that admission, and that’s probably why he has so many fans in the stands. And in the front office.

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