Last year, Ryan Vogelsong helped teach me an important lesson. It was the first week of spring training. The position players who were sure bets for the Phillies roster had only begun to trickle in to Clearwater. The weather was chilly, and the hot water in my apartment was not working. I mention that because we all know how it feels when the water turns cold. It leaves an impression. That's the way I felt one of those early mornings as I stood outside the chain link fence that encircles the row of practice mounds at the Phillies' minor league complex. For those who are not familiar with the first week of spring training, the only real action comes during these short bullpen sessions, when the pitchers in camp throw to the catchers in camp, building their arms for the upcoming season. There are maybe eight pitchers at any given time, winding and firing fastballs and cutters and change-ups into the mitts that are waiting 60 feet, 6 inches away. All you hear is a continues thwacking of rawhide meeting leather, like a disjointed 21-gun salute mixed with an occasional "atta-boy."
On this particular occasion, one set of thwacks stood out. It came from a rubber that supported the strong lower half of a pitcher with a hat pulled low on his forehead. You know how they say the ball sounds different coming off of some hitters' bats? The same goes for a fastball snapping into a catcher's mitt, and the man on the mound was making that sound. He was one of a number of anonymous pitchers preparing for their latest unsuccessful bid for a big league job. But he looked different. His fastball snapped. His cutter popped. I don't remember his curveball or his change-up, probably because they don't make much of a sound. But I do remember the energy that radiated from his eyes. I've covered sports at all different levels, from high school to small-time college to big-time college to the pros. And the one constant among those who excel is the look in their eyes. You've heard of an athlete being in The Zone, and you've probably wondered how the hell anybody can identify such an abstract place. Some militant number-crunchers will tell you such a place does not exist, that it is a ficticious candyland born from observational bias. There is no Zone. There are only results, and when those results defy statistical probability, we convince ourselves that an athlete has some sort of pyschological ability to transport himself to a place where he is able to supercede the physical laws and limitations that govern his performance.
Raul Ibanez and J.A. Happ were not in The Zone during their repsective hot streaks during the 2009 season. Cole Hamels was not in The Zone in 2008 any more than he was out of The Zone the following year. Ryan Madson did not struggle to find The Zone in his previous closing attempts, and he did not suddenly discover it before his latest. There are only random deviations from the Norm, and corresponding regressions back to It.
But on that particular February morning, I swore that Ryan Vogelsong was in The Zone. More than anything, though, it was his stuff. He was not unleashing Roy Oswalt four-seamers, or Roy Halladay cutters, or Ryan Madson change-ups. But he looked different than your average minor league free agent.
Later on -- maybe a few days, maybe a week -- ESPN analyst and former big league manager Bobby Valentine was in Clearwater for the network's spring training road show. Valentine's most recent managerial stop had been in Japan, where Vogelsong had spent the previous three seasons pitching for Hanshin and Orix. I caught up with him in the line for the pre-game buffet (think salisbury steak and ice berg salad, not crab bisque and carving station). I asked him about Vogelsong.
"He's a nice little pitcher," Valentine said in a way that made me think he would have said the same thing if I had asked about any of the other 20 pitchers in camp.
I asked Charlie Manuel if he knew anything about the guy.
"I've seen him pitch a little bit before he went to Japan," Manuel said. "He had a big arm. He's got good stuff. From what I saw here of him, he needed to improve his command. He pitched three years in Japan. That might help him, really. Because they work on your control and hitting spots and nibbling on the corners. Actually, I'm looking forward to seeing him pitch."
A bit of an endorsement, but it always behooves a manager to be politicaly correct in spring training.
Later, I asked another member of the organization what he thought of Vogelsong's bullpen sessions. He shot me a look that said, 'Are you really expecting me to rave about a minor league free agent's side work?"
"It's early," was all he said.
Turns out, it was early. Vogelsong appeared in two Grapefruit League games, logged three innings, and allowed five runs. He was then optioned to the minors. There, he made seven starts, lost his spot in the rotation, and eventually moved on to the Pacific Coast League. He finished the year with a 4.81 ERA in 33 games, striking out 10.4 batters-per-nine but walking 5.9. Big arm? Check. Needs to improve command? Check.
Me? I internalized two words: It's early.
The lesson is a valuable one for anybody who follows the sport of baseball, one that I found myself repeating so often this spring that I wanted to get a T-Shirt made. Does Ben Francisco look like he can be the next Jayson Werth? It's early. Is Domonic Brown over his skiis? It's early. Does Brad Lidge look healthy? Read the T-Shirt.
One of Manuel's greatest strengths as a manager is his understanding of the ebbs and flows of a six-month season. He wants nothing more than to win that night's game, and he hates nothing less than when his team fails to do so. Would the Phillies have been better positioned to win with a different left fielder during the first month of the season? Perhaps. But when everybody wanted to send Raul Ibanez to the glue factory, Manuel stuck with him, and the veteran left fielder enters tonight hitting .308 with seven home runs and a .913 OPS in his last 31 games.
It was early. It didn't take Ryan Vogelsong to teach me that. But it definitely helped.
Except. . .
Late one Friday night, I sat down on my couch and turned on the television and flipped to a West Coast game just underway. On the mound for the Athletics was an impressive young pitcher named Trevor Cahill, one of those 23-year-old rising stars that has the ability to energize an entire organization. With every pitch, you could see the reason for all of the raves. For six innings, he held the opposition to one run, allowing three baserunners and striking out six. On any other night, he would have been the story. Except that on the opposite mound, there was a no-name pitcher 10 years his senior who had spent the previous four seasons nowhere close to the majors. When Cahill turned the game over to his bullpen, the Giants and the Athletics were tied, because for six innings, Ryan Vogelsong matched him pitch for pitch. In six innings, he struck out five, walked two, and allowed four hits. The only reason the Giants did not hold a 1-0 lead was because of a throwing error in the fifth inning. In the sixth, he walked a leadoff batter to put the go-ahead run on first. But then game a fly-out, and then a pop-out to third. As he prepared to deliver his final pitch of the game, one that would result in a pop-out by Kurt Suzuki, the camera focused on his face. When he walked off the mound, he had streak of 18 1/3 consecutive innings without an earned run.
He also had the look.
Two weeks later, Vogelsong is still going strong. He followed the start against the A's with eight innings against the Marlins in which he allowed one run and walked one. That was followed by a 92-pitch start in St. Louis in which he allowed one run and walked two in five innings. Then, yesterday, he held the Colorado Rockies to one run in eight innings on 99 pitches, striking out seven and walking just one.
Since replacing an injured Barry Zito on April 28, Vogelsong is 4-1 with a 1.84 ERA. In 49 innings, he has struck out 39 batters and walked 14. Zito is working his way back, but Giants manager Bruce Bochy recently said that his high-priced lefty will not be replacing his 33-year-old retread.
There are plenty of black-and-white explanations for Vogelsong's Resurgence, although any such analysis should probably start by dropping the "re". The strikeouts are nothing new, but his walk-rate is at a carer low. He is putting fewer runners on base, which usually results in fewer runs scored. There are also plenty of signs of imminent regression. His batting average on balls in play is a well-below-average .261. At some point, the statistical analysts will tell you, some of those batted balls will start finding vacant patches of grass. They'll see that has allowed just three hits in 39 at-bats with runners in scoring position and say that such situational performance can not be sustained.
Chances are, they will be correct. Ryan Vogelsong with not finish the season with a 1.68 ERA. The numbers will even out. Because, well, that's the numbers usually do. That's what the patterns suggest will happen. The only question is when.
But maybe we focus too much on the patterns, and too little on the behaviors that make them exist. Using the past to predict the future can be a fascinating endeavor, but it can also cause us to diminish the present, the root from which all hard data flows. And the present does not function on logarithmic norms, but on our unique ability to deviate from them. If you studied the history of typographical or factual errors in news stories, you could probably develop a series of probabilities for future behavior. The number of words written, the time allotted, the subject matter, the setting in which the writer is typing (in a press box, in an office, in the backseat of a taxi cab). You could isolate and calculate and formulate and analyze to a point where you would be able to tell me whether an error-free performance is indicative of my ability or whether it is a significant deviation that is bound to correct. But that does not change the fact that when I began to write this sentence, I had complete control over it's ultimate construction. Perhaps I was more likely to make an error in this sentence than the one before. But I still had control.
And when we started talking about Ryan Vogelsong, isn't that what it was all about? Control. Of pitches. Of pitch counts. Of situations. Some of us watch sports because we identify with a team. Some of us watch sports because we identify with a player. Some of us watch sports because we want to make money. But some us -- I'd venture to say most of us -- watch sports because we enjoy watching human beings control their behaviors in pursuit of a goal. When Reggie Miller scored eight points in eight seconds, was it partially a product of luck? Of getting the right bounce at the right time? Of the failures of the defenders in front of him? Probably. But if you looked into his eyes that night, even through the pixels of a rabbit-eared TV, you could see his performance was also the product of something else, of a remarkable harnessing of the human will, and the ability to exert its power in a situation that was statistically unlikely to happen and is statistically unlikely to happen again. Regardless of the proportion of luck-to-will that was involved, the fact remains that we will always remember those eight seconds, and the Pacers will always possess that win.
Even if Ryan Vogelsong implodes in his next eight starts, he will still believe he can recapture the dominance he felt in those first eight. It will be up to us to debate whether he is the same pitcher in the present as he was in the immediate past. It is up to us to decide if he is the same pitcher now as he was on that bullpen mound last February.
I like to believe that a pitcher like Vogelsong has more of an impact on his results than we give him credit for, that any failure from this point forward will stem more from the things he can control (his emotions, his will and, henceforth, his stuff) rather than the external factors he cannot (defensive positioning, ballparks, opponents). I like to think that the thing that separates the great athletes from the rest is their ability to consistently control their will, and henceforth the talent with which they have been blessed. Roy Halladay (.173 with runners in scoring position last season, by the way) has The Look in his eyes at all times.
But just because players are not great does not mean they can not be great for a period of time. Just because somebody like Ryan Vogelsong is no longer in The Zone, or is unlikely to be There in the future, or wasn't There when he was pitching in another minor league system, does not mean that he is not There now.
Maybe, in the end, that is the lesson he helped teach.