NEW YORK -- Ryan Vogelsong isn’t pitching like himself any longer.
He is pitching like someone else who is so very familiar to the Giants and their fans.
He has become Barry Zito -– the right-handed version.
He doesn’t strike people out any longer. His fastball isn’t knocking down anyone, or anything, by itself anymore. So he needs grounders and liners at people. He needs clean glovework behind him.
A bad break, like a broken-bat blooper, is a killer. So is a borderline call that doesn’t go his way, or any little mistake behind him –- such as a throw not being cut off.
All of those things happened in one form or another as Vogelsong gave up five runs in five innings of a dispiriting, 6-0 loss at Yankee Stadium on Saturday. He threw 30 fastballs and the Yankees swung through exactly one of them. He had one strikeout, and seven over his last five starts.
[RECAP: Yankees 6, Giants 0]
You already know how it’ll end for Zito. The Giants will turn down his $18 million option and instead cut him that $7 million buyout -- the greatest consolation prize in game show history. Seen through an objective lens, that’s smart business.
And if you see Vogelsong’s stuff through that same lens? His $6.5 million option doesn’t look like a sound investment, either -- especially when you consider the buyout, at $300,000 is a comparable pittance.
The Giants could approach Vogelsong and give him some version of this speech:
“Listen Ryan, we have all the respect in the world for you. You’ve been a huge part of a World Series team and your determination as a breakthrough All-Star two years ago inspired us as well as our fans. We just can’t justify picking up this option, given your performance and age. But we do want you to be a part of things going forward, and we do believe you are talented and ornery enough to find a way to bounce back as a 36-year-old next season. So we’ll offer you a smaller guarantee. How does $3 million sound? We could even tack on another club option, if you like. That way we can re-sign Javier Lopez without shattering the piggy bank we’ve been plugging with nickels for Hunter Pence.”
There’s no guarantee Vogelsong would take it. Then again, if every other team's scouts are objective, too, it’s hard to imagine he would find anything better on the open market.
After he acknowledged disappointment in his mental focus Saturday, I asked him: You don’t already have $100 million in the bank like Zito does, so has this contract uncertainty frayed any of that focus? Is it a distraction?
He said no, initially. Then he said more.
“It is and it isn’t,” he said. “I know if I’m pitching better right now, it’s probably not even a question. I still feel I have a lot to bring to this game and this team. It’s no secret I love it here. I hope they pick it up.
“If they do, I’m going to be better next year. And if they don’t, I’m going to be better next year.”
And that is the Vogelsong who so endeared himself to Giants fans. It’s the same guy who, when asked if the World Baseball Classic negatively affected him this season, answered in a firm voice that he plans to have a good rest this winter and then a terrific bounce-back season, and then you know what? Everyone can look back and blame the WBC for 2013.
Until then, he has one more start as a Giant. One more guaranteed start, anyway.
“I don’t think it’s a secret that I love it here,” he said. “I love the fans in San Francisco. I want to be back here. That’s not a secret. At the same time, I’ve got to approach the offseason learning from the mistakes I’ve made these last two months, and continue to make myself a better pitcher.”
It’s hard to imagine him getting better results without an uptick in stuff. Gone is the bat-splintering cut fastball that made everyone take notice of him when he was a non-roster invitee in the spring of 2011. Like Zito, he still has guile and guts and experience, all of which he must utilize to walk off with that third out.
But so much is left to chance these days. The pitcher who wants to control every variable of his gameday preparation, beginning with the ritualistic enchiladas he ate the night before, is finding out that his starts are turning into dropped briefcases. Sometimes the bounce is favorable and everything stays latched shut. But when the lock pops, it’s all papers and wind and scurrying for answers.
“I just feel the one thing I can control is being mentally on every pitch,” Vogelsong said. “I’m not sure why it wasn’t on today, but it wasn’t where I needed it to be.”
When asked about the strikeouts, he said it wasn’t a concern because he’s never tried to strike hitters out. He prefers to keep the ball down and pitch to contact. That’s true enough.
But when you only have one avenue to get outs, there's nothing you can do when traffic jams up. And as Bruce Bochy often says, when the ball is in play, something has a chance to happen. For a pitcher, sometimes, what happens is a crash and a rubberneck. The result this time was a three-run inning on Mark Reynolds' broken-bat blooper, a four-pitch walk to No. 9 hitter Chris Stewart, an extra 90 feet on the bases when shortstop Brandon Crawford failed to cut off a throw from center fielder Angel Pagan, and a fought-off RBI grounder from Alex Ridriguez one pitch after Vogelsong appeared to strike him out but didn’t get the call.
An inning later, Vogelsong tried to get a double-play grounder from light-hitting Eduardo Nunez -- a hitter who owned two home runs in two seasons. The inside fastball ended up in the left field seats.
It was five innings, five runs and a starting pitcher who didn’t feel good about his start but didn’t feel like he got pounded, either -- and had trouble explaining why it happened.
“Nothing really got me unraveled,” said Vogelsong, sounding so much like Zito.
It should be pointed out that being compared to Zito is not meant as a slight. The left-hander has been professional and poised throughout seven difficult years as a Giant. He’ll leave on good terms.
But for both pitchers, the introspection begins when the stuff’s not there. Any answer is better than admitting that.
“I’ve learned from my experience throughout my career,” Vogelsong said. “That’s what I’ve done to get back, and this is another one of those things for me. You never know everything about this game. My goal is to have one more start and make it a good one.”
As Zito would add, you can never predict what will happen in this game. That’s why they love it. That’s why they hate it.