Sunday, September 21, 2014
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Waiting for the Vogelsong to end

I said it a couple months ago, and I will say it again now: the curious case of Ryan Vogelsong is the reason why every culture since the inception of human civilization has held Sport in a regard that is entirely disproportionate to its actual contributions to the betterment of society.

Waiting for the Vogelsong to end

Giants pitcher Ryan Vogelsong is on his way to a career-high in innings, ERA and strikeouts this season. (Jeff Chiu/AP)
Giants pitcher Ryan Vogelsong is on his way to a career-high in innings, ERA and strikeouts this season. (Jeff Chiu/AP)

I said it a couple months ago, and I will say it again now: the curious case of Ryan Vogelsong is the reason every culture since the inception of human civilization has held Sport in a regard that is entirely disproportionate to its actual contributions to the betterment of society. The Phillies will not face the farmhand they released last summer in their four-game series against the Giants this weekend, and that's a shame, because all he has done since the last time we checked in on him is go 5-0 with a 2.64 ERA in 61 1/3 innings over 10 starts. Five of the National League's Top 10 leaders in ERA are members of one of the two teams that will square off at ATT Park starting tonight, a fact that might have been expected at the start of the season, except for the part about the leader of all them being a 34-year-old righthander whose most significant professional success came in Japan and whose last big league game before this season came in 2006, when he allowed at least one run in seven consecutive relief appearances before the Pirates mercifully bid him adieu.

Vogelsong will not pitch this weekend because he pitched yesterday, which was good news for the Giants, because they needed a stopper, and that is what Vogelsong has been for them ever since he entered the rotation on April 28 for what was supposed to be a brief stint precipitated by a lack of palatable options. As Scott Ostler points out in his column today in the San Francisco Chronicle, Vogelsong has started a game following a Giants loss nine times this season. Yesterday's 8-1 victory over the red-hot Diamondbacks was the eighth time San Francisco has won one one of those games. Vogelsong is 6-1 in those performances, including his quality start against Arizona, which saw him strike out seven and allow one run in six-plus innings. For comparison's sake, Phillies pitchers have allowed 15 earned runs in 25 innings against the Diamondbacks this season. That's worth noting because when you talk to folks in the Phillies organization about Vogelsong's twilight renaissance, there is still a degree of disbelief, a reluctance to offer much more than a shake of the head, as if the second shoe is not only hanging over Vogelsong's head, but their own.

After all, the National League's ERA leader was under their control for the bulk of last season, when nine different pitchers not named Vogelsong started games for them. But the remarkable performance of the Octorara grad is no more an indictment of the Phillies than it is of the Pirates before them, or the hundred-some-odd Division I college baseball coaches who allowed him to pitch at Kutztown University, where the top two sports are football and drinking.

Rather, Vogelsong's astonishing season is an indictment of our cynicism, and a reminder of the reason we watch athletes and not mathematicians: when you assign the human mind and body a set of parameters and challenge it to achieve a specific goal, the result is often one that defies the baselines we have established as the norm for achievement. The beauty of Sport is the Outlier, the anomaly, the athlete who produces something that historical precedent and statistical evidence and sheer logic suggest should not have occurred, and will not continue to occur. We do not watch sports for the hard fall back to Earth, for the regression to the mean, for the resumption of reality. We watch sports because at any given moment, a Frank Wycheck can throw a ball aback to Kevin Dyson and leave us standing on our couches, because in any given game a Dallas Braden can transform from mediocre to perfect in a span of nine innings, because in any given season a has-been or never-was like Ryan Vogelsong can find that metaphysical zone that he has spent an entire career in search of.

The essence of Sport lies in the suspension of belief, and the greatest sportsmen are the ones who suspend that belief throughout their entire careers.

In his column today, Ostler notes that "a lot of smart baseball people are waiting for Vogelsong to return to Earth."  

And at some point, that wait could be rewarded.

In the meantime, a host of other smart people will be enjoying his time in orbit.


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