Nothing comes easy in the game of baseball, but nobody knows that more than former Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher, Ryan Vogelsong.
Former Pittsburgh Pirates and San Francisco Giants right-handed pitcher Ryan Vogelsong’s road to success wasn’t an easy one. Vogelsong faced many roadblocks to get to the Majors, and to stay there. He jumped through many hoops just to prove he could be an effective starter at the game’s highest level. However, once he got there, he proved he belonged there.
Ryan Vogelsong was drafted by the San Francisco Giants in the 5th round of the 1998 draft. Coming up through the Giants farm system, he was never a top prospect. However, he consistently put up solid numbers throughout the minors. His highest ERA before the 2000 season, his debut season, was just 3.86, while his highest WHIP was 1.21. However, in these 2 seasons, the young Vogelsong still struck out 201 batters through 173 innings, and walked just 62. He also only gave up 18 long balls. Vogelsong mainly served as a starter throughout the minors, but that wasn’t his role for most of the first few seasons of his career.
In 2000, his age 22 season, Vogelsong made his debut, and tossed 6 scoreless innings across four relief appearances. He only allowed six base runners (four hits, two walks), and struck out six. But, despite solid numbers throughout the minors, and a fairly impressive 6 inning debut, Vogelsong’s time with the Giants would not last long
After a rough 2001 season, Vogelsong was dealt to the Pittsburgh Pirates on the trade deadline of 2001 in what has become one of the worst trades in Pirates history. Vogelsong, along with Armando Rios, was sent to Pittsburgh for pitcher Jason Schmidt and outfielder Jon Vander Wal. If you know anything about Schmidt, then you’ll know how bad this trade went for the Pirates.
But this is about Vogelsong. The Pirates only used Vogelsong for 6 innings in 2001, and didn’t bring him back to the Majors throughout 2002. Why? Well one of the worst things that can happen to a pitcher happened. Vogelsong had to undergo Tommy John Surgery. Vogelsong only pitched 12 games in the minors in 2002, but came back in 2003. He played a full season at Triple-A, albeit with lackluster results, and he pitched 22 innings at the Major League level. In those 22 innings, Vogelsong allowed 30 hits, 16 earned runs, and carried a weak 1.67 K/BB ratio.
The following season, now 26-years-old, Vogelsong got his first long look at Major League batters, but if you thought Tommy John surgery was bad, think about suffering horrible results through an entire year. In 133 innings (35 total games, started 26), the right hander gave up 96 earned runs on 148 hits. Of those 148 hits, 22 of them, or nearly 15% of all of them left the ballpark. He walked 11% of all the batters he faced, and struck out just 15%.
His ratios of home runs/hits allowed and strikeouts/batters faced were nearly identical. All in all, he had a 5.55 FIP, and 5.20 SIERA. Somehow, he managed an outstandingly bad DRA at 6.92. This was one of the worst seasons in Pirates history. It was the highest single season ERA among any Pirates pitcher with at least 20 starts, and the lowest fWAR in a single season by any Pirates pitcher with at least 130 innings pitched in one year.
In 2005, the Bucs exclusively used Ryan out of the bullpen, where he did better but nothing like he did throughout the early years of his professional career. This time around, he was mainly used as a long relief pitcher, racking up 81.1 innings of work in 44 games. Vogelsong posted a 4.43 ERA, 4.31 FIP, and 1.50 WHIP. He continued to struggle with walks, giving up 40 free passes, and striking out just 52 batters. However, home runs became less of an issue. Vogelsong surrendered five throughout 2005. Still, his SIERA reached into the high-4’s, this time at 4.65. This time around, Vogelsong’s DRA was 5.46.
Vogelsong only saw 38 more innings in a Pirates uniform for the time being. In 38 innings in 2006, Vogelsong’s results looked much like 2004. He gave up 27 earned runs on 44 hits, his WHIP was 1.58, his SIERA was 4.58, and his walk and strikeout numbers were mediocre. He walked 9% of all batters he faced and struck out 15.2%. Now at 28-years-old, and very little success, if any in the MLB, was now a free agent. At this point, who would want a 27-year-old who had one of the worst seasons in a franchise’s history, and a former Tommy John victim? Vogelsong questioned his career at this point. In an interview during his second tenure with the Giants, Vogelsong stated the following:
"“I was sitting at home, really just wondering if I would ever get another chance to play baseball again as a professional. And didn’t really know at that point where my career was going or if it was going to be over.”"
While nobody in the United States would pick up Ryan Vogelsong, the Nippon Pro Baseball league did, or Japan’s highest level of baseball. Vogelsong’s first outing with the Hanshin Tigers didn’t go as planned. In 106.2 innings, the veteran posted a 4.13 ERA, 1.44 WHIP, and 4.84 FIP. He gave up home runs at a 1.4 per 9 rate, while carrying a better, but still below average 2.22 K/BB ratio.
In 2008, Vogelsong had the best season he had across seas. Although he only pitched only 65.1 innings, he did have a 3.99 ERA, 1.29 WHIP, and 3.37 FIP. He only allowed three home runs in the hitter friendly environment, and walked batters at a strong 2.6 per 9 rate. But in 2009, Vogelsong got better. Mainly working out the bullpen with 28 of his 30 appearances being relief appearances, he may have had a 4.54 ERA, but he was striking out a ton of batters. With the Orix Buffaloes, the now 31-year-old struck out 56 batters, and walked just 16, putting up his best K/BB ratio of his career. He also gave up home runs at a rate of just 0.9 per 9 innings.
This caught the attention of teams back in the US, as Vogelsong was signed by the Philadelphia Phillies. But he never appeared in a Major Lague game for the Phillies, and for a good reason. Vogelsong, who was already down on his luck, struggled again. In 58.2 innings at the Triple-A level, he gave up an ERA of 4.91, and 60 hits. Sure, he carried over the strong strikeout rate, striking out 73 batters, but he was walking them at a 6.1 per 9 rate. Vogelsong was released by the Phillies in July to be signed by the Los Angeles Angels. Here, he did equally bad, posting a 4.66 ERA, and 1.88 WHIP.
Now, it had been nearly a half decade since Ryan Vogelsong took a Major League Baseball mound. But Vogelong held out hope. After a strong, but short showing at the Dominican Winter League, the San Francisco Giants, the team that had drafted him 14 years ago, signed him to a minor league contract, which proved to be one of the best investments in the team’s history.
Ironically, the first team Vogelsong started against in 2011 was against the only other team he’s ever known: the Pittsburgh Pirates. Against the Bucs, the rejuvenated pitcher tossed 5.2 innings, struck out eight batters, and gave up only 2 runs on four hits. Throughout 2011, Ryan Vogelsong, after years and years of struggling, finally put together an excellent season. In 179.2 innings of work, he tossed a 2.71 ERA, 3.67 FIP, and 1.26 WHIP. Vogelsong posted a DRA of just 3.69, and a 3.96 SIERA. His performance led him to the 2011 All-Star game. He sat just behind Tim Lincecum (3.4) and Matt Cain (3.3), and ahead of Madison Bumgarner (1.9) in bWAR (3.2). Vogelsong even received a few Cy Young votes in 2011. But the 2012 season would be the real highlight of his career.
In the regular season, Vogelsong posted very similar numbers to 2011. In 189.2 innings of work, the now 34-year-old had a 3.37 ERA, 3.70 FIP, and 1.23 WHIP. Although his DRA was 4.09 and SIERA was 4.09, his overall numbers were great. He posted the highest strikeout rate of his career, with a 7.5 K/9. He also only walked 62 batters. But Vogelsong was one of the team’s heroes during the 2012 postseason. He pitched a total of 24.2 innings in October, and gave up just 3 earned runs, and struck out 21 batters. He didn’t give up a single home run, and to top it off, he pitched 5 and two thirds innings of scoreless baseball vs the Detroit Tigers in game 3 of the World Series.
The now All-Star caliber right hander had a rough 2013, where he posted an ERA above 5, but it was through an injury limited 103.2 innings. He came back in 2014 to post a third solid season since coming back to the United States. Through 184.2 innings, Vogelsong had a 4.00 ERA, 3.85 FIP, 3.98 SIERA and 1.28 WHIP. Despite his higher ERA and DRA (4.72), Vogelsong posted a career best K/BB ratio of 2.6, and he walked just 58 batters. He made the team’s postseason roster. He didn’t perform the same as he did in 2012, but he was still impactful to the team through the entire season.
Ryan Vogelsong then headed into free agency, which took him on an interesting path, not that it’s anything new for him. The now 37-year-old had a deal in place with the Houston Astros, but it fell through because of injury concern. After this, the Giants swooped back in, and picked up the veteran on a one year deal as a swing man.
In 2015, Vogelsong pitched in 33 games, but started 22 of them. Despite his decent work in three of the past four seasons, the wear on his arm was clearly starting to slow. This time around, Vogelsong posted a 4.67 ERA, 4.53 FIP, 4.54 SIERA, 5.05 DRA and 1.47 WHIP. He walked 58 batters in just 135 innings of work, which resulted in a 9.7% walk rate. That was the highest it’s been since 2005. At this point, it was just regression. Vogelsong was 37, and age was taking its toll.
After 2015, the light was waning on Vogelsong’s professional career once again. But the team that traded for him all the way back in 2001, the Pittsburgh Pirates, gave Vogelsong a one year deal. Again serving as a swing man, Vogelsong got off to a much better start. Despite his high FIP, Vogelsong still carried an ERA under 4 for most of the beginning of the season.
But the season came to an abrupt pause. In a game Vogelsong started vs the Colorado Rockies on May 23rd, Vogelsong stepped to the plate to attempt a bunt. The pitch from Jordan Lyles rode too far inside, and hit Vogelsong in what looked to be his left eye. Sadly, this left the veteran with a facial fracture, and to miss most of the 2016 season. However, Vogelsong still had one last fight left in him. He returned to the mound later in 2016, and pitched again on August 4th against the San Diego Padres. Through 6 innings, he gave up just 1 run on three hits, one walk, and struck out six Padres. It was the best game he had started with the Pittsburgh Pirates, and it would be one of his last games played at the Major League level. Vogelsong would go on to finish the 2016 season, albeit with not as great results as the beginning of the year.
After 2016, Vogelsong was, for a short time, in the Minnesota Twins organization, but was released nearing the end of Spring Training. Vogelsong ended his career as a Giant, signing a one day deal and throwing out the first pitch before officially retiring.
Although Ryan Vogelsong’s best years of his career were with the San Francisco Giants, he threw his last professional pitch with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Vogelsong’s story to stardom was not an easy one. Nothing came easy. From never being a notable prospect, to struggling early in his career, to Tommy John surgery, and having to pitch overseas before coming back to the United States, Vogelsong has seen it all.