With Return To Pirates, Ryan Vogelsong Comes Full Circle

Ryan Vogelsong was drafted by the San Francisco Giants as the 158th overall pick of the 1998 Amateur Draft. Eighteen years after his initial entrance into professional baseball, the Kutztown University product finds himself back with the Pittsburgh Pirates, the team who gave him his first chance in a starting rotation in 2003.

Since Vogelsong spent much of his early career with the Pirates, after a short initial stint in San Francisco, it feels like the 38-year-old’s career has finally come full circle. And considering all of the left turns and transitions he’s made since his debut in 2000, his story is one of resilience.

The small-school product worked quickly through the Giants minor league system, and was called up in September 2000 from Double-A Shreveport at 22 years old. He pitched in four games down the stretch without surrendering a run, and after starting the 2001 season in Triple-A, returned to the Giants bullpen in the summer months. Vogelsong posted an underwhelming 5.65 ERA in 28.2 innings, before being sent off to Pittsburgh in a deal that brought Jason Schmidt to San Francisco.

Once again, Vogelsong found himself as a September call-up, this time as a starter for the lowly Pirates. He wasn’t good in two starts; in six innings, he gave up eight runs on ten hits, with only seven strikeouts against six walks. Vogelsong was still a young pitcher, and he just wasn’t polished. Due to his big-league struggles, Vogelsong started over in the Pirates system and spent 2002 and most of 2003 working his way back up from High-A Lynchburg.

As a prospect, Vogelsong struggled mightily; his strikeout-to-walk rates were actually quite good, but he just got hit at an alarming frequency. He went 14-14 in over 200 innings across those two seasons, and had a very difficult time keeping runners off the basepaths despite holding his walk totals to a minimum. Nevertheless, his 12-8 record and 4.29 ERA in Triple-A Nashville in 2003 impressed the Pirates enough to bring the 25-year-old starter back to the rotation.

Between September 2003 and 2006, Ryan Vogelsong was a permanent fixture on some pretty awful Pittsburgh Pirates pitching staffs. He wasn’t a notable fixture, either, as in that time he went 10-17 in 101 games (31 starts), with a 5.87 ERA (4.86 FIP), 1.589 WHIP, surrendering a whopping 304 hits against only 186 strikeouts (and averaging 10 hits per nine innings), and a meager 1.41 strikeout-to-walk rate. At 28 years old, Vogelsong was looking like a flop.

He was sent down to finish the 2006 season in Triple-A Indianapolis, and was actually very good; in almost 68 innings, he went 4-5 with a microscopic 2.66 ERA and 3.47 FIP. His 3.66 strikeout-to-walk rate hearkened back to his first journey through the Pirates system, and he proved in this small sample size there was still talent in his arm.

Still, after years of failure between the major and minor league levels, he decided to take his talents to the Hanshin Tigers of Nippon Professional Baseball. In two seasons with Hanshin and one with the Orix Buffaloes, Vogelsong’s numbers didn’t blow anyone away, but he did stabilize them. He appeared in 62 games — 34 of them starts — and went 11-14 with a decent 4.17 ERA and brought his WHIP down slightly to 1.371. He was still getting hit, and hard, but less of those baserunners found themselves crossing the plate.

It’s not uncommon for failed American pitchers to see success in Japan, but Vogelsong wasn’t done there. In 2010, at 32, Vogelsong gave it another go, signing a minor league deal with the Philadelphia Phillies for phase two of his American career.

He started where he left off. In Triple-A Lehigh Valley, Vogelsong went 2-5 with a 4.91 ERA in 25 appearances, and was released in mid-July. Two weeks later, he signed with the Los Angeles Angels and didn’t fare much better. Overall in 2010, Vogelsong went 3-8 with a 4.81 ERA, but posted an astronomical WHIP of 1.773 largely due to averaging nearly six walks per nine innings along with his usual tendencies of surrendering tons of hits.

His 2010 comeback campaign floundered big time, and entering his age-33 season, he was running out of time to right the ship. The San Francisco Giants decided to give Vogelsong another opportunity within the organization in 2011, and suddenly, everything changed.

Vogelsong began 2011 in Triple-A Fresno, and was lights out in two starts. In mid-April, Barry Zito went down with an injury, and despite excelling in a microscopic sample size, the Giants felt Vogelsong was the right man to replace the legendary Bay Area lefty. The mainstream baseball fan went five seasons without the name Ryan Vogelsong entering their conscience, and here he was as a member of the pitching staff for baseball’s defending World Champions.

Vogelsong made sure fans would never forget him again. He went 6-1 with a 2.17 ERA in the first half of the 2011 season, silencing the naysayers who remember Ryan Vogelsong as a guy their team could rough around with ease. In the blink of an eye, he found himself as a valued piece in Bruce Bochy’s highly acclaimed starting rotation, which featured Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain at their peaks. He even found a place on the National League All-Star team.

For the first time in his career, Vogelsong was limiting baserunners. Opposing hitters slashed only .221/.292/.328 in the first half, and his 2:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio didn’t hurt, either. His dominance continued into the second half, finishing his 2011 season with a 13-7 record and 2.71 ERA (3.67 FIP) in 28 starts. His performance was the feel-good story of 2011, and his numbers were good enough to place him 11th in the Cy Young Award voting. The fact that he even got Cy Young votes in his age-33 season, after more than a decade of struggles, was remarkable.

Vogelsong carried this success to a two-year, $8 million contract with the Giants, a steal for the numbers he posted the previous year. And his success continued, finishing the first half of 2012 with a 2.36 ERA and opponents’ slash of .218/.293/.328. His second half wasn’t nearly as strong, ballooning his ERA to a still-impressive 3.37 by end the year, and his 2.5 WAR was actually an improvement to 2011. Many believed his weak second half displayed holes in his game, and would make him beatable as the Giants entered the 2012 postseason.

It didn’t happen that way. Quite the opposite, actually; Vogelsong went undefeated in the 2012 playoffs, including two big wins against the St. Louis Cardinals in the NLCS. He and Barry Zito were Bochy’s most effective starters in the 2012 postseason, leading the Giants to their second World Series championship in three years. Ryan Vogelsong — a pitcher who couldn’t keep his ERA under five just six seasons prior and went off to Japan for a fresh start — now had a World Series ring.

Since 2013, Vogelsong has been hit-or-miss: he’s gone 21-30 with a 4.63 ERA and 4.33 FIP, battling injuries over the last three seasons and eventually losing his starting role in 2015. His fastball still hovers between 89-92 miles per hour, the same velocity he was reaching in his amazing 2011 season, so his arm is still fresh, he’s just been less consistent since 2012.

He’s a perfect experiment for Pirates pitching coach Ray Searage, who has played a big role in reviving the careers of Francisco Liriano and J.A. Happ, among others. Clearly, Vogelsong still has the arm despite being 38, he just needs to refocus his efforts on the mound, and that’s why his contract with the Pirates for 2016 makes a world of sense.

On a symbolic level, Vogelsong’s return to Pittsburgh a decade after his unceremonious departure from what was then a very bad Pirates team is a very cool thing. Both Vogelsong and the Pirates organization have come a long way since 2006, and the fact that two of baseball’s recent great redemption stories can reunite — having experienced the bad times together, with the opportunity now to win together — makes for one of baseball’s great storylines entering 2016.

Winning in Pittsburgh would provide the most appropriate conclusion to the long and well-traveled tale of Ryan Vogelsong.

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