Prospect Retrospective: Ryan Vogelsong
Ryan Vogelsong has been one of San Francisco's best assets over the last two years, both with his regular season performances and last night's Game Six heroics. His career has hardly been textbook, however, so let's take a look this afternoon at the Long Journey of Ryan Vogelsong.
The Giants drafted Vogelsong in the fifth round in 1998, from Kutztown University in Pennsylvania. His pro debut was successful: he posted a 1.77 ERA in 10 starts for Salem-Keizer in the Northwest League, with a 66/16 K/BB in 56 innings. Promoted to High-A San Jose at the end of the year, he rang up an ugly 7.58 ERA but with a good 26/4 K/BB ratio in 19 innings. The ERA was mostly bad luck. His command was impressive and I would rate a similar guy as a Grade C+ nowadays, possibly with a Sleeper Alert tag.
Vogelsong began '99 with San Jose, posting a 2.45 ERA with an 86/27 K/BB in 70 innings, allowing only 37 hits. Promoted to Double-A Shreveport, he was hit hard (7.31 ERA, 23/15 K/BB, 40 hits in 28 innings). He showed a solid three-pitch mix (90-92 MPH fastball, slider, changeup), but also missed time with arm problems. I had him as a Grade C+ entering 2000.
He spent the year at Shreveport, making 27 starts and throwing 155 innings (no arm problems), resulting in a 4.23 ERA with a 147/69 K/BB. Scouting reports showed additional progress with his curveball, giving him four potential pitches. He also looked good in a brief trial with the Giants, throwing six shutout relief innings over four games, fanning six. I gave him a Grade B- entering '01, but I did express some concern about how he would adapt to the Pacific Coast League.
Vogelsong earned his travel miles in 2001, pitching for Fresno (2.79 ERA in 58 innings, 53/18 K/BB), the Giants (5.65 ERA, 17/14 K/BB in 29 innings in the bullpen), then Triple-A Nashville (3.98 ERA, 33/15 K/BB in 32 innings) after being traded to Pittsburgh, where he made two starts for the Pirates. At that point his elbow (problematic since college) finally blew out, resulting in Tommy John surgery. I lowered him to a Grade C to await recovery.
He came back late in 2002 but did not pitch effectively, posting a 5.57 ERA in 44 innings for Double-A Altoona. In '03 his recovery was more complete, with a 4.29 ERA and a 146/54 K/BB in 149 innings for Triple-A Nashville. The Pirates moved him into the rotation in 2004, but he was very disappointing, going 6-13, 6.50 in 133 innings. He was a basic back-end bullpen guy for Pittsburgh in '05 and '06.
In 2007 he moved on to Japan, pitching for the Hanshin Tigers in '07 and '08, then the Orix Buffaloes in '09. He wasn't bad in Japan, but wasn't excellent, either.
Returning to the United States in 2010, he was used as a utility pitcher by the Phillies with Triple-A Lehigh Valley (4.91 ERA, 73/40 K/BB in 59 innings) but drew his release. He then signed with the Angels and made seven more Triple-A starts for Salt Lake, but was released again at the end of the year.
He entered 2011 as little more than Triple-A roster-filler. Returning to his original organization, he made a couple of starts for Fresno then was promoted to fill a spot in the Giants rotation. As you know, he was excellent, going 13-7, 2.71, 129 ERA+ with a 139/61 K/BB in 180 innings, 2.2 WAR, as well as an All-Star nod. He remained effective this year, going 14-9, 3.37 with a 158/62 K/BB in 190 innings, 103 ERA+, 2.6 WAR.
So, um. What the hell? How did this happen?
He doesn't throw any harder than he did when he was younger, generally 88-92, topping out at 94-95, using both a two-seamer and four-seamer. He has a diverse arsenal with a curveball, cutter, and changeup. He usually throws strikes.
Even when he was young, Vogelsong showed good pitching instincts, but he had a hard time staying healthy, plus his confidence and concentration levels fluctuated. Any team in baseball could have had Vogelsong for pennies two years ago, but with his arm in better shape, and with the greater maturity of a man in his 30s, his natural talent finally blossomed. He is now pitching like the guy the Giants thought he could be in 1998.