Every year during the Major League Baseball draft, or First-Year Player Draft as it’s also known, teams draft more players than are taken in the NFL, NBA, and NHL drafts combined times two. In 2011, 1,530 amateur players were chosen by MLB teams. Not all of those players are signed or immediately join the farm system of the teams that select them, but it’s not hard to do the math and think that if there are more than 50 new players drafted by each team every year, there are many players who also have to leave the organization. In short, baseball is a numbers game.

For every superstar player who becomes an All-Star, there are hundreds of other marginal players who just don’t make the cut and never play a game in the majors. Generally, players who stick, stick for a reason and do it very early in their careers. It’s rare that a player fails to succeed at the big leagues early in his career, only to eventually find his way to superstar success after years of toiling as a journeyman.

The San Francisco Giants have a player who has done just that named Ryan Vogelsong. Vogelsong was drafted in 1998 by the Giants in the 5th round. In 2011, he represented them as a National League All-Star. If you only knew that much information, you’d think that he had a long and storied career with the franchise. Well, you’d think wrong.

Vogelsong was a good pitching prospect in the Giants’ organization, drafted out of Kutztown University of Pennsylvania. He shot through the lower level minor leagues and pitched for the Giants near the end of the 2000 season, throwing six innings in relief without giving up a run. By 2001, he was their most big league-ready pitching prospect, dominating AAA Fresno, which made him trade bait for the Giants who were trying to add a starting pitcher for the stretch run of the season. In late July before the trade deadline, the Giants shipped him off to Pittsburgh in a deal to acquire ace Jason Schmidt.

While hindsight is 20/20 as the saying goes, the move to Pittsburgh could’ve been a good one for Vogelsong. While he wasn’t with the franchise that drafted him any longer, he was given the opportunity to be one of the pillars of a starting rotation for a young Pirates team. Only, two games into his Pirates career, he had to shut it down. He had an elbow injury that required the ever famous Tommy John surgery. The surgery replaces the medial elbow ligament with a tendon.

Here’s how Wikipedia describes it:

After the tendon from the forearm of the same or opposite elbow or below the knee (or from a cadaver) is harvested, it is then woven in a figure-eight pattern through tunnels that have been drilled in the ulna and humerus bone that are part of the elbow joint.

I’m not sure about you, but weaving a tendon in a figure-eight pattern through drilled tunnels in bones in your arm sounds like pretty serious business to me. But these days, it happens more and more, including most recently to super-phenom pitcher Stephen Strasburg, who threw 100 MPH before the surgery and probably will come back throwing just as hard.

The surgery hurt Vogelsong’s path to success. He didn’t make it back to the big leagues with the Pirates until 2003 and struggled. In 2004, he had 24 starts and fashioned a 6.50 ERA. In 2005 and 2006, he pitched exclusively out of the bullpen and by the end of 2006, it was pretty much figured that his big league career was over. He wasn’t striking as many hitters out and his WHIP (walks+hits/innings pitched) was consistently in the 1.5-1.6 range.

In late 2006 he was acquired by the Hanshin Tigers in Japan and Pirates’ fans gave up on him. Read this post from an old Pirates blog where the writer basically said that he wasn’t big league material anymore. Vogelsong pitched in Japan for three decent years before finding his way back to the United States.

He was signed by the Philadelphia Phillies before the 2010 season, but in July without ever making their big league squad, he was released. The same thing happened with the Anaheim Angels later in the year. When does a player say enough is enough? In 2011, at the age of 33, Ryan Vogelsong came home to the team who drafted him thirteen years prior. The pitching rich Giants probably wouldn’t need him unless someone from their starting rotation was hurt. And just two weeks in the season, that’s exactly what happened.

Barry Zito was hurt while fielding his position and had to go on the disabled list. It opened up a spot for Vogelsong on the defending World Series champs. It would be 10 and 1/2 years since he first took the mound for the Giants, pitching in relief in a win against the Colorado Rockies. He started 10 days later, beating the Pittsburgh Pirates, the same team that traded for him in 2001.

Since then, Vogelsong has been nothing short of spectacular. Even when Barry Zito returned from injury, it was Zito, and not Vogelsong who didn’t have a spot in the rotation. If Ryan Vogelsong doesn’t win the comeback player of the year, the award should be demolished. At time of writing, he leads all qualified National League pitchers with a 2.19 ERA and sports a 9-1 record.

According to Vogelsong, after going through so much heartache and disappointment, he doesn’t want to think of how he’s doing it now. He just wants to keep doing it. The odds might be stacked against the 34-year old right hander to duplicate his success from here on out. He’s pitching for the perfect team, one with all of their home games in AT&T which is a notorious pitcher’s park, and behind him is the best bullpen in baseball. But who cares? The odds have been stacked against him for most of his career.

His wife, Nicole Vogelsong, is supportive, championing his rise to near elite status the entire way. You can read her tweets @nicolevogelsong. For instance, after Vogelsong’s latest start, a 6 inning, 7 strikeout winning performance, she said:

Much love to all of you tweeting me! Ry reads them & we appreciate it. I know I speak for both of us saying standing o’s never get old!! 🙂

When you go from top prospect to injury prone to journeyman in just a few years and still find the intestinal fortitude to go on and find success, maybe you can continue to buck the odds. Maybe Vogelsong continues to be successful from here on out and has a glorious career. Tommy John pitched until he was 46. Vogelsong and the figure-eight woven tendon in his elbow have 12 more years to catch him.

Photo of Vogelsong is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license

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