Full circle: Giants' Ryan Vogelsong goes from flameout to team's ace
The doubleheader that will unfold today at Wrigley Field should be catnip for baseball fans and armchair psychologists.
In the first game, the San Francisco Giants will send Ryan Vogelsong to the mound. Vogelsong is the leading candidate for baseball's Comeback Player of the Year, a 33-year-old who captures the phrase journeyman quite literally.
His journey back to major league baseball took him to Japan, through the minors and to Venezuela. Vogelsong leads the Giants (and the major leagues if he qualifies with enough innings on Tuesday) with a 1.86 ERA. Exactly a year after being cut by the Phillies, Vogelsong may find himself representing the defending World Series champions in next month's All-Star game.
In the second game, the Giants will send Barry Zito to the mound. Zito is returning after his first stint on the disabled list, which followed three lackluster starts and a disastrous 2010 when he was left off the Giants' postseason roster. When Zito sprained his ankle in late April, Vogelsong was called up from Triple-A and has been everything that Zito -- the struggling pitcher with the $126 million contract -- has not.
One pitcher, Zito, perhaps due to the size of his contract, has not been able to master his focus and concentration in recent years.
The other, Vogelsong, sharpened his mental approach after being released and facing the end of his career.
"Just focus, concentration," Vogelsong said. "Before I would lose myself in the middle of hitters thinking about things I shouldn't be thinking about. Thinking about making a pitch instead of what I need to do to execute that pitch. It's just a different mind process now."
Zito, talking about his struggles to a Bay Area reporter last week, used almost the same description of his problems.
"For some reason, I just focus on the wrong things," Zito said. "For me it's about focus, about executing my pitch ... In the past, it seemed there were too many instances when the pitch fell second to other things."
Arm strength? Miles per hour? Movement on pitches? The doubleheader in Chicago today is a testament that a pitcher's most important tool is his mind.
"Personally, I believe a lot of Ryan's troubles were mental," Vogelsong's wife, Nicole, said. "He was putting mental pressure on himself. But when he got released last season and sat home, he had some internal thinking to do. He knew his chances were running out."
Vogelsong's career started in San Francisco. The Giants drafted him in 1998. In 2001 he was dealt to the Pirates at the trade deadline, in the deal that brought Jason Schmidt to San Francisco.
Nothing went right for Vogelsong in Pittsburgh. He had Tommy John surgery, which sidelined him for 2002. He was an ineffective starter. He was bad coming out of the bullpen. He became a target for Pirates fans' frustrations.
"It was so hard to watch the fans be hard on him," Nicole said. "It just wasn't coming together."
In 2007, Vogelsong went to Japan to pitch for the Hanshin Tigers. For three years he played in Japan. He and Nicole would watch MLB games and be heartened by the occasional player they saw who had been in Japan. Nicole was a voice of encouragement among the few Americans on Tigers.
"Everyone called me 'Miss Positive Pants,'" she said. "Every setback is a setup for an amazing comeback."
In 2010, Vogelsong signed a minor-league contract with Philadelphia. But the fresh start ended quickly. After struggling in Triple-A, Vogelsong was cut in July. For 10 days he waited for the phone to ring. During that time he turned 33. He asked his wife, "I'm 33, my numbers are bad, who's going to give me a job?'
At that point Vogelsong knew he had to change his mental approach. As long as he got another chance.
"Quitting never crossed my mind," Vogelsong said. "But would I get another opportunity? That crossed my mind a lot."
The phone finally rang. It was the Angels offering another minor league contract. Vogelsong made the most of pitching in Salt Lake City, but wasn't offered a new contract at the end of the season. He decided to go to Venezuela to showcase himself and pitched well.
When he came home, a few teams were interested, including San Francisco. The Giants were fully loaded with young, starting pitchers, but that didn't dissuade Vogelsong. He had maintained a relationship with Giants pitching coach Dave Righetti over the years, which gave him confidence.
And he liked the idea of coming full circle.
Vogelsong has been the surprise of the season. He -- not Tim Lincecum or Matt Cain -- has been the Giants' stopper, their most consistent pitcher. When he leaves the mound and hears the roar of the AT&T Park crowd, the emotion flickers across his stoic expression.
"It's awesome," he said. "It's the best thing you could ever experience. Obviously, after what I've been through, it makes it that much better."
Vogelsong had to hit bottom before he figured out how to become a mentally stronger pitcher. There's a lesson there for the pitcher who will follow him in tonight's second game.
"I wish it hadn't taken until I was 33 to figure it out," Vogelsong said.
But he's proof it can be done.