When Matt Hobgood stepped on the mound for the first time in rookie league on July 18, 2009, he couldn't find the arm strength that propelled his 98-mph fastballs and his rise to the fifth overall pick in that year's first-year player draft.
In its place that summer in Bluefield, W.Va. — and later in Delmarva, Aberdeen and Sarasota, Fla. — was pain and soreness that never really subsided. His velocity dipped lower and lower while his ERA soared, and soon, the confidence of the top high school pitcher in the class of 2009 was all but gone.
"I can remember going out and doubting myself before I'd even started a game, knowing my arm didn't feel good," Hobgood said in a recent interview. "I didn't feel good about myself. I wasn't confident. I didn't have any conviction in my pitches, and I'd basically beaten myself before I'd even gone out there."
Everything culminated Aug. 24, 2011. Hobgood fell to 0-6 with short-season Single-A Aberdeen, allowing three runs on six hits in five innings. His ERA was 10.46. Two years removed from the draft, it appeared Hobgood was headed toward bust status. His shoulder was shot. The right-hander needed rotator cuff surgery and wouldn't pitch again in the Orioles organization for more than a year.
Now with High-A Frederick, Hobgood is pitching pain-free out of the bullpen for the first time since high school with measured, positive returns. Having turned 23 on Saturday, he knows there's still time for him to advance through the organization and contribute.
But he won't forget the feeling of sitting out all of 2012, waiting for his shoulder to heal and waiting to see if he would even get the opportunity to live up to his prestigious billing.
"That was the first time in my life that I'd really failed at baseball," Hobgood said.
A partner in rehab
Hobgood underwent surgery in April 2012 in Delaware and spent that summer and fall in Sarasota for rehabilitation. Another member of the Orioles' 2009 draft class, fifth-round pick Ashur Tolliver, was already in Florida rehabbing after having surgery on the labrum in his left pitching shoulder.
The pair moved into a condo in Siesta Key, Fla., slowly working their way back and confronting the long odds of simply returning to the level that made them high draft picks in the first place. They knew that success rates for the highly publicized Tommy John elbow replacement surgery were on the rise, and that many pitchers who had that operation came back stronger than before.
But shoulder surgery was completely different.
"It's less than flipping a coin heads or tails just to get back to where you were," Tolliver said.
When Hobgood got out of his sling, his shoulder muscles had atrophied, and he said there were days he was convinced he would need more surgery before he could heal. He and Tolliver rehabbed in the same room together, willing each other through the exercises and offering encouragement.
"You would just mentally think, 'Wow, there's no way I'm ever going to throw a baseball again,'" said Tolliver, who is also now with Frederick. "Just having somebody else there to push you through those days was great. Matt was a great help through all that. I hope I was the same help for him that he was for me."
When Hobgood was ready to begin pitching again, the organization's goal for him was simple: stay healthy and get innings in. In his first three years in professional baseball, Hobgood had thrown only 157 2/3 innings, with 94 of those coming with Low-A Delmarva in 2010. His career ERA was 5.48.
Hobgood began this season back with the Shorebirds, the highest level he had advanced to before his surgery. Operating as a long reliever, he went 7-3 with a 3.71 ERA in 63 innings, the lowest mark at any level for him. His fastball was in the low- to mid-90s, and he said he even touched 97 mph once.
"He came to the ballpark every day and went through everything all the pitchers did," Delmarva pitching coach Justin Lord said. "He was eager to pitch. He wanted to get in there, and I think he may come from a standpoint of wanting to prove himself right now. Anytime he gets out there, he has an opportunity to do that."
On July 16, Hobgood was promoted to High-A Frederick, where he was reunited with manager Ryan Minor, who also managed him in 2010 with Delmarva. Minor, a former Orioles infielder, quickly noticed a difference in Hobgood. The self-doubting 19-year-old prospect was gone.
"Mentally, his maturity level is a lot better than it was the first time I saw him," Minor said. "I had him as a kid, and now he's had a couple years to just be around the game and start learning stuff and just grow up."
"On the right track"
The 6-foot-4, 245-pound Hobgood has embraced his new role on the pitching staff, too. Once projected to be a frontline starter, he's made a smooth transition into the bullpen. He worries less about pacing himself through an outing and instead can use his pitches however he wants.
The major league club has set an example with its willingness to switch pitchers' roles to maximize their effectiveness. Two key members of the Orioles' current bullpen, left-hander Brian Matusz and right-hander Tommy Hunter, were promising starters at one point in their careers.
Hobgood's first two outings in Frederick were effective — he allowed three runs in 81/3 innings while striking out nine. He ran into some trouble Thursday, allowing seven runs on four hits and two walks in two innings. But he came back strong Tuesday night in Myrtle Beach, striking out four and allowing just one hit in four scoreless innings.
Minor and Lord both said they're still looking for Hobgood to improve his accuracy around the plate, but the results so far have been encouraging.
"I think having some time off, getting some surgery and getting all that cleaned up in there has given him a real good chance of having a little bit freer arm and being able to pitch the way he wants to, kind of letting it out," Minor said. "That's what we're trying to let him do in a reliever role is just go out there and blow it out for three or four innings where you really don't have to worry about pacing yourself. You can just go out and do it."
Hobgood still has a long road ahead of him. Considering the uncertainty of his time with the Orioles so far, there are no guarantees, and the goals for the rest of the year are modest. He might be known to fans as a disappointment or bust, but he welcomes the association of being the fifth pick in a draft that also produced reigning Americal League Rookie of the Year Mike Trout of the Los Angeles Angels, Tampa Bay Rays sensation Wil Myers and Cleveland Indians All-Star Jason Kipnis.
"I think, personally, God was trying to teach me some humility and humble me a little bit," said Hobgood, who as a senior at Norco (Calif.) High was named the Gatorade National Baseball Player of the Year. "I'd had quite a bit of success in high school and never really failed."
Even in the toughest days of rehab, Hobgood never let the goal of pitching in the majors escape him. He wants to make an impact and contribute to the Orioles.
And now it appears Hobgood is headed in the right direction.
"It's great to see the corner, the page you can turn in a positive way because he's the kind of guy that you knew he deserved to be selected where he did," Tolliver said. "He's always been successful. It was just a matter of a time. It was his health holding him back.
"Now, he's on the right track. He's someone that has always worked so hard. Even though you hit a lot of rough patches, you kind of battle at it and grind it out. I think it's going to pay off for him."