Ryan Spilborghs had an unspectacular playing career that recently came to an end. I don’t say that disparagingly. Players like Spilborghs are the engine of Major League Baseball; without them, the truly spectacular wouldn’t resonate.
The Rockies drafted Spilborghs out of the University of California, Santa Cruz, in the seventh round of the 2002 amateur draft. He was the 201st pick overall, chosen after Wilton Reynolds and right before Andrew Tisdale. Of the 30 players taken in the seventh round that year, he is one of five to play in the major leagues. He was the eighth player the Rockies chose in the 2002 draft, after Jeff Francis, Micah Owings, Ben Crockett, Jeff Baker, Neil Wilson, Doug Johnson, and Sean Barker. He began his career in 2002 playing for the Low A Tri-City Dust Devils, where he hit .230/.313/.326 as a 22 year old. In the subsequent years he worked his way up the minors, step by step, playing for the A Asheville Tourists in 2003, and the High A Visalia Oaks in 2004.
In 2005, he played 71 games for the AA Tulsa Drillers, 60 games for the AAA Colorado Springs Sky Sox, and one game for the Colorado Rockies. His major league debut came on July 16th of that year. Starting for the Rockies was Jeff Francis, who was pit against Cincinnati’s Eric Milton at Great American Ballpark. Spilborghs wore number 19, which he would do for his entire career in Colorado, and started the game in right field. He hit two singles in four plate appearances—the first two of the 424 hits he would collect in his career. The Rockies ended up losing that game 7-6. The following year, 2006, saw Spilborghs accrue much more big league experience, but he still split time between Colorado Springs and Denver.
He made his Coors Field debut in a pinch hit appearance on April 22, 2006, a game in which Brad Hennessey of the San Francisco Giants beat Aaron Cook and the Rockies 6-4. Spilborghs lined out to right field in the seventh inning. His first start at Coors Field came not long after on May 3rd. Like his major league debut, it came against the Cincinnati Reds; also like his major league debut, Jeff Francis started the game for the Rockies. This time his team won, besting the Reds and starting pitcher Brandon Claussen 3-0. He had a pretty good year in 2006. His respectable .287/.337/.431 slash line in 186 plate appearances earned him more playing time in 2007.
Spilly played a role in both the 2007 World Series run and the Rockies 2009 Wild Card team. In 2007 he hit .299/.363/.485, with eleven home runs. In terms of getting on base and hitting for extra bases, he was eleven percent better than league average. He was even better in 2008, hitting .313/.407/.468 over the course of 89 games and 275 plate appearances, good for production twenty two percent better than league average. This again earned him more playing time. In 2009 and 2010 Spilly played in 133 and 134 games, and accrued 393 and 388 plate appearances respectively. But the production started to diminish. He hit very ordinary .241/.310/.395 in 2009. He bounced back a bit in 2010, but still only managed to slay a pedestrian .279/.360/.437. In terms of getting on base and hitting for extra bases, he was 23 percent below average in 2009, and two percent above in 2010.
In 2011, at age 31 and almost ten years after being drafted, Spilly’s major league skillset disappeared. He was a hitter who could no longer hit. Only in hindsight did it augur in the end of his career. There are plenty of 31 year old major leaguers, although it is around age 30 that a player’s peak transitions to decline—sometimes it happens slowly, but at other times, such as the case at hand, it’s rapid. Spilly’s final major league game took place on September 5th, 2011, against the Diamondbacks, though he didn’t know it at the time. It was a game like any other. He started in left field and hit seventh, in between Ty Wigginton and Chris Ianetta. He went 0-3 with a strikeout, as Wade Miley beat Esmil Rogers and the Rockies 10-7. Notably, Micah Owings, drafted by the Rockies in the same 2002 class as Spilborghs, pitched two thirds of an inning and gave up two hits and four runs in relief for the Diamondbacks. It was Owings’s second stint with the team, in between his two years playing for Cincinnati and one playing for the San Diego Padres in 2012, his last major league season.
The Rockies released Spilborghs on December 12, 2011. He signed as a free agent with the Cleveland Indians in January 2012, and the Texas Rangers purchased his contract in May of that same year. He would compete for a fourth outfielders spot, but in the end he would play for the AAA affiliates of both teams. In 2013, he transitioned to Japan. The last team he played for was be the Saitama Seibu Lions of the Japanese Pacific League.
In a recent edition of Baseball Prospectus’s Effectively Wild podcast, hosts Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller conducted a thought experiment. What if a major league team auctioned off the chance to be rostered so that a fan could suit up and take the field with a team? The caveats being that all of the money would go to a specified charity, and taking the field would not mean having the opportunity to influence any part of the game. The winner would take the field in a meaningless September game between non-contenders, trot out for a ceremonial pitch, and be replaced. The rewards would be to see the spectacle of major league baseball from the player’s perspective, and, for posterity, a player page in baseball archives such as Baseball Reference. They conjectured that the winning bid for this extraordinary experience might be around 20 million dollars.
Earning a roster spot on a major league team for six solid seasons is impressive, indeed. On August 24th, 2009, Ryan Spilborghs hit a walk-off grand slam in the fourteenth inning against the division rival San Francisco Giants. This took place four years after his debut, and two years before his final game. Even unspectacular players sometimes do truly spectacular things.