A’s right fielder Josh Reddick said he recently challenged catcher Stephen Vogt: Who could hit more home runs and drive in more runs this season?
It seemed a safe bet for Reddick, given that entering Thursday’s games, he was third in the American League in OPS – on-base percentage plus slugging percentage – at .975, tied for sixth in RBIs (25) and had six home runs, half of his 2014 total.
The catch: Vogt was leading the A.L. in RBIs (30), was second in OPS (1.098) and had nine home runs, matching his total last season.
“He’s got me quite a bit in the homer section right now,” Reddick said. “But I don’t want to say I want him to cool down – because I definitely don’t want that.”
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Few major-league hitters have been hotter to start the season than Vogt, the 30-year-old, left-handed-hitting catcher who is perhaps the most surprising name among the league’s offensive leaders.
Through his first 33 games, Vogt has matched his career high in homers while driving in just five fewer runs than he did in 84 games in 2014. According to FanGraphs, as of Thursday he had the second-highest Wins Above Replacement rating in baseball (2.2), behind only Miami Marlins second baseman Dee Gordon.
9 Home runs hit by Stephen Vogt
30 Runs driven in by Vogt
Vogt’s WAR is helped by the fact he plays a premier defensive position in catcher, where gaudy offensive numbers are usually a bonus.
“You expect catchers to hit .260 or .270 and call a really good game,” Reddick said, “and he’s doing both of those right now. The damage he’s causing at the plate is just what we need in the heart of our lineup.”
Last year was the first time Vogt had played more than 47 games in a major-league season. He made his first Opening Day roster this spring. Returning from offseason foot surgery, Vogt was expected to platoon at catcher with right-handed hitter Josh Phegley. But that didn’t last long.
“In Vogt’s case, it’s no longer a platoon,” A’s manager Bob Melvin said this week. “Every year we have an idea of how it’s going to play out. But if a guy takes charge of the position and earns it, then we’re all for that, as well.”
Last season, Vogt caught just 15 games – limited by his foot injury and the presence of Derek Norris and John Jaso – and Melvin suggested a return to catching regularly has helped Vogt’s offense.
“In this game, you want to get in a routine, a flow, and that’s his routine, is the catching position,” Melvin said.
Asked what’s behind his power this season, Vogt smiled and shrugged.
“I’m 30, I have two kids now, so double-daddy strength?” Vogt said. “I don’t know. I’m getting good pitches to hit. I’m not trying to hit any further. I honestly feel like I’m just a better hitter now. Power’s the last tool to develop, they always say, and just hitting in this lineup I’m getting pitches to hit.”
Vogt said he made one change to his hitting approach this spring. Working with new hitting coach Darren Bush, Vogt put an emphasis on making low, hard contact. His fly-ball rate of 41.2 percent is a career low – and when he has hit fly balls, 25.7 percent of them have been home runs, an extremely high percentage that likely will drop as the season progresses.
Bush said he suggested Vogt try to hit low line drives the opposite way in part because the Coliseum plays big to left field, meaning opposing outfielders have a lot of room to run down fly balls. Vogt has “a natural loft” in his swing, Bush said, “so he has to really concentrate on being over it and being short to (the ball), and then letting his natural loft take over.”
“Bushy’s been talking to me the last three months about how he doesn’t want me to try to do anything other than see the ball and hit it hard down in the ground,” Vogt said. “That’s what I’ve been trying to do all year. And I’ll try to keep doing it.”
Vogt’s numbers also suggest a more confident hitter who has benefited from experience at the major-league level. In 30 at-bats with runners in scoring position, Vogt has 15 hits, including five homers, and 25 RBIs. He’s also swinging at fewer pitches (36.7 percent) and drawing walks at the highest rate (13.3 percent of plate appearances) of his career.
In a ritual that began last year, whenever Vogt comes up to bat at the Coliseum, A’s fans break into a slow-building chant: “I … I believe … I believe in Stephen Vogt. I believe in Stephen Vogt.”
It’s possible that Vogt, a late bloomer who made his big-league debut at 27 and is finally getting his first shot at being an everyday catcher in the majors, also is finding affirmation for his belief in himself.
“Really, he’s not doing anything too different; it’s just he’s putting up numbers here that he always put up in the minor leagues,” Bush said. “He’s comfortable and he’s confident in his ability, whereas when a guy first comes up here, he’s trying to figure out whether or not his game works. He knows his game works.”