One was a first-round draft pick, a wunderkind right-handed pitcher who went from signing with the A’s to starting in the playoffs in less than two years. The other was unceremoniously shipped to the A’s for cash, a catcher who spent most of seven seasons in the minors before recording his first major-league hit.
One is a boyish, wiry 26-year-old who would not look out of place at a senior prom, the other a stocky everyman whose crinkly eyes and affability would fit with someone much older than 31.
Yet together, Sonny Gray and Stephen Vogt have fit well enough to become one of the top batteries in the American League. Last year, they were the only starting pitcher-catcher combination from one team to make the A.L. All-Star squad. This season, they figure to play vital roles as the A’s try to improve on their last-place finish in 2015.
“You could almost say they’re the captains – Vogt the captain of the offense and Sonny the captain of the pitching,” said A’s pitching coach Curt Young. “They’re guys that are big influences on our entire team. And you’re going to build a good friendship as time goes on.”
The success of the Gray-Vogt partnership, though, could hardly have been predicted five years ago, when Gray was a sociology major at Vanderbilt and Vogt toiling in the Tampa Bay Rays’ minor-league system. The two met for the first time in April 2013. Gray was about to make his first start of the season for Triple-A Sacramento. Vogt had just been acquired by the A’s from the Rays, who had designated him for assignment after spring training, and was tasked with catching Gray in his first game in the Oakland organization.
“I knew we had just got a guy who’d been playing left field (with the Rays), and he was catching the next day,” Gray said.
“I didn’t know anything about him,” Vogt said of Gray. “Just like he was throwing to some left fielder, I was like, ‘I’m catching some prospect or whatever.’ ”
Vogt had come from a Rays organization rich in young pitching with names such as Matt Moore and Chris Archer. So he was interested to see how the A’s top pitching prospect would compare.
“From pitch number one, the second he started warming up, you could tell he had some pretty electric stuff,” Vogt said. “At that time he was nowhere near the polished pitcher he is now. It was definitely not easy catching him that time. But right away you could see the electricness of his stuff, his ability to miss barrels and to create weak contact.”
Gray threw six scoreless innings against the Las Vegas 51s that day, giving up two hits, walking three and striking out four.
“I was still so young,” Gray said. “I knew I could get out and compete, and I knew I had good stuff, but as a pitcher I didn’t really know myself well enough to be able to tell a catcher. So (before the game) we just kind of went over the pitches I throw. We kind of learned myself, I guess, a little bit together.”
Vogt and Gray got to Oakland within weeks of each other that year. Vogt made his A’s debut June 25 and three days later recorded his first major-league hit – a home run off of the Cardinals’ Joe Kelly – to snap an 0-for-32 streak to start his career that began in a brief call-up with the Rays. Gray made his major-league debut out of the bullpen July 10, then made one more relief appearance before being placed into the A’s rotation.
Gray posted a 2.85 ERA in 10 regular-season starts, but his introduction to the national baseball scene occurred in that year’s American League Division Series. In Game 2, Gray went toe-to-toe with former Cy Young winner Justin Verlander, holding a Detroit Tigers lineup that included Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder and Victor Martinez scoreless for eight innings with nine strikeouts. The A’s eventually won the game in the ninth on a walk-off single by Vogt, who had caught Gray’s outing.
“I’ll never forget that night, the way he threw, the composure he kept against a guy like Justin Verlander,” Vogt said. “I could probably take you inning by inning if I really sat down and thought about it. It’s one of the better pitching performances I’ve ever caught – probably the best I’ve ever caught. He was on and making his pitches.”
“It was one of those games that was important for both of us just to get out there, be on a big stage and just perform and compete,” Gray said. “Not act like the stage is too big or too small, but it’s just another game and go out there and compete. And that’s basically what we did.”
Gray’s standing with the A’s was cemented days later when they selected him to start the decisive Game 5 over veteran Bartolo Colon. Vogt took a little longer to get established. The A’s left him off of their Opening Day roster in 2014 – manager Bob Melvin called it one of the hardest cuts he has ever had to make – but after being recalled June 1, Vogt made such an impact that he was voted the recipient of the team’s annual Catfish Hunter Award, which recognizes contributions both on and off the field.
Since his return, Vogt has regularly caught Gray when healthy. Gray’s numbers with Vogt behind the plate compare favorably to those he has compiled while working with other catchers. Throwing to Vogt, Gray has a career 2.66 ERA; 7.3 hits allowed average; 8.1 strikeouts per nine innings; and a .580 opponents’ on-base plus slugging percentage. In other outings, Gray has a 3.00 ERA; 7.5 hits allowed average; 8.1 strikeouts per nine innings; and a .618 opponents’ OPS.
“When you’re working with one guy the way these guys have for two-and-a-half, three years, you’re going to build a good relationship,” Young said. “It’s just game experience. They’ve been through so many situations together. Whether you’re rolling in a game, or you have runners in scoring position, what does Sonny like to do? Stephen Vogt knows exactly what he likes to do.”
One thing Gray does more distinctly than other pitchers is vary movement on his pitches – especially his fastball. Vogt said Gray can generate 3 or 4 extra inches of lateral movement to either side of the plate. Adding to the challenge of catching Gray is the extra movement usually comes without warning, Vogt said, part of his “ability to make things up on the fly.”
“I think that’s where the relationship really comes in is I know pretty much now when he’s going to try new things,” Vogt said. “He’ll still surprise me from time to time. But it’s almost like he’ll look me in the eyes from the mound, and I’ll know what to call.
“He’ll have a thought in his mind and kind of stare at me a certain way, or he’ll give me a little sign that we have – we’ve never talked about them, they just kind of come about. You could probably stare at him the whole time and never see it. That’s the relationship you want.”
Gray said the physical aspects of receiving and blocking pitches are important, but he and his catcher also “have to be on the same page mentally.” Where some pitchers are notably reclusive on days they pitch, Gray prefers a steady dialogue during the game and between innings.
“I think it starts off the field and just with personalities,” Gray said of his rapport with Vogt. “He’s easy to talk to. He genuinely cares. And when you have that off the field, it kind of works, you can translate on the field because you’re both open to each other and kind of there really working for each other.”
Vogt worked for Gray in a different capacity earlier this spring: He babysat Gray’s 1-year-old son, Gunnar, on Valentine’s Day, allowing the parents to go out for dinner.
“He trusts me enough to babysit his kid, for crying out loud,” said Vogt, a father of two. “That definitely goes into our playing, as well. Our families are both close; our kids play together. It’s a lot of fun.”
It can be just as fun for the A’s and their fans to watch Gray and Vogt working in rhythm, a case of symbiosis only accentuated by the markedly different paths its components took to form it.
“He’s wise beyond his years,” Vogt said of Gray. “I’m quite a bit older than him, but I’ve learned so much from him just about pitch-calling and competing on the mound. He makes me work on my receiving because I have to get better if I want to be able to catch him, but also his competitive spirit only makes you more competitive.
“He makes me want to get better.”
A’s at a glance
- 2015: 68-94, last place in American League West
- Manager: Bob Melvin (sixth season)
- They’re here: SP Rich Hill, RP Ryan Madson, RP John Axford, RP Liam Hendriks, RP Marc Rzepczynski, INF Jed Lowrie, INF Yonder Alonso, OF Khris Davis
- They’re out of here: 1B Ike Davis, 3B Brett Lawrie, SP Jesse Chavez, RP Dan Otero, SP Drew Pomeranz, LRP Pat Venditte, RP Eric O’Flaherty
- Projected lineup: CF Billy Burns (.294 BA/.334 OBP/.392 SLG, 26-for-34 SB attempts), 2B Jed Lowrie (.222/.312/.400 in 69 games w/HOU), RF Josh Reddick (.272/.333/.449, 20 HR, 77 RBI), 3B Danny Valencia (.290/.345/.519, 18 HR, 66 RBI in 105 total games w/TOR and OAK), C Stephen Vogt (.261/.341/.443, 18 HR, 71 RBI), RF Khris Davis (.247/.323/.505, 27 HR, 66 RBI in 121 games w/MIL), DH Billy Butler (.251/.323/.390, 15 HR, 65 RBI), 1B Mark Canha (.254/.315/.426, 16 HR, 70 RBI) or Yonder Alonso (.282/.361/.381, 5 HR, 31 RBI in 103 games w/SD), SS Marcus Semien (.257/.310/.405, 15 HR, 45 RBI)
- Projected rotation: RH Sonny Gray (14-7, 2.73 ERA, 169 strikeouts), LH Rich Hill (2-1, 1.55 ERA in four starts w/BOS), RH Chris Bassitt (1-8, 3.56), RH Kendall Graveman (6-9, 4.05), LH Felix Doubront (3-3, 5.50 in 16 games w/TOR and OAK)
- Key relievers: CL Sean Doolittle (1-0, 3.95, 4 saves in 12 games), RH Ryan Madson (1-2, 2.13 in 68 games w/KC), RH John Axford (4-5, 4.20, 25 saves in 60 games w/COL), RH Liam Hendriks (5-0, 2.92 in 58 games w/TOR), LH Marc Rzepczynski (2-4, 5.66 in 72 games w/CLE and SD)
- Outlook: The A’s addressed arguably their main 2015 shortcoming by shoring up their bullpen over the offseason, and that area now appears to be a strength. But there are enough question marks around the roster to wonder how often the A’s will be able to hand that bullpen a lead. The lineup has the pieces to be productive and could help its own cause by shoring up the defensive end. The A’s claim they like the depth of starting pitching in their system, but the names at the top end must perform. It may be a tall order to challenge the Angels and Astros in the A.L. West, but the A’s have surprised before.