Oakland Athletics

Stephen Vogt: Life begins at 30

I would bet there aren’t too many everyday MLB players who hadn’t had their first big league hit until they were 28 years old. Usually that would be a category reserved exclusively for pitchers, not position players. Yet Oakland A’s catcher Stephen Vogt is a classic case of athletic perseverance and making the most of a second chance. Countless thousands have strived to become major league players, but most have fallen short, often at the very last hurdle. For a time it looked like that might have been the case for Vogt.

A star player at Central Valley Christian High in Visalia, Vogt then attended Azusa Pacific University, a small college founded by Quakers in 1899. When Vogt played baseball there, only five previous members of the Cougar program had ever made it to the big leagues – not exactly a baseball factory. Tampa Bay selected him in the 12th round of the 2007 draft, the 365th amateur taken, which is actually a pretty respectable position. From the moment he became a professional, Vogt started hitting. He batted .300 at Low-A Hudson Valley, .291 at High-A Columbus, .301 in AA-Montgomery, and then .290 with AAA-Durham. Splitting time between catcher, first base and left field in those four years, Vogt showed very early that he was a versatile player. In November of 2011, the Rays thought so much of Vogt that they added him to their 40-man roster to avoid the risk of losing him to the Rule-5 draft. He made his MLB debut with Tampa Bay on April 6th, 2012, and struck out against Yankees pitcher David Robertson while pinch-hitting.

Then things suddenly turned sour in the Sunshine State. After going back to the Durham Bulls and hitting .272, he was part of the Rays’ September call-ups. He went the entire month without a hit, ended the season 0-for-25 with two walks in 18 games.

Tampa Bay had a glut of catchers ahead of Vogt in the pecking order: Jose Molina, Chris Gimenez and Jose Lobaton. They also had a youngster at High-A which they imagined might be their catcher of the future, Josh Phegley. You’d have to ask former Rays GM Andrew Friedman if he felt he had seen enough out of Vogt to figure he couldn’t hit big league pitching or if he was simply a victim of the classic numbers game. Whatever it was, Friedman sent Vogt to Oakland for “cash or future considerations” on April 6th, 2013, exactly one year to the day from his Rays debut.

Oakland DFA’d pitcher Dan Otero to add Vogt to their 40-man roster. A’s GM Billy Beane then sent Vogt to AAA-Sacramento, where he destroyed PCL pitching to the tune of .324 with 13 home runs and 58 RBI in 75 games. Stephen Vogt was promoted to Oakland soon after and played in 47 games, mainly in a reserve role, hitting .252 with four home runs and 16 RBI.

It looked like Vogt had finally found a home. He had arrived, at last. But not so fast! Despite the impressive Cactus League offensive line of .364 with three home runs and 12 RBI in 20 games, Vogt was left off the 25-man squad when the 2014 season began. Beane preferred to keep first baseman Daric Barton instead. This was in spite of the fact that Vogt had the walk-off hit in Game 2 of the 2013 ALDS vs. Detroit. Skipper Bob Melvin said telling Vogt he didn’t make the team was one of the most difficult tasks he’s ever had as a manager. Vogt wasn’t happy at all. But he went to AAA and worked hard, ultimately getting recalled to Oakland on June 1. However, he suffered an oblique strain while in Sacramento before hurting hurt his foot while with the A’s, the latter of which caused him to be unable to play catcher for the last 70 days of the season.

After having foot surgery in October and subsequently having to walk around in a special boot for 10 weeks, Vogt was finally completely healthy. With Jon Jaso and Derek Norris both traded away in the winter, the job of everyday catcher was Vogt’s to lose. At the age of 30, he was finally the starting catcher. And after three weeks of the present season, you could argue that Vogt is now the most important position player on the team. He’s playing fantastic defense, blocking pitches in the dirt, throwing runners out – stuff A’s fans haven’t seen from a catcher in a long time. At the dish, he’s the No. 3 hitter in the lineup and is currently batting .348 with four home runs and 15 RBI. He has a bobblehead day on May 28th, but as a characterization of Vogt’s hilarious basketball referee. He has the entire stadium, led by Sections 148 and 149, singing “I believe in Stephen Vogt” for his every plate appearance. Vogt not only belongs, he’s now The Man.

I interviewed him yesterday on my syndicated SportsByline USA radio show. He and his wife were on their way to Dublin to visit the School of Imagination, a facility which helps special needs and autistic students. I inquired about his consoling of pitcher Kendall Graveman, who was sent down to the minors after posting a 8.27 ERA in four starts. I asked, “Did you tell him you went oh-fer in your first big league stint?” He answered, “Yeah – it wasn’t fun at the time, but I guess it’s a pretty good story now.” He’s a genuine guy, a family man, helps kids in his spare time, and is playing tremendous baseball right now. I believe in Stephen Vogt.

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