Versatile, unassuming and out-of-nowhere, Stephen Vogt is just the latest find by Billy Beane, and the perfect embodiment of the Oakland Athletics' ragtag yet winning ways.
At first, Stephen Vogt couldn’t make out what the fans in the rightfield stands at Oakland’s O.co Coliseum were shouting on that day last June. At 29, Vogt’s big league resume was as unremarkable as his stocky 6’0”, 215-pound physique. Over parts of three years, he had participated in less than half a season’s worth of major league games, with just 13 extra-base hits to his credit. His most recent promotion from the minors had come only two weeks earlier. And yet, as Vogt took the field in right—where the Athletics were playing him even though he had spent just 15 of his 530 minor league games there and was generally a catcher—the fans behind him started chanting something, and wouldn’t stop. Soon, their booming chorus became clear: They were chanting for him.
I, the fans sang, in unison, aping the crowds at the U.S. national team games being played at the World Cup in Brazil. I believe. I believe in. I believe in Stephen Vogt. I believe in Stephen Vogt. I believe in Stephen Vogt.
“As I listened closer,” Vogt says, “I was like, 'No way, that’s awesome.'”
Vogt (pronounced ‘vote’) has a theory as to why he so quickly captured the imaginations and the throats of the Coliseum crowd. “Look at me,” he says. “I’m not chiseled. I’m a regular guy. I wasn’t destined to do this. I didn’t make it to the big leagues at 22—I made it at 27, and still didn’t do well. I made my first Opening Day roster at 30, for crying out loud. If one kid is watching me and is like, ‘Man, I want to do what he’s doing,’ I want to tell him, ‘You can.’ A lot of people told me I couldn’t. A lot of people growing up said I wasn’t good enough, or I would never make it. Even in professional baseball, a lot of people said I would never make it to the big leagues. But if you believe you can, and you work like you can, you can. Maybe that’s why fans relate to me a little bit.”
There are other reasons. Vogt is a loquacious and persistently agreeable presence, both in and out of the clubhouse. He can expertly mimic an NBA referee, as well as (reportedly) Chris Farley, and when A’s manager Bob Melvin had to tell Vogt that he was being sent to Triple A on the final day of last season’s spring training, he called it the most difficult demotion he’s ever had to make. Oakland ace Sonny Gray has another explanation for the love and the chanting, which has continued into this season: “Probably 'cause he rakes.”
Vogt has increasingly done that since making his A’s debut in June of 2013. In that year's postseason, he hit a walkoff single to win Game 2 of the ALDS against the Tigers. Last year, in 84 games, he batted .279 with nine home runs and 35 RBIs. This season, through Wednesday, he was hitting .349 and led all catchers with four homers and 12 RBIs.
If it all seems unlikely for a plodding 12th-round pick out of California’s Azusa Pacific University, who toiled for six years in the Rays' farm system then went 0-for-25 in 18 games after finally reaching Tampa Bay in 2012, it does to him, too. The Rays traded Vogt to Oakland in April of '13 for a sum of cash that, though undisclosed, was certainly modest. He figured he might remain hitless in the majors forever, and envisioned a humble future of coaching and teaching. “At 28 years old, I thought I was out of baseball,” he says. “I thought I would never make it back to the big leagues. I was going to keep trying to play Triple A, trying to make it back. I wasn’t going to give up. But I wasn’t thinking I was going to get another big league shot.
“Fortunately,” he adds, “I got one.”
In recent years, one of the ways that Oakland general manager Billy Beane has overcome shoestring budgets and assembled annual contenders has been to scour other clubs’ systems for players who, often due to some readily identifiable flaw, have stalled on the road to regular playing time, then acquire them on the cheap. In 2008, Beane traded for a catcher who was batting .217 in A ball in the Cubs' system. His name? Josh Donaldson. As a third baseman, Donaldson finished in the top eight in the AL MVP voting in both '13 and '14. In '11, Beane signed a strikeout-prone hitter with a career batting average of .236 named Brandon Moss—who was about to take up a second career as a firefighter—to a minor league deal. Moss blasted 76 homers during his three seasons in Oakland.
Both Donaldson and Moss, having grown pricey, were traded over the winter—to the Blue Jays and Indians, respectively—as Beane sought to replace them with players who might replicate their success. Beane’s rosters are jigsaw puzzles, populated with versatile players who can field multiple positions and who are both willing and able to function in platoons, and who therefore can be fit together in such a way to maximize their overall strengths and minimize the weaknesses that have so far kept them affordable. Vogt represents the platonic ideal of such a player. “I’m definitely a stereotypical Oakland A,” he says.
Though Vogt is this season largely a catcher once more, in 2014, he also played at least 15 games at first base and in right (he became just the third player to spend that much time at that unusual combination of positions in a season). As a lefthanded hitter, he made 245 of his 287 plate appearances against righties, batting .291 against them with an OPS of .770. He did all of that for a salary of $502,000. This year, he received a raise: He now makes $512,500.
“They get the most out of the little bit of payroll they have, and then they bring in a couple big guys,” says Vogt of his club’s roster-building strategy. “You’ll get Scott Kazmir, Billy Butler, Coco Crisp, guys like that who are making really good money. You look at the rest of us, we’re all just pieced together to put together this team. It’s kind of two separate teams on one. But I think what you’ll find is that when you bring in guys like that—and from top to bottom around this room—they just want to play hard and win. And that’s a recipe for success.”
One of the qualities that unites Vogt with many of his Oakland teammates, both present and past, is more difficult to quantify than their ability to play multiple positions or their enticing platoon splits. It is that their failures elsewhere have not defeated them, as they might most players, but have instead inspired them to put everything they’ve got into what might be their last shot for the club that gave it to them.
“I think that a lot of times what happens to players is that maybe there’s one thing you didn’t do real well when you first started in pro ball, and you kind of get labeled as a guy who can’t do this or can’t do that by the organization you came up with, fair or unfair,” Vogt says. “But a lot of times, what you see is that when guys get to a new organization, they’re told, ‘Just go play, we don’t know anything about you.’ And for a lot of guys, there’s that fresh start, that ability to make new opinions.
“I don’t think there’s anybody in this room who doesn’t want to be wanted,” he says. “When somebody trades for you, that says, ‘Hey, we want you.’ It feels good to be wanted, no matter how old you are, no matter how tough or calloused you are.”
Stephen Vogt is more than finally wanted. He is, in many ways, both the unlikely face and the heart of the A’s. If he ever doubts that, he only has to listen to the fans, whose chants for him now, on most nights, emanate not just from the rightfield stands in Oakland, but also from every seat in the stadium.