The Milwaukee Brewers have recently began to make moves in an effort to improve around the margins of their 25 man roster. So far most of these moves have taken place in the bullpen - out are Rob Scahill, Neftali Feliz, and Wily Peralta; in are Josh Hader and (for the time being) Paolo Espino and Brent Suter. Slingin’ David Stears made another one of these types of transactions yesterday, swapping out backup catchers when he claimed veteran Stephen Vogt off waivers from Oakland and subsequently optioned Jett Bandy to AAA Colorado Springs.
The Brewers haven’t employed the typical “starter/backup” roles at catcher in 2017, as their two backstops have split time about evenly this season. Manny Pina has clearly been the better performer, having put together a nifty little league-average batting line of .286/.327/.448 slash line with 4 home runs through his first 166 plate appearances. He’s looked rock solid on defense as well, throwing out 31% of attempted base thieves (league average 28%), picking off another league-leading 6 runners on the base paths, and grading out right around league-average in terms of pitch framing.
The 27 year old Bandy, on the other hand, has not lived up to the bill on either side of the ball. He’s thrown out only 15% of runners trying to steal against him and he’s been rated as one of the league’s worst pitch framers this year. His middling defense may be more acceptable if he were carrying his weight with the bat, but that simply hasn’t been the case either. After a hot start to the season, a lengthy slump brought Jett’s season-long slash down to .211/.287/.380 with 6 home runs through 157 plate appearances (72 wRC+) before he was sent out to the Sky Sox.
In Jett’s place, the Brewers have taken a relatively low-risk gamble on a former All-Star. Stephen Vogt represented the Athletics in the midsummer classic in each of the last two seasons, but was in the midst of the worst season of his big league career when he was designated for assignment by Oakland last week. The left-handed hitter could manage only a meager .217/.287/.357 batting line (73 wRC+) with 4 home runs across 174 plate appearances with the A’s this season. When combined with unsatisfactory defensive numbers, the production wasn’t enough for Oakland to justify keeping him around. Thus Vogt was placed on waivers to see if anyone was inclined to bite on the remainder of his $2.965 mil salary this season.
Stearns was clearly willing to take on that bit of a payroll in an effort to shore up the catching situation for his first-place ball club. Though Vogt’s substandard results don’t immediately jump off the page as “upgrade,” there’s reason to believe that his offensive performance could at least improve a bit going forward.
Vogt has been roughly a league-average hitter during his time in the major leagues, compiling a .251/.312/.409 slash line with 49 home runs in 1679 plate appearances for a 99 wRC+. He’s always been able to keep his strikeouts in check (16.7% K-rate) and has drawn walks at about a league-average clip (8.0%) during his career. He’s produced good contact rates (84.7%) and has never swung-and-missed excessively (6.6%). His hard contact rates have always been a bit below-average (28.1%), and given that along with his plodding nature, his career batting average on balls in play is a low .276.
Even as his batting line suffered in Oakland, Vogt’s underlying statistics haven’t suggested that he’s changed or regressed all that much as a hitter. His strikeouts are up just a touch this year (17.8%) but his walk rate (9%) is also well above his career norm. His contact rate (84.1%) is not atypical and is actually slightly improved over his last two seasons. His swinging-strike rate (7.0%) is right near his career average, and he’s making hard contact at a 28.3% clip, again a bit improved over the last two seasons and in line with his career rate.
The main culprit for Vogt’s struggles appears to be a sickly .244 BABIP, which is no doubt linked to a sharp uptick in infield fly balls. Only six batters with at least 100 plate appearances have popped the ball up on the infield at a greater rate than Vogt’s 21.6% this season. His infield fly ball rate this year is more than double his career average of 9.5%. An infield pop up is considered in the breath as a strikeout - essentially an automatic out for a pitcher with almost no chance of the runner reaching base.
In watching video of Vogt from last year to this season, there doesn’t appear to have been any major changes to his setup or swing mechanics that would have suddenly caused this problem. He still bats out of an open stance, with plenty of flex in his knees and his hands held almost above his head. The issue is likely related to timing, and if it weren’t something that Stearns, his scouts, and his analytics folks didn’t think Vogt could work with hitting coach Darnell Coles to correct, it’s unlikely that the Brewers would have moved to add Vogt to the roster. In any case, Vogt has been at least as effective with the bat as Bandy has this season, and if his issues at the plate can be corrected, the former Athletic offers a much higher upside offensively. He is, after all, a two-time former All-Star that batted .261/.322/.425 with 41 home runs during 2014-16.
Vogt doesn’t bring much to the table defensively, and like Bandy, has struggled mightily in terms of throwing out runners this year (15%, well below his career rate of 28%). He was in the bottom-10 of pitch framers last season, and though his framing has ticked up a bit on a per-pitch basis this season, he still grades out as below-average. His -1.2 framing runs this season rank right behind Bandy’s -1.0 (in a similar amount of opportunities) for 26th-worst in the league this year.
What Vogt can offer, however, is left-handed bat with a better rate of contact and a bit more pop than what the Milwaukee Nine had been receiving from the weaker half of their catching timeshare. He’ll pair with the right-handed hitting Pina and split time behind the plate (though I would expect Pina to start 3 out of every 5 games or so) and brings both postseason experience and a strong reputation as a leader to a young Brewer clubhouse. Hopefully a change of scenery and some new coaching can re-ignite the 32 year old’s bat, and if he does provide value to Milwaukee this year then he can be controlled for another two seasons via arbitration. Even if Stephen Vogt doesn’t wind up being able to put things together, it was still a worthwhile risk and all it costs the Brewers is roughly the $1.5 mil he’s owed the rest of the season.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs and Baseball Prospectus