Let’s just get this out of the way — Dan Vogelbach has not been good this year.
He hasn’t even been particularly good during his MLB career so far.
But he at least could be fun, which is more than we could say for Justin Smoak.
Just look at the guy. Does he not look like someone Milwaukee could get behind after a few 400-foot home runs?
Time for the more serious analysis and some background.
Vogelbach first made his name as a burly masher in the Cubs’ minor league system. Without a DH spot and first base covered by Anthony Rizzo for the forseeable future (and Kyle Schwarber also stealing some of the Big Boy hype), he ended up getting traded to Seattle in 2016 for Mike Montgomery, who ended up getting the final out for the Cubs in the World Series later that fall.
Despite continuing to mash at Triple-A Tacoma, Vogelbach seldom got much of a look in the majors with the Mariners until last year. He hit .290/.388/.455 with 17 home runs and a 122 wRC+ in 125 games in the admittedly hitter-friendly PCL in 2017 and followed that up with a .290/.434/.545 line with 20 home runs and a 157 wRC+ in 84 games there in 2018.
Even if the power was inflated by the high-offense environment in the PCL, he showed a good, patient eye at the plate — he had a 14% BB% in 2017 and a 20.4% BB% in 2018.
After a few tastes of the majors — 8 games in 2016, 16 games in 2017, and 37 games in 2018 — Vogelbach finally got a full-time shot in the big leagues in 2019. He got off to a monster start, hitting .310/.462/.732 with 8 home runs in 25 games in March and April, with as many walks as strikeouts (20).
That spot put him on track to make the All-Star team, despite a rough month of May that saw him come crashing back down to earth with a .187/.288/.429 line in 26 games, although he did hit 7 more home runs. He bounced back for a more realistic .250/.392/.448 line in June with 5 more home runs, officially earning him the Mariners’ spot in the All-Star game. He finished the first half of the season hitting .238/.375/.505 with 21 home runs in 85 games — not superstar or even typical All-Star numbers by any means, but still a valuable bat.
The second half was a massive struggle for him, though, as he collapsed to a .162/.286/.341 line with just 9 more home runs in 59 games. That put his season-ending line at a disappointing .208/.341/.439 with 30 home runs (you could argue the home run total could have been inflated by the Super Ball used by the league last year) and a 111 wRC+. While the batting average was very low, he still managed to show some on-base skills and power from the left side of the plate — both things the Brewers have been lacking this year.
With no options remaining, the Mariners DFAed Vogelbach this year after he got off to a 5-for-53 start (although 2 of the 5 hits were home runs). Toronto similarly DFAed him after just 2 games that saw him go 0-for-4 as part of a roster purge when they needed to clear space for their Trade Deadline acquisitions of Robbie Ray, Ross Stripling and Old Friend Jonathan Villar.
There’s no disputing he’s struggled to get going this year. Defensively, it’s a good thing the Brewers have a DH spot now. In this year’s small sample sizes, he’s performed worse than Justin Smoak has this year, so it’s easy to see why there seems to be some grumbling about the move.
But there’s reason to believe David Stearns made this claim more with a longterm view than just seeing him as a 1-for-1 replacement for Smoak (or Logan Morrison, or Ryon Healy, or anyone else they’ve tried at first base this year). Vogelbach is still a pre-arbitration player, making next to nothing. He’s not going to be arbitration-eligible until after 2022, and if he produces enough to stick around, he won’t be a free agent until after 2025.
He’s out of options, which is normally a strike against a player in the Stearns regime, but there’s enough there to take a flier on — especially in a shortened season where results are seemingly random and nothing really matters.
He’ll likely never hit for a high batting average, but could he be a younger version of Eric Thames? In his three years with the Brewers, Thames hit .241/.343/.504 with a 118 OPS+. Even though he barely cracked .200 last year, Vogelbach still finished the season with a 112 OPS+. Moving from Seattle to the lefty-friendly Miller Park, is it really that much of a stretch to think Vogelbach could put up a Thames-like line?
(Thames, by the way, has struggled to a .195/.286/.310 line, so “David Stearns should have just kept Eric Thames” doesn’t seem to be a strong argument at the moment — and this is coming from one of the biggest Eric Thames fans out there.)
Vogelbach also has a similar career trajectory to another David Stearns scrapheap pickup — Jesus Aguilar.
Like Vogelbach, Aguilar crushed Triple-A in the Cleveland system, but was largely blocked from the majors and couldn’t get consistent playing time until he joined the Brewers in his age-27 season — the same age Vogelbach is now. Aguilar, of course, ended up putting together a couple of solid seasons before falling off last year and getting traded to Tampa Bay. He’s currently hitting .271/.311/.448 with a 105 OPS+ for Miami.
Of course, while the career trajectories may be similar, there are also some key differences between Vogelbach and Aguilar — as mentioned, Vogelbach hits left-handed and could take better advantage of the short porch in right field, and Vogelbach actually walks, while Aguilar typically swings at everything. Even the Thames comparison isn’t perfect — Thames has a career K% of 29%, while Vogelbach is a few ticks lower at 26.5%. Vogelbach’s career 15.7% BB% is also much higher than Thames’ 9.8% career rate.
Vogelbach has typically been very patient at the plate — to the point where it will likely drive some fans crazy. He’ll rarely swing at the first pitch (just 19.7% of the time for his career), and he’s only swung at pitches in the zone 51.7% of the time, when league average is 66.1%. He’s extremely unlikely to chase outside of the zone, though, only chasing 19.6% of the time — almost 10% lower than the league average of 28.2%. In fact, he’s only swung at 34.5% of the total pitches he’s seen in his career.
Even if Vogelbach isn’t likely to improve much now that he’s 27 years old, there’s enough there to potentially look past his 5-for-57 start this year to see if he can be another no-risk pickup that pays some slight dividends over the next couple years.
Of course, he may also continue to look terrible and could get lost in another roster crunch. But if you’re going to be bad, you may as well be potentially fun, instead of just boring-groundout-into-the-shift-bad. In either case, there’s very little risk associated with the move.
Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference, Fangraphs and Statcast