Stephen Vogt May End Up the 751st Best Player in Baseball

Oakland Athletics catcher Stephen Vogt (center) is surrounded by teammates celebrating after hitting an RBI single for the walk off win against the Detroit Tigers Kelley L Cox/USA TODAY Sports/Reuters

Scottsdale Stadium feels nothing like Phoenix. It’s much too green for the desert—besides the infield and outfield grass, the ballpark is ringed with grass hills for seating, complete with trees scattered here and there for shade. It’s cool, too, because it’s a Friday night game, and temperatures have fallen to just above 60 degrees, well beyond the scorching midday rates. And whether because of some earlier celebratory fireworks, settling moisture in the air, or just a trick of the light, a mist has settled around the flood lights. All this, combined with the modesty of the stadium (there is just one deck, and almost all the seats are bleachers) creates an overall effect of a minor league ballpark somewhere in, say, Ohio. It’s the Platonic ideal of baseball.

In the visitor’s dugout, Oakland A’s catcher Stephen Vogt doesn’t sit still. During and between innings, he’s up and down the dugout line, slapping teammates on the knee and chatting up anyone who will stop and listen. The game moves on as the hours wane, the San Francisco Giants take a slim 1–0 lead, and Vogt keeps patrolling the bench.

In the bottom of the eighth, he comes in as a defensive replacement for John Jaso. It’s a tough inning; pitcher Jim Johnson throws a ball wide and in the dirt that Vogt can’t get to. The scorer calls it a passed ball, but Vogt pounds his glove anyway. Two runs score, giving the Giants a 3–0 lead. Then in the top of the ninth, Vogt comes up with one out, to face the Giants ace closer, Sergio Romo. It’s no contest—Vogt fouls off one pitch, but watches a called third strike go right by.

The A’s lose. That doesn’t matter. Wins and losses have nothing to do with spring training. Stats don’t matter either—at least for those guaranteed a roster spot. For a team’s superstars, top prospects and reliable veterans, what matters is how they feel—what shape they're in, how their knees are holding up, whether they can get full extension on their swings. But then there are the fringe players: the utility guys, middle inning relievers, and backup catchers fighting for those last few spots.

For those guys—and Vogt is without a doubt in that group—every at bat counts.

Understand that Vogt is really, really good at baseball. To put it in perspective, there are 750 roster sports in the major leagues—25 for each of the 30 teams. In the United States, there are over 137 million total employed adults. What that means is there is a 0.0005 percent chance that a randomly chosen adult is a major league baseball player. Vogt essentially hit the jackpot—assuming your idea of winning the lottery is putting on pounds of armor in the morning, and then spending the day crouching and standing over and over again, all the while trying to catch a pill of a ball thrown at you at speeds that would be reckless on most U.S. highways.

Even so, this isn’t the story of the Golden Son; Vogt is a gamer, born with plenty of talent but whose success was built more on grinding it out and becoming a student of the game than on physical supremacy.

Vogt, who is 29, grew up in Visalia, a medium-size city in the San Joaquin Valley of California. Think industrial-sized cattle farms and orange groves laid out in neatly ordered rows that stretch for miles and miles. He was a standout athlete at Central Valley Christian High School, playing three years of varsity basketball and baseball. But from the start, he was not the kind of physical specimen that drew instant comparisons to, say, Mickey Mantle (Mike Trout) or Darryl Strawberry (Jason Heyward). What Ryan Tos, Vogt’s high school basketball coach and, these days, a family friend, remembers from their first meeting is Vogt’s personality.

“You could tell right away that he was a hard worker, and that he was a very coachable kid,” says Tos. “Stephen has some good natural ability, but he’s always known he has to put some work in, and take instruction.”

Vogt worked hard and became a high school star, but he wasn’t heavily recruited. The most sought-after players are drafted straight out of high school; Vogt ended up playing ball at Azusa Pacific University, an NCAA College Division (now called Division II) school. In four full years there, Vogt dominated the Golden State Athletic Conference, quickly becoming an All-American and one of the best players Azusa Pacific had ever seen. In 2007, Vogt graduated, and was drafted in the 12th round by the Tampa Bay Rays—respectable enough, but not in the same league as a million-dollar bonus babies of the first rounds.

“I was never given the title ‘prospect,’ ” Vogt says, adding that “the whole prospect thing is very weird.” It is weird: Some young adults are labeled as future stars, and are treated as such from the start. Others, like Vogt, are a shot in the dark, a body to be molded to fit a team’s need, fueled by hope and that extra 10 in 110 percent.

The next few years were a slow ascent up the minor league ladder. The Rays wanted Vogt to become a utility guy—someone who could play a few positions and get plugged into the lineup wherever needed. It wasn’t ideal. “I was playing this utility role, and I never got comfortable,” Vogt says. “I was just adequate at all three spots.”

Nevertheless, Vogt continued to excel at every level. But the Rays maintained a cautious, wait-and-see approach with him, even after 2011 (split between AA and AAA) when Vogt was named the Ray’s minor league player of the year. Instead of getting a shot in the bigs the next year, he was sent back to AAA, where he continued to put up great numbers—and get ignored. The next year he was designated for assignment—the equivalent of being told to take a permanent leave of absence—by the team before the season started.

That might seem strange. If in 2012 Vogt worked as a junior salesman at a car dealership in the Raleigh-Durham area of North Carolina, and made the most sales that year, chances are he’d get a promotion in 2013, not a severance package. But baseball’s weird. It has a commitment to players with the “prospect” label that can at times be completely irrational. In the Rays' organization, one of their top prospects is 18-year-old Nick Ciuffo, who was drafted straight out of high school in the first round and given a $2 million signing bonus—and who happens to play Vogt’s position, catcher.

Of course, not all top prospects pan out. In fact, the majority become afterthoughts, footnotes, or, worse, cautionary tales. And some former afterthoughts become stars, against all odds.

Soon after the Rays cut Vogt, his contract was purchased by the Oakland A’s for $150,000—and a guarantee. With the A’s organization, he would be a catcher, and a catcher only. They saw him as part of their future, and they were prescient: Vogt was called up at the end of June 2013, and hit a home run—the first hit of his major league career—in his third game. Soon, he was catching most nights a week.

Then came the playoffs, and his Cinderella moment. In the American League Division Series against the Detroit Tigers, Vogt started in the second game. It went down to the wire, with neither team scoring through the first eight innings. In the bottom of the ninth, the A’s finally got to the Tigers pitching staff, and Vogt came up with the bases loaded. He lined a single off Rick Porcello, scoring a run and winning the game. In typical fashion, Vogt took it in stride. "It was a fun game to have a front seat to," Vogt told ESPN after the game.

In some ways, Vogt epitomizes the A’s decades-old Moneyball approach. Here was a guy who performed at all levels, but because he lacked pedigree, was never given the chance to truly succeed. Those are the types of players the A’s have always loved scooping off other teams’ remainder pile. Vogt also represents what some say is the latest market inefficiency in baseball: clubhouse chemistry.

According to Tos, Stephen has always been the type of person who can move through social circles. “He was in choir, he was athletic, he was a good student—he was friends with people from all corners of the campus,” Tos says. Vogt was even his school’s student body president; his campaign speech was built around an A-plus Chris Farley impression.

“I think it has really helped him in clubhouses,” says Tos. “I think he gets along with most everyone on the team that he plays with—and finds some way to connect with everyone.”

Vogt agrees that his ability to talk to anyone is essential in his role as catcher—essentially, the on-field general, and extension of the coaching staff. “I don’t care who you are or what you do,” he says. “If you’re a good person, I want to be around you.”

The proof is there: Vogt is one of the most popular guys on the team, among the players, coaching staff and the media. There are even rumblings around baseball that the A’s are grooming Vogt for a future coaching or front office job, which he says is an honor to hear.

For now, though, he’s still trying to make the team. Vogt struck out in his one at bat Friday night, but the next day—a day game much more representative of Phoenix in the spring—he got the start, and hit two home runs to lead the A’s to a 6–4 victory over the Seattle Mariners. But he’s not a star yet. In fact, by another twist of baseball business fate, he may not even make the roster to start the season: due to contractual reasons, the A’s other candidates for 25th best player have to either make the major league team or be let go. Because Vogt can technically be sent down to the AAA affiliate in Sacramento, it looks like he might have to take the hit—even though he has been one of the A’s top three or four players this spring.

In typical fashion, he spins it positively. “It’s a good problem for the organization to have,” Vogt says. “I’m going to take it in stride, and I’ll be back up at some point to help the team.”