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How the Triple-A Home Run Derby maybe saved Daniel Vogelbach

You know how to hit dingers, don’t you, you just put your lips together and blow

MLB: Spring Training-Los Angeles Angels at Seattle Mariners Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Daniel Vogelbach has been a member of the Seattle Mariners organization since 2016, which is a relatively long tenure in the world of wheelin-and-dealin Dipoto. His story is well-known: traded for lefty Mike Montgomery, who would go on to pitch the final out in the World Series that year, Vogelbach has been unable to break into the majors and since come dangerously close to being labeled a Quad-A prospect. Questions about his defense at first persist, and his bat had yet to show the potency it needed to in order to secure him a place on an MLB roster. Last spring training, Vogelbach was a late cut from big league camp, as the team decided early on to send him to Triple-A for the year, a decision that surprised maybe no one as much as Vogelbach himself.

Let’s check in on how things are going this year relative to last year’s Spring Training:

2017: .228/.313/.333
2018: .415/.538/.854

Spring Training numbers are famously noisy, but looking at those two sets of numbers side-by-side is gobsmacking. Vogelbach has four homers this spring—more than he had combined in all his other years. So what changed? To me, at least part of Vogey’s revamped approach at the plate can be traced back to a relatively unlikely source: the Triple-A Home Run Derby.

In 2017, after his shaky spring, Vogelbach was assigned to Triple-A Tacoma. There he continued to do Daniel Vogelbach things: he hit for average and some power while taking his walks and limiting his strikeouts. Fellow prospect and beefy Canadian Tyler O’Neill, despite some early-season struggles, occupied most of the attention on a team that saw a record number of transactions as pitchers were ferried back and forth between Seattle and Tacoma at a dizzying rate. But it was Vogelbach, not O’Neill, who was chosen as the home team representative for the Triple-A All-Star Game and Home Run Derby. At first, Vogelbach didn’t want to do it. Among all invited participants, he had the lowest number of home runs and trailed his fellow PCL representatives by ten dingers or more. His .151 ISO wasn’t exactly shabby, but at the time Tyler O’Neill, cured of his early-season struggles, had an ISO around .200. But because he is a Good Boy, Vogelbach agreed, and he took the field in front of a crowd excited to see the hometown-ish boy make good. Three pitches in, Vogelbach lined one over the right field fence, and a giant smile broke across his face. He went on to hit 13 in that first round, advancing all the way up until the final and eventually coming in second to elder statesman Bryce Brentz of the Red Sox. Later he posted a picture of himself in the Derby with the caption “that was fun.”

Vogelbach credits his success this spring with getting back to his game, relaxing and not “walking on eggshells.” One of the selling points with Vogelbach was his excellent plate discipline and ability to force a pitcher to throw him a good pitch; early on, however, Vogelbach was being too fine at the plate, letting good pitches go by early that he then wouldn’t see again in the at-bat. He tried to compensate for this last spring training, which resulted in a lot of poor first-pitch swings and his eventual reassignment to minor-league camp. To his credit, Vogelbach took the assignment to Tacoma in his typical ebullient stride, and became a fixture on the top rail of the Rainiers’ dugout. He never let his own struggles cloud his appreciation for his teammates. When Tyler O’Neill hit a walkoff dinger, it was Vogey who carried out the Gatorade for the ceremonial dumping. At the plate, he continued to collect hits and maximize his walks. But after the All-Star Break, after his success in the derby, Vogelbach began showing a strong uptick in his power hitting:

Pre All-Star Break: .280/.376/.430
Post All-Star Break: .306/.407/.494

The famous canard about home run derbies is they have the potential to mess up one’s swing; however, just the opposite has been true for Vogelbach. His late-season power surge has carried over into this Spring Training, where he’s showing big power to all fields, and collecting hits off lefty pitching (also a point of weakness for him last year). Daniel Vogelbach is having fun again, and it shows. Sometimes, it’s just as easy as letting yourself swing for the fences.