Daniel Vogelbach’s Treatment Has Been, If Not Perfect, Defensible
It’s understandably difficult to resist poking fun at the front office for Daniel Vogelbach’s start to 2019. “You see,” say we, proud mothers and fathers of a large son, “our son only needed his chance, Mr. Dipoto.”
Yes, he did indeed need that chance, and he’s seizing it by those brown points and not looking back. I’m not so convinced, though, that he has had an unfair shake in his Mariners career to date. Let’s take a look at something real quick.
Daniel Vogelbach High Minors Performance
A couple things jump out: first, Daniel Vogelbach is a very good hitter and has been for a while. But, beyond his BABIP-fueled turn in AAA for the Cubs (I would love to see a Vogey fast enough to churn out a .362 BABIP in the majors), he was a very good hitter through 2017, not a great one. So what did he do? He changed his swing. Like many other hitters inside the Mariners org and out, he dropped his hands, elevated, and celebrated.
And the results? A scorching 2018 in Tacoma, this time not carried by a sky-high BABIP, and, well, (waves at last week). Daniel Vogelbach in April 2018 had changed his swing, but had not produced like he did last season in Tacoma. So while he was interesting, as a bat-only (more on that in a minute) hitter in a hitter friendly league, producing a wRC+ in the 120s was neat, but not so neat that it demanded immediate opportunities at the major-league level. That is doubly true when you figure his natural position was full in Seattle until 2019, when the Mariners had one Nelson Cruz-shaped hole in their roster.
But what about Ryon Healy? Surely the Mariners could have found playing time at first base for Dan while Ryon scuffled to a 90 wRC+? Yes, they could have. But if your evaluation is that Ryon Healy is a viable MLB 1B and Dan Vogelbach is not, that door is pretty much closed regardless of AAA performance. Unfortunately, we don’t have enough of a sample size to evaluate either one’s defense, statistically, but there’s a fairly solid consensus—though not unanimous!—that Dan Vogelbach is just not a first baseman, and never will be. If the Mariners share this assessment—and there’s no real reason to think they don’t—then his only path to playing time in 2018—and 17 and 16, for that matter—was through Nelson Cruz, and I don’t think I would want to try to go through Nelson Cruz. He seems solid.
The treatment of Vogelbach hasn’t been flawless. In the majors he’s seen frustratingly inconsistent plate appearances, usually pinch-hitting before 2019, and nothing could reasonably be gleaned at all from that data. Could we have seen him more in 2018? Absolutely. Was it defensible to leave him in AAA for functionally the whole year, given his positional limitations and the existing roster construction? It was.
What More Could Daniel Vogelbach Have Done?
To find success anywhere in life, you need the right combination of talent, hard work, and opportunity. You could give me all the plate appearances in the world and I wouldn’t look like an MLB hitter, because I don’t have the talent. Somebody with gobs of talent and a chance to take advantage of it, meanwhile, will fail in the big leagues because pitchers will adjust; as Brad Pitt says in Moneyball, “Adapt or die.”
Perhaps the cruelest way to fail, however, is to have talent and hard work, but also lack an opportunity to take advantage. And in the 2.5 seasons since Daniel Vogelbach was acquired for Mike Montgomery at the deadline, Vogey has struggled to find that opportunity despite gaudy numbers in AAA. Despite repeated chances, the Mariners have failed to put him in a place to succeed.
Take, for example, his transaction log page.
Our Large Adult Son could just as easily be called our Human Yo-Yo, given how often he was heading up and down I-5. And when he came up to the big leagues, he wasn’t coming up for consistent playing time: Outside of one nine-game stretch last April, Vogey never started more than five consecutive games in those 138 days of service time for the Mariners. That’s a big cloud of uncertainty to be hanging over somebody’s head.
It would be one thing if the Mariners were in contention this whole time, but look again: In 2017, when the M’s put up a 78-84 record, he received a grand total of 31 plate appearances. Seventeen of those came during April, three in May, and the remaining 11 spread across one September start and a host of pinch-hitting opportunities. Last year, he made seven starts after Memorial Day — again, not exactly consistent playing time.
It’s true that Nelson Cruz was the everyday designated hitter for each of the last four seasons, proving a rather large obstacle (both literally and figuratively), to our dreams of Vogdor in the starting nine. But first base has been something of a vacuum for many years now. Vogelbach was acquired in 2016, when Adam Lind and Dae-Ho Lee split PT to very limited success (Lind posted a 93 wRC+, a very bad number for a subpar defender at a position that relies on hitting). 2017 saw Danny Valencia and Yonder Alonso man the position, with Alonso hitting well and Valencia...not so much, to the tune of a .311 wOBA and -0.4 fWAR. In 2018, Ryon Healy hit .235/.277/.412, numbers that defy the “Control the Zone” philosophy and certainly do little to inspire hope as an everyday first baseman.
Finally, Vogelbach has demonstrated that there’s nothing left for him to accomplish at AAA. He’s been at least 22 percent above league average in every single minor league stint in his career, including a .290/.434/.545 slash line that led to a 157 wRC+ last year in Tacoma. These are not the numbers of an unfinished product; rather, they show a hitter who’s done everything he can and who seems primed to thrive given a chance.
I don’t think anybody expected Vogelbach to start this season hitting...
(checks Fangraphs, faints, eventually wakes up)
Regardless, though this start is ridiculous, the idea of a torrid start remains perfectly reasonable. Daniel Vogelbach is a major league-level hitter, and he has been for quite some time. The Mariners haven’t given him a fair opportunity to let him shine until now. Let’s hope he keeps taking advantage.