OH, DANNY BOY
Sorry, my CAPS LOCK was stuck for the title because I’m excited. Dan Vogelbach made the Mariners’ opening day roster this year, nearly eight years after the Cubs drafted him in the second round. He was supposed to be a first baseman, but Vogelbach’s size made it a difficult ask defensively. Eventually, he was traded to the Mariners for Mike Montgomery who, as you may know, recorded the save in the seventh game of the 2016 World Series. There was potential, or else the Cubs would have never drafted him in the second round. The question was who or how could that potential be tapped into?
Vogelbach’s career has been long and winding with many obstacles and changes. Specifically, Vogelbach started in the minors at anywhere from 285 to 300 pounds. In 2014, he wanted to prove he could handle a defensive load, so he shed 30 pounds. Still, even with Vogelbach’s dedication to proving his defensive worth, he was blocked by Anthony Rizzo. A change of scenery was the best move for everyone and probably gave Vogelbach the jolt he needed.
The thing to know is that Vogelbach has long been a prodigious hitter, but it might surprise you what his skill set is: patience and contact. In the minors, Vogelbach regularly maintained a BB% greater than 10%, failing to do so only once. His OBP for his minors career was .395, a very impressive accomplishment. He also only posted one season where his K% was greater than 20%, regularly sitting in the 15–20% range. By no means was he as good as Willians Astudillo at avoiding strikeouts, but he definitely was not a prototypical strikeout prone first basemen. That leads us to another area where Vogelbach was atypical, his power.
His slugging percentage for his minors career was .483, not too shabby but also not exactly eye opening. Voglebach only completed two seasons where he hit 20 or more home runs with his career high being 23 home runs in 2016. Vogelbach actually acknowledged this was his true approach in an interview with FanGraphs last March, saying “In the past, I just tried to be a good hitter — be a good hitter first and the power would come.”
I would tend to agree with him and I would hardly say his approach hasn’t produced, it just hasn’t produced at the major league level. Vogelbach also noted in that interview some changes he looked to make prior to 2018, including: hitting the ball in the air with more frequency, using his legs differently, strengthening his top hand and following through higher. It’s a fascinating level of detail and honesty from a hitter. If you looked at the results in his first couple stints in the majors, you’d see that he had some weaknesses carrying over from the minors.
A failing of Vogelbach was that he actually hit more ground balls than fly balls regularly in the minors. That was more than likely the reason he was trying to ensure he finished his follow through higher, to create more lift. Here’s a picture to try and illustrate what I mean:
The top table is Vogelbach’s minor league career batted balls with his career averages in bold. His GB/FB rate in the minors was approximately 1.07, so just slightly more ground balls than fly balls. The difference in the majors, with a much smaller sample size, is larger. The key row is 2019, where there is a fundamental shift in Vogelbach’s batted ball profile. A whopping 56.5% of balls he hits are fly balls. What if we count line drives and fly balls together? 78.2% of the balls he’s put in play are in the air. That’s a good profile to have if you’re being asked to be a power hitter. (An aside: BaseballSavant, which is MLB’s statcast website notes that Vogelbach’s batted ball profile breaks down as such: 21.3% ground balls, 60.9% line drives, 13% fly balls. All it means is that FanGraphs and Statcast disagree on how they distinguish one versus the other. The overall breakdown of balls in the air versus on the ground remains the same regardless of the source).
Supplementing his change in batted ball profile is where he’s hitting the ball. If you look at his minor league averages you can see that while Vogelbach pulled the ball 40% of the time, he still went up the middle or opposite field the other 60% of the time. Not quite an all fields approach, but hardly a pull happy player. There’s been a major change, starting in 2018, with Vogelbach pulling the ball 52% of the time currently while only hitting the ball to the opposite field 16% of the time. Vogelbach’s entire approach appears to have been flipped on it’s head.
Still, that’s only one part of the equation. Changing the trajectory of your batted balls means nothing if the exit velocity is lacking. Meaning, if David Eckstein decided to start hitting the ball in the air more frequently, it probably wouldn’t change his career stats (did I choose this example because there are no batted ball stats to argue against me? Yes, I did). Luckily, they keep track of player’s exit velocities nowadays:
Vogelbach averages a 96.6 mph exit velocity, but where does it rank in the league? Oh, just in the 99th percentile. When it comes to Hard Hit %? 94th percentile. He’s currently mashing, as the kids say. Combine those numbers with this:
Vogelbach’s 2019 launch angle chart is mesmerizing. The gray is all batted balls, with the red marking those that have gone for hits. All his hits have fallen in the 17–20 degree range, approximately. That’s why we’re seeing a high percentage of line drives and fly balls. Vogelbach is in the midst of breakthrough and we all get to witness how he and the league’s pitchers will counter each other.
One thing I read in this Seattle Times article was that Vogelbach’s impeccable eye and patience were actually a detriment. He was constantly looking for the perfect pitch to drive and it rarely ever does. I’m not seeing a change in his overall swing percentage, as it is almost equal to his career average of 36.8%. The change I do see is in the amount of pitches he swings at out of the strike zone, which sits at 32%, about six percent higher than his career average. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing! It is possible to drive pitches for extra bases even if they are out of the zone, so long as they’re the right type of pitch.
The talk of finding the right type of pitch brings me to some notes about where Vogelbach falters. His weaknesses (again, small sample sizes) trend toward lefties and breaking pitches. His career slash line against lefties is .103/.235/.241, which is unplayable at the major league level. He currently runs a career wRC+ in the negatives against curve balls and sliders, -2 wRC+ and -23 wRC+ respectively. He does a lot of his damage against fastballs. His whiff% (swing and miss) and K% all are higher against breaking pitches for his career versus fastballs. So far in 2019, he has swung and missed at curve balls less than he did in the past, but not so much for sliders. If Vogelbach wants to sustain the improvements he’s made then he needs to find a way to mitigate those weaknesses.
This version of Dan Vogelbach was always there, it just needed coaxing to show itself. It’s far too early to call him an all-star, but there is a marked improvement stemming from a clear set of changes by Vogelbach. He’s been one of the main reasons for the Mariners rattling off as many wins as they have. The change in Vogelbach’s approach, being less selective and trying to lift the ball more has been a boon and it will be exciting to see if it continues.