A’s catcher Stephen Vogt’s story is one of perseverance, survival

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OAKLAND -– It’s easy to define Stephen Vogt’s career by the long road he took to get to the majors.

He spent most of six years in the minor leagues, finally getting his first legitimate shot in the bigs with Oakland in 2013 at age 28. His story has been one of perseverance and survival.

Right now, the A’s catcher is gaining attention not for his background but what’s taking place in the present.

Vogt has put together one of the best all-around offensive seasons in the majors so far in 2015. Oakland went out and acquired players such as Billy Butler, Ike Davis and Ben Zobrist over the winter knowing they needed to replenish the heart of their lineup after trading away so many All-Stars.

But the man who has stepped up to grab the reins offensively was on their roster all along.

“You don’t see that much production out of a catcher,” A’s right fielder Josh Reddick said. “You expect catchers to hit .260, .270 and call a really good game, and he’s doing both of those right now. The damage he’s causing at the plate is just what we need in the heart of our lineup.”

Vogt, 30, is actually putting together some of the best across-the-board numbers in all of baseball. He entered Wednesday night leading the American League in RBI with 30. He ranks second in on base-plus-slugging percentage (1.098), is tied for fourth with nine homers and ranks fifth with a .337 batting average.

Vogt also leads all major league catchers in batting average, homers, RBI and OPS.

“I haven’t really though too much about it as to the ‘why’,” Vogt said. “I’ve typically always been a slow starter as far as seasons go. It feels good to be starting off pretty well. I don’t really know why there’s been more power, but I feel good at the plate. And with this lineup we have, I’m going to get pitches to hit.”

So good has he been that the A’s have been forced to re-think their plan to feature a straight platoon at the catcher position. Manager Bob Melvin said Tuesday that Vogt has earned the right to play on a regular basis. Josh Phegley drew the start in Wednesday’s 2-0 loss to Boston against Red Sox lefty Wade Miley, giving Vogt a rest in a day game after a night game.

Phegley has done nothing to lose playing time as much as Vogt has commanded it with his hot bat. It’s quite the scenario considering that the A’s couldn’t have known for sure entering spring training what they would get from Vogt. He was coming off of right foot surgery in October to repair the plantar plate and was limited at catcher during the spring.

To this point, he’s held up well enough physically to start 27 of the A’s 36 games at catcher. And on Tuesday night he showed terrific mobility, springing out from behind the plate to field Pablo Sandoval’s tapper and throw him out at first. An inning later, he made a sliding catch of Blake Swihart’s foul pop near the first base dugout.

“He still gets a little sore when he’s out there several days in a row,” Melvin said. “We have to be careful with him and not over-do it, especially the way he’s performing right now. But I couldn’t be happier with his performance.”

This essentially is Vogt’s first full season in the majors. He played 18 games with Tampa Bay in 2012 and then emerged as an important contributor with the A’s in 2013 after being called up in June. Last season, he didn’t make the club out of spring training but was called up early on before the foot injury relegated him to first base, outfield and DH duties.

This season he’s been indispensable. Vogt filled in well as the No. 3 hitter when Zobrist first went on the disabled list, and now he’s settled in as the No. 5 hitter with the hot-hitting Reddick batting third.

But perhaps Vogt’s toughest job is learning all the new pitchers that joined Oakland’s staff this year, and playing counselor to pitchers -– particularly the relievers –- who have struggled so far in this 13-23 season.

“I think any time you’re trying to get to know a teammate, you have to get to know them on all levels,” Vogt said. “ Some of the guys in spring, you get to know them and they go out and pitch well. But then you need to get to know them when they don’t have their stuff. So there’s that element of getting to know them with the growing pains of a season.”

Whitewash: Rob Manfred says he doesn’t think sign stealing extends beyond the Astros

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Rob Manfred said today that he believes the sign-stealing scandal which has taken over the news in the past week does not extend beyond the Houston Astros. His exact words, via Jeff Passan of ESPN:

“Right now, we are focused on the information that we have with respect to the Astros. I’m not going to speculate on whether other people are going to be involved. We’ll deal with that if it happens, but I’m not going to speculate about that. I have no reason to believe it extends beyond the Astros at this point in time.”

This is simply incredible. As in literally not credible.

It’s not credible because, just last week, in the original story in The Athletic, it was reported that the Astros system was set up by two players, one of whom was “a hitter who was struggling at the plate and had benefited from sign stealing with a previous team, according to club sources . . . they were said to strongly believe that some opposing teams were already up to no good. They wanted to devise their own system in Houston. And they did.”

The very next day Passan reported that Major League Baseball would not limit its focus to the Astros. Rather, the league’s probe was also include members of the 2019 Astros and would extend to other teams as well. Passan specifically mentioned the 2018 Red Sox which, of course, were managed by Alex Cora one year after he left Houston, where he was A.J. Hinch’s bench coach.

Add into this the Red Sox’ pre-Cora sign-stealing with Apple Watches and widespread, informed speculation on the part of players and people around the game that many teams do this sort of thing, and one can’t reasonably suggest that only the Houston Astros are doing this.

Which, as I noted at the time, made perfect sense. These schemes cannot, logically, operate in isolation because players and coaches change teams constantly. In light of this, players have to know that their sign-stealing would be found out by other teams eventually. They continue to do it, however, because they know other teams do it too. As is the case with pitchers using pine tar or what have you, they don’t rat out the other team so they, themselves, will not be ratted out. It’s a mutually-assured destruction that only exists and only works if, in fact, other teams are also stealing signs.

So why is Major League Baseball content to only hang the Astros here? I can think of two reasons.

One is practical. They had the Astros fall in their lap via former Astro Mike Fiers — obviously not himself concerned with his current team being busted for whatever reason — going on the record with his accusation. That’s not likely to repeat itself across baseball and thus it’d be quite difficult for Major League Baseball to easily conduct a wide investigation. Who is going to talk? How can baseball make them talk? It’d be a pretty big undertaking.

But there’s also the optics. Major League Baseball has had a week to think about the report of the Astros sign-stealing and, I suspect, they’ve realized, like everyone else has realized, that this is a major scandal in the making. Do they really want to spend the entire offseason — and longer, I suspect, if they want a thorough investigation — digging up unflattering news about cheating in the sport? Do they really want to be in the bad news creation business? I doubt they do, so they decided to fence off the Astros, hit them hard with penalties, declare victory and move on.

Which is to say, it’s a whitewash.

It’s something the league has tried to do before. They did it with steroids and it didn’t work particularly well.

In 1998 Mark McGwire, that game’s biggest star at the time, was found to have the PED androstenedione in his locker. It was a big freakin’ deal. Except . . . nothing happened. Major League Baseball planned to “study” the drug but most of the fallout was visited upon the reporter who made it public. It was accompanied by some shameful conduct by both Major League Baseball and the baseball press corps who eagerly went after the messenger rather than cover the story properly.

Four years later Ken Caminiti and Jose Canseco went public with their PED use and said drug use was widespread. MLB’s response was slow and, again, sought to isolated the known offenders, singling out Caminiti as a troubled figure — which he was — and Canseco as a kook — which he kind of is — but doing them and the story a disservice all the same.

The league eventually created a rather toothless testing and penalty regime. Congress and outside investigative reporters filled the void created by the league’s inaction, calling hearings and publishing damning stories about how wide PED use was in the game. Eventually Bud Selig commissioned the Mitchell Report. Some ten years after the McGwire incident baseball had at least the beginnings of a sane approach to PEDs and a more effective testing plan, but it was pulled to it kicking and screaming, mostly because doing anything about it was too hard and not very appetizing from a business and P.R. perspective.

And so here we are again. Baseball has a major scandal on its hands. After some initially promising words about how serious it planned to take it, the league seems content to cordon off the known crime scene and refuses to canvass the neighborhood. Sure, if someone gratuitously hands them evidence they’ll look into it, but it sure sounds like Rob Manfred plans to react rather than act here.

That should work. At least until the next time evidence of cheating comes up and they have to start this all over again.