Three-man catching platoon gives A's flexibility
Lefty-hitting Vogt likely to start vs. Detroit's righties; Norris, Suzuki fill out dynamic
OAKLAND -- The Referee backpedaled across the crosswalk, shepherding his teammates with his left hand and halting traffic with his right.
The A's had clinched their second straight American League West crown three days prior and were out on the town, parading their costumed rookies around the streets of Seattle. Dan Straily sported a costume of Wolverine, claws and all, while fellow right-hander Sonny Gray dressed as Robin, his cape flapping behind him.
Six-foot-eight first baseman Nate Freiman exceeded a solid seven feet with the help of a purple beehive wig in his portrayal of Marge Simpson, and navigating them all through traffic was The Referee, bearing a striking resemblance to catcher Stephen Vogt, who has gained a reputation in Oakland's clubhouse as a master thespian in the art of impressions.
Vogt, who the A's acquired in April for next to nothing from the Rays, figures to do more than just entertain his teammates when the A's begin the American League Division Series on Friday (6:30 p.m. PT, TBS) against the Tigers. The emergence of his personality after an initial reserved grace period coincides with what is expected to be an increased role for the backstop.
Detroit is slated to start four right-handed pitchers, which puts A's manager Bob Melvin in the likely position of starting the left-handed-hitting Vogt in all five games (if the best-of-five ALDS goes past three games), should he continue platoon at catcher as he has with many positions throughout the season.
The role is an admirable reversal of fortunate for a player who joined the A's in Triple-A after failing to record a hit in 25 at-bats last season with Tampa Bay.
Yet here Vogt stands, along with right-handed hitters Norris and Kurt Suzuki, in an unconventional three-man platoon at one of the most impactful positions in the game, looking to capitalize on such an opportunity.
"He deserved the opportunity based on how he was playing in Triple-A," Melvin said Wednesday. "There was a time he was hitting over .400. We kept looking at the numbers and going, 'Boy, let's take a look at this guy.' When we had the injuries, the opportunity came up for him, and he's done a great job for us. He's a grinder, he's a hard worker, he's paid his dues and is very appreciative of his opportunity here and taking advantage of it."
Melvin made a point of clarifying that even if Vogt does get the start each time, it's unlikely that he will play the entire game. Platoons allow Melvin to make changes based on matchups late in games, so Norris and Suzuki will presumably get their at-bats should the Tigers send a left-handed reliever to the mound.
Suzuki also gives the A's an excellent defensive option behind the plate late in games, particularly when sinker-throwing relievers Grant Balfour and Ryan Cook are on the mound.
Oakland's roster has adapted well to Melvin's use of the platoon, saying all the right things and taking advantage of their at-bats as best they can when their number is called. It's a difficult dynamic to balance: wanting the best for your team while still looking to make an individual impact and contribute.
"I think it's a tough transition for some guys, but right now the season's done. Everything's marked in the books, there's nothing you can change," Norris said. "Right now, it's all about winning and putting selfishness aside. I think everyone acknowledges the fact that any piece that you can put in to help win is the only thing that matters right now. Anything aside of that would be selfishness on your behalf and wanting to make an impact."
"There are no individuals anymore," Vogt said. "That's the mark of a good team -- when individuals get put on the back-burner to the team. And that's what we're about here."
Suzuki, reacquired from the Nationals in August after spending his first six seasons in Oakland, provides a veteran presence that Norris and Vogt cannot, though members of the A's pitching staff have said they feel comfortable no matter who's behind the plate. Straily said Suzuki's intangibles are apparent when he's behind the plate, while reliever Dan Otero said the catchers are interchangeable as far as he's concerned.
"Kurt, obviously, is more experienced and knows more about the league," Jarrod Parker said. "He knows guys a little more, but those guys are learning and picking the brain of Kurt and learning on the fly. Really, there's not a big difference between them."
Norris, particularly last year, has attempted to observe and pick Suzuki's brain and incorporate his findings into his own catching style. During the A's workout on Wednesday, for instance, he felt like he was rushing his throws from behind the plate and sought his guidance as to how to remedy the problem.
"I said, "Rushing a little bit?'" Norris said. "And he said, 'Yeah, just a little bit. Just make sure you're staying on your back foot,' It definitely helps out. Obviously, we have to learn how to make adjustments on our own, which we all do a great job of, but to have a guy like that around definitely helps."
Outside of experience, the three share a relatively similar demeanor. All catchers possess a shared determination, closer Balfour said, though Straily said their respective roots at times speak to their temperaments off the field.
"You got one guy from Hawaii [Suzuki], one guy from California [Vogt] and one guy from Kansas [Norris]," Straily said. "So you can make your assumptions there."
Here's what seems clear: For the A's to beat the Tigers and advance in the playoffs, each catcher must showcase their best play against a team that is even better after beating them in the same position a year before. And if the A's are to advance and possibly win their first World Series since 1989, it will be partly because each catcher has perfected his role.