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This slugger is blossoming for hot Mariners

Vogelbach's breakout could be more than a small sample size
April 13, 2019

There are many ways you might know about Mariners designated hitter Daniel Vogelbach. You might know him as the favored “large adult son” of many baseball writers. You might know him as the touted prospect (now 26 years old) who always found his big league path blocked, first by Anthony

There are many ways you might know about Mariners designated hitter Daniel Vogelbach. You might know him as the favored “large adult son” of many baseball writers. You might know him as the touted prospect (now 26 years old) who always found his big league path blocked, first by Anthony Rizzo with the Cubs and then by Nelson Cruz with the Mariners.

But, now that Vogelbach has found a spot on Seattle’s roster, you might also know him from the top of the MLB leaderboards.

It’s hard to get off to any hotter start than Vogelbach’s .400/.513/1.133 line (yes, that's his slugging percentage) with six home runs. It’s also impossible to think Vogelbach, or any other big leaguer, can maintain those numbers deep into the season. But as the Mariners have mashed their way to a 13-3 start, it’s the way Vogelbach has compiled those numbers that suggests some staying power.

Here’s a few early trends that stand out about Seattle’s blossoming slugger.

He’s more selective than you might think

The typical profile for a 250-pound, lefty first baseman doesn’t scream “plate discipline,” but that’s part of what made Vogelbach an intriguing prospect. He owned a .395 OBP in eight Minor League seasons and routinely maintained his walk rate between 15 and 20% (the Major League average is around 8%). In fact, it was Vogelbach’s on-base ability that stood out more than his power; his 20 homers with Triple-A Tacoma last summer were a career high for one team.

After playing his way onto Seattle’s roster in Spring Training, Vogelbach’s patience has carried over. Start with his 17.9% walk rate that ranks within MLB’s top 30 hitters in the early going. Vogelbach has only swung at 36.5% of the total pitches he’s seen, per Statcast, tied for the 15th-lowest rate in baseball. He’s also seen 4.28 pitches per plate appearance, which would have tied him with Aaron Hicks for seventh among qualified hitters in 2018. A low swing rate isn’t the only path to success (see Yoan Moncada’s called strikeouts last season), but Vogelbach currently sits alongside Tommy Pham, Rhys Hoskins and Xander Bogaerts -- and it’s a category that Mookie Betts, Alex Bregman and Mike Trout excelled in last year.

The best part of Vogelbach’s discipline is that he’s spitting the most on breaking balls (curves and sliders), a pitch group he’s gone just 2-for-34 against in the Major Leagues.

_Vogelbach has swung less at breaking balls with more Major League at-bats_

Will Vogelbach need to improve against those breakers eventually? Yes, absolutely. Pitchers will adjust and throw him a steadier diet of curves and sliders in the future. But Vogelbach is already proving to be an intense student of pitcher tendencies, as ESPN’s Jeff Passan detailed Friday, and already seems to understand that laying off those hooks, when possible, can be a path to success.

"You're not always going to get hits, but at least you can control your at-bats,” Vogelbach told Passan. “If you're not feeling it, you can battle, grind at-bats out. In an 0-for-4, you can still do things to help your team win. I'm a firm believer in that.”

The ball is jumping off his bat

Vogelbach is bringing pitchers into the strike zone, and then he’s punishing them once they arrive. Statcast says he’s made contact (foul ball or a ball in play) on 88.6% of his swings against in-zone pitches, putting him within MLB’s top 20% this year and in line with the zone contact rates of Trout, Jose Altuve and Francisco Lindor in 2018.

This hasn’t been any old contact, either. Going by expected weighted on-base average (xwOBA), Statcast’s most comprehensive metric that predicts outcomes based on exit velocity and launch angle, Vogelbach has been the league’s third-most dangerous hitter on in-zone balls in play behind Willson Contreras and Gary Sanchez. Vogelbach enters Saturday leading MLB hitters in Statcast’s sweet-spot rate (percentage of batted balls hit for line drives with launch angles between eight and 32 degrees), and he’s struck 10 of his 16 liners with exit velocities above 100 mph. That means he’s doing what every hitter aims to do: Scorching the ball and doing so in the air.

He’s closing up a hole

Vogelbach is one of many big leaguers who publicly changed his swing, lowering his hands last year to get himself in a better power position. The adjustment didn’t change Vogelbach’s results last summer (.207/.324/.368 over 102 plate appearances), but it seems to be paying off now. As SB Nation’s Lookout Landing detailed Friday, Vogelbach is rolling over less pitches -- particularly in the lower parts of the zone. Five of Vogelbach’s six dingers have come off pitches in these areas of the strike zone, and that’s hard to ignore.

Vogelbach vs. pitches in lower two-thirds of zone and below, 2018 vs. 2019
2018: 9° avg. launch angle | 48.8% ground-ball rate | .300 SLG
2019: 14.1° avg. launch angle | 22.2% ground-ball rate | 1.208 SLG

It can’t be stated enough how early it is, but Mariners fans have to be encouraged -- not only with their team’s hot start, but also with a prospect that’s finally getting an extended shot. It’s hard to forecast how many plate appearances Vogelbach will ultimately accrue with Jay Bruce, Edwin Encarnacion and Ryon Healy on Seattle’s roster, but his 1.1 fWAR -- tied for fifth-best across the Majors -- should ensure him plenty of at-bats for now.

The Mariners were supposed to be rebuilding in 2019. But if Vogelbach, Domingo Santana, Mitch Haniger and the rest of the lineup keep mashing like this, Seattle could keep surprising people all summer long.

Matt Kelly is a reporter for based in New York. Follow him on Twitter at @mattkellyMLB.