Jaso or Vogt?

Thearon W. Henderson

It's tough to carry two lefthanded catchers on a big-league roster, but both John Jaso and Stephen Vogt have performed admirably for the A's this season. Who has the better case for occupying the long half of the catching platoon in 2014?

The A's parted with a lot to get John Jaso this offseason. They gave up A.J. Cole, who turned in a great season between High-A and Double-A at age 21 while showcasing a 94-97 mph moving fastball. They gave up Ian Krol, who went from Double-A to making 30 decent relief appearances in the big leagues as a 22-year-old, showing 92-95 mph gas from the left side. They also gave up Blake Treinen, who had a solid season in Double-A and could also make the big leagues.

By contrast, the A's acquired Stephen Vogt for a player to be named later or cash on April 6.

It's probably too much to call Jaso's season a disappointment, beyond the fact that he only played in 70 games before a concussion knocked him out for the season. Last year, of course, he hit .276/.394/.456 for the Mariners, and he very nearly matched the first two numbers in that triple-slash this year, with a .271 average and .387 OBP. Anybody who can provide non-embarrassing defense behind the plate and do that has a whole lot of value, because almost nobody in baseball has that combination of skills.

But Jaso has two flaws that kept him from being a dominant player in an A's uniform this season. First, his power spike of 2012 evaporated, leaving him with a pedestrian .372 slugging percentage. Second, he really struggles defensively, particularly when it comes to corralling basestealers--he caught just 4 of 32 base thieves (13%) this year, which is an absolute bottom-of-the-barrel mark.

And so, Jaso provided quite a bit of value (1.1 WAR, per FanGraphs) in 70 games, but hardly an overwhelming amount. Since catchers play about 130-140 games in a full season, Jaso would've been about a two-win player if he maintained this level of performance and was healthy all season.

A third issue with Jaso, of course, is that he's never hit lefthanders. He's only been allowed to face them 148 times in his career, but he's hit all of .169/.294/.223 in those opportunities, as opposed to .272/.375/.417 off of righties. This year, he was 5-for-26 off of southpaws (.192/.250/.192), but pasted righties for a stellar .282/.405/.398 line.

Jaso was, of course, replaced by Vogt, who is a similar yet different player. Like Jaso, he's a lefthanded-hitting former Rays catcher who's faced defensive questions his entire career and didn't get a chance in the majors until he was past his 26th birthday, but always had interesting minor league statlines.

Also like Jaso, Vogt's running with his first extended playing time, hitting .273/.314/.445 in 37 games in the green and gold this year.

Those are a lot of similarities, but there are some key differences. Vogt, as the above OBP indicates, has nowhere near Jaso's plate discipline and on-base ability. He has shown elevated walk rates at times in the minors (including 11.1% and a .398 OBP in Sacramento this year), but never anything in the stratosphere Jaso operates in. Vogt may learn how to draw more than the 5.8% walk rate he currently has once he settles in as a big leaguer, but he's never going to have Jaso's on-base punch.

However, Vogt seems to be packing more power these days, as his .445 slugging percentage indicates. He never was a huge power hitter in the minors, but he's found an extra gear this year, hitting 17 homers between Sacramento (where he slugged .547) and Oakland.

We can discuss whether Vogt actually projects to have more pop than Jaso going forward; there's a case to be made for it based on Vogt's increased power output, but then again, Jaso spent 2012 slugging .456 in the majors, whereas Vogt spent 2012 slugging .424 in Triple-A, so single-year data points don't always close the case entirely.

Perhaps the more important advantage Vogt possesses, then, comes behind the plate. As I mentioned earlier, Vogt's defense has repeatedly been called into question since his early prospect days. In fact, he spent more games in left field (222) in the minors than he did as a catcher (205), also adding 68 contests at first and 15 in right. But Vogt caught 36% of opposing basestealers in his minor league career, and that's translated to Oakland, where he's cut down 8 of 23 (35%) so far this year.

So far, FanGraphs has Vogt at 0.7 WAR through 37 games, which is a better pace than Jaso's 1.1 in 70 contests. That's small-sample and depends on UZR and has all sorts of other hazy caveats, and I don't mean to argue that Vogt is definitively the superior player, either now or in the future. But I do think it's close enough that the discussion is worth having.

Of course, Vogt, like Jaso, swings from the left side of the plate. He has exactly 17 plate appearances against lefties in his MLB career, so we really can't judge how good he is against big-league southpaws. Over the past three years in the minors, he hit lefties at a .248/.315/.414 clip, as opposed to .316/.372/.514 against righthanders; he wasn't totally inept, but that vs.-lefties line doesn't look primed to translate particularly well against big-leaguers. He might not embarrass himself if given extended playing time against lefties, but he'd hardly generate much value in doing so.

And so, there's not too much sense in keeping both Jaso and Vogt on the roster in 2014, especially with the presence of Derek Norris (.303/.395/.561 vs. LHPs this year; just .146/.262/.175 vs. RHPs), the perfect complement to a lefty-swinging catcher, on the roster. Unless you think Jaso or Vogt is good enough to hold down the DH spot, one of them has to go. Vogt could be optioned to Sacramento if we really want to go that route (he has one option left, to my understanding), though that would seem like a big waste of his talent. Jaso probably has the higher trade value due to his veteran status; we see what he brought back last year, so perhaps we could sell him for a nearly-as-good package, since he's now proven he can hit well for two straight years in two different tough home parks.

I don't think there's one right answer, but I do think owning two good lefty-hitting catchers is a good problem to have. They're rare commodities, and as such, we should be able to turn the spare one into something else that can help the Oakland organization moving forward.

What are your thoughts on the situation? Feel free to share in the comments.

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