Can Oakland's unexpected star continue his hot start?

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By DAN BERNSTEIN
College Contributor Network

Across the bay from an influx of Silicon Valley riches, the sparkling city of San Francisco and the rather popular team that plays there, ​the Oakland A's organization resembles a plant fighting through the cracks of a concrete sidewalk next to a sprawling arboretum -- a circumstance that many of the team's supporters have come to embrace and personally identify with.

It is here in Oakland -- a rather strange place for baseball -- that fans create ridiculous dances and chants for their favorite players in spite of the circumstances that surround them (there are often sewage leaks in the clubhouses, and on beautiful afternoons in mid-August the sun reflects off rows of empty green seats).

One of these chants is for Stephen Vogt, a former 12th round draft pick of the Tampa Bay Rays.

"I believe in Stephen Vogt," goes the enthusiastic shout, which rings around the ballpark each time he steps up to hit.

At the age of 28, Vogt was 0-for-31 in his Major League career, and in April 2013 he was sent to the A's from Tampa Bay as part of a conditional deal -- essentially spare change. Despite little reason for fans to believe in Vogt when the A's first gave him regular playing time, the chants came.

Now he is a frontrunner to be the American League's starting catcher at the All Star game.

Vogt has 10 home runs and is rocking a .307/.410/.598 slash line as the season approaches June. He cannot sustain this near-MVP pace, but his numbers are no fluke -- don't be surprised if he's still statistically one of the top offensive catchers in the game at the end of the year.

There are signs that Vogt's approach as a hitter has taken a major leap this season, as he's finally replicated the excellent plate vision that he displayed in the minors on the big league level.

Vogt regularly approached BB/K ratios of 1.00 in the minors, meaning that he walked about as much as he struck out. This is significant because the average major league BB/K ratio is around 0.40, and the potential to surpass that average rate by a significant margin made Vogt an intriguing no-risk flier for the A's to take.

However, in his first two substantial seasons at the highest level Vogt's BB/K rate was merely decent -- in 2013 it was 0.32 and in 2014 it was 0.41.

But this year, with the assurance of a major league roster spot for the first time in his career, Vogt has broken through in terms of plate discipline. So far in 2015 Vogt has walked and struck out 24 times, reaching the magical 1.00 BB/K mark. Moreover, his BB% has leapt from 5.6 to 15.4 percent since last season.

This is a reflection of him taking far more pitches -- both in and out of the strike zone. He's swinging at five percent fewer pitches than he did last year, and his patience is paying off as he's not only walking more but also hitting more pitches in the zone (the ones with a better chance to go for hits). Vogt now makes contact with 93.6 percent of the strikes that he swings at, which is a career high.

Pitchers are in a rough spot when they face Vogt. He has proven himself able to demolish pitches inside of the zone, but he's also demonstrated the ability to take walks. So far the trend is to pitch him more carefully -- he's seeing a career low in strike percentage (only 44 percent of pitches to him are strikes this year) -- but given his rising walk rate, further adjustments might be necessary.

​Vogt's improved approach isn't the only reason to think that he can continue to hit well. His BABIP -- a number that attempts to measure a player's luck on balls put in play -- is .299, which is about league average. Therefore, he isn't benefiting from excessive fortune on balls in play and should continue to hit for a high average.

The only aspect of Vogt's game that is due for regression is his home run rate. Right now, 21.7 percent of the fly balls that he hits are home runs, and given that his career rate heading into the season was under nine percent and that players generally don't experience mammoth power spikes at age 30, it is reasonable to expect that his home run pace will slow down as the season advances.

Even with a second half regression in power numbers though, Vogt's season is set to be extremely impressive, especially when one considers where his career was at just a few years ago.

It's easy for A's fans to appreciate his emergence, as he is a player who represents them so well -- a regular plant in the sidewalk that made it, thriving against all odds. But a regular plant nonetheless.

"Look at me," Vogt said to Sports Illustrated. "I'm not chiseled. I'm a regular guy. I wasn't destined to do this. I didn't make it to the big leagues at 22—I made it at 27, and still didn't do well. I made my first Opening Day roster at 30, for crying out loud."

"Even in professional baseball, a lot of people said I would never make it to the big leagues. But if you believe you can, and you work like you can, you can. Maybe that's why fans relate to me a little bit."

*All stats come from FanGraphs

Dan Bernstein is a sophomore at the University of Maryland. He is romantic about the Oakland Coliseum (where he grew up) and Anfield (where he's never been). Follow him on Twitter: @danbernsteinUMD
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