Daniel Vogelbach’s emergence as a dependable, middle-of-the-order hitter has been one of the best developments of this rebuilding season for the Mariners. He leads the club in home runs (14), on-base percentage (.393), slugging percentage (.629) and Wins Above Replacement (1.6, per Fangraphs).
This is the breakthrough the Mariners have been waiting for from the burly 26-year-old slugger.
Of course, Vogelbach’s journey through the minor leagues was hardly a straight shot to the Hit It Here Café.
He had 2,714 minor-league at-bats over parts of eight seasons and yo-yo’d back and forth from Triple-A Tacoma to Seattle eight times over the past three seasons — getting recalled to the majors and then optioned back down five times in 2018 alone.
Yes, if anyone knows what it means to struggle in the minors, what it takes to be patient, it’s Vogelbach.
So who better to turn to when a top prospect is having a hard time in, say, Low-A ball?
That, anyway, was part of what prompted Jarred Kelenic to reach out to Vogelbach last month. Kelenic, playing for the Mariners’ Low-A club in West Virginia as one of the youngest hitters in the South Atlantic League, was scuffling in his first week of the season, having managed just two hits in his first 25 at-bats.
“When you’re younger and you haven’t really gone through anything like that, you don’t know how to handle it sometimes,” Vogelbach said. “And I definitely went through it.”
Kelenic needed a pick-me-up, and he got one from Vogelbach over a round of text messages one day in mid-April.
Vogelbach had been texting the night before with West Virginia manager Dave Berg — Vogelbach’s hitting coach in Tacoma — when Berg mentioned Kelenic’s early struggles.
“Give him my number,” Vogelbach responded.
Kelenic reached out the next afternoon.
They talked hitting, sure. But more than anything, Vogelbach wanted to reassure Kelenic that things would turn around for him.
“Sometimes all you need is someone there to remind you how good you are. Something small like that can help,” Vogelbach said. “So I was just trying to give him a little confidence and tell him that at the end of the year everything was going to be all right.”
It’s been better than all right for Kelenic, who since the 2-for-25 start is hitting .345 (49 for 142) with 23 extra-base hits over his past 36 games in West Virginia.
Overall, Kelenic has a .305/.393/.551 slash line in 43 games this season, and the drumbeat grows louder by the day about when he will get his inevitable promotion to High-A ball.
“His ability is just off the charts,” Berg said. “He can hit the ball from line to line. It’s a loud batting practice when he hits. And, you know what, he’s a competitive guy. He’s in there to win. He’s fiery. He’s what you want.”
For all of Vogelbach’s success this season, his best contribution to the Mariners’ rebuilding plan might be his connection with Kelenic.
They had met initially during spring training in Arizona. There was Vogelbach, still eager and hopeful that he would finally get a chance to capitalize on a regular role in Seattle.
And there was Kelenic, the 19-year-old center fielder in his first camp with the Mariners after coming over from the New York Mets in the Robinson Cano-Edwin Diaz winter blockbuster.
They spent time together in the batting cages, and pretty quickly Vogelbach saw why there was so much excitement around Kelenic.
“He can really hit. It seems like he’s a really competitive kid, kind of how I was when I was younger,” Vogelbach said. “That’s a guy you want to stay close with, because hopefully he’s here helping us out sooner or later.”
When he was playing in Tacoma, Vogelbach would reach out to the Mariners’ Kyle Seager from time to time to pick his brain about certain things — often about Seager’s approach when facing left-handed pitchers. He now sees his relationship with Kelenic as a way of continuing that kind of mentorship.
“I’ve been there and been through struggles, and there are times where you feel like maybe you’re just not meant for it,” he said. “I just try to tell him some things that helped me along the way. If I can tell him three or four things and he only takes one, that’s fine. That’s maybe one thing that can help him. …
“I just try to give back when I can. I always say, try to put a smile on someone’s face every day. He’s raking now, and hopefully he can fly through and help us out.”
Vogelbach and Kelenic are both left-handed hitters who share a common approach to hitting. Neither spends much time breaking down video of the nuanced mechanics of his swing. Instead, both describe themselves as “feel” hitters; they know what works for their swings and, in most cases, know how to fix them when needed.
“I really can’t compliment Vogey enough,” Berg said. “There’s not very many hitters you come across who are that aware of themselves and can kind of fix themselves. He’s one of those guys. He was born to hit.”
He speaks similarly of Kelenic.
“What separates him is his approach and his feel for his swing,” Berg said. “He’ll tell the hitting coach here what he’s going to do against a certain pitcher before he goes to the box. He’s advanced way beyond his years as far as that goes.”
Vogelbach and Kelenic continue to talk or text. Kelenic said he has also gotten regular support and encouragement from Phillies first baseman Rhys Hoskins, whom he met a couple years ago.
“Those guys are in the big leagues for a reason,” Kelenic said. “Any time I can talk to them about hitting is awesome.”