Two years after All-Star career, Stephen Vogt managing Guardians to MLB's best record (2024)

BALTIMORE – The plaudits are coming for Stephen Vogt, and deservedly so.

In his first year as a major league manager, less than two years removed from the final game of his playing career, Vogt has piloted the surprising Cleveland Guardians to the best record in Major League Baseball as the season reaches the halfway point. One year after a 76-86, third-place finish, the Guardians are 51-26 and overwhelming favorites – a 93% probability, according to FanGraphs - to reach the playoffs.

Come November, Vogt very well could be the AL Manager of the Year, as the award almost always goes to a manager engineering a turnaround, and it would be well-deserved.

Yet there’s a significant chance we have yet to see the very best of Stephen Vogt, manager, just yet.

See, the major leagues are filled with dozens of players who counted Vogt as teammates, who loved him for his work habits and his goofy demeanor and the skills that made him a two-time All-Star. But mostly, they loved Vogt for showing them the way when they were anything but established big leaguers, and for finding paths through the darkness of a game that can be unflinchingly cruel.

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“I learned a lot about what it is to be a good teammate. And Vogt-er, with the season we were having at the time, was a big light in our clubhouse,” says Baltimore Orioles left-hander Cole Irvin, who played with Vogt in his final year on the 2022 Oakland Athletics, a team that lost 102 games and would lose 110 the next as the franchise stripped the roster for parts.

“Not a bad thing is going to be said about the man. He’s a competitor. He loves to win. But he cares about everyone he’s going to battle with.

“He’s one of the best people in this game.”

Two years after All-Star career, Stephen Vogt managing Guardians to MLB's best record (1)

Vogt insists little has changed now that he resides in the manager’s office and walks a different beat, to the coaches’ room and the analysts’ nest and, occasionally, his old domain, the clubhouse. He’s learned quickly how fast the game moves when you’re in charge of it, when you oversee 26 players and an equal amount of support staff, all with little contributions in service to the very difficult task of winning a major league baseball game.

He says he is still the same bearded dude who rose to some fame with hilarious imitations of Chris Farley’s motivational speaker, and a recurring referee bit on MLB Network that even inspired a bobblehead complete with headband and pinstriped jersey.

No, he won’t be hosting Saturday Night Live anytime soon. But the ethos is unchanged.

“This is fun. That’s one thing I tell these guys all the time: Don’t ever lose sight that we’re still playing a game. And for four hours a day, you get to go be a 12-year-old kid,” Vogt tells USA TODAY Sports. “There’s a business side, there’s family and all these other things. That’s real, and that’s important, too.

“But for three, four hours a night, you get to go be a 12-year-old kid and suit up and play the game you love.”

Yet even the very talented and very privileged who bubble up the major leagues need a beacon.

'The kind of person he is'

In February 2017, Sean Murphy had just 23 games of professional experience, in rookie and low Class A ball, when he arrived in Phoenix for his first big league spring training. Sure, he was a third-round pick a year before, but his roster fate was already written: A ticket to Stockton, California and high Class A ball.

Remember the nerves you felt the day before the first day of school?

That was Murphy on this day, working out at the A’s minor-league complex but knowing that tomorrow, he’d be going down the street to big league camp, when Vogt walked in and pulled him aside. Aren’t you that catcher we drafted last year, he asks.

“He doesn’t have to come out of his way to talk to me. I’m going to A ball. I’m the warm body in camp,” Murphy remembers. “He says, ‘Well, we’re going to go over to the big league side, we’re going to introduce you to everybody. We’re going to make sure your locker is set up for everything tomorrow, so that you don’t look lost on your first day.’

“He took time away from his family to make sure I went over there and met everybody, learned everyone’s names, made sure I had pants that fit, unpack some boxes. I thought that was cool. He didn’t have to do it.

“It’s kind of the person he is.”

The big league camp was locked, but with Vogt coming off his second straight All-Star appearance, “Stephen Vogt can get in the gates,” says Murphy. They entered the big league clubhouse, Vogt alreadyslowing the game down before Murphy even caught one bullpen session.

Don’t sit there – that’s for veterans with service time. Don’t try to get in the batting cage if a Yonder Alonso or a Khris Davis beat you to it. Get there early if you want to get training-room time.

Murphy would not debut until September 2019, but the groundwork was lain for a player who’d eventually make an All-Star game and sign a $73 million contract. Yet there was a second act to their story, when Murphy was the lone leftover from the A’s spring 2022 fire sale and Vogt was the returning veteran.

Murphy would hit 18 home runs that season and earn MVP votes, but as a decimated organization sent a conga line of undeveloped pitchers to Oakland, Vogt helped Murphy compartmentalize.

“He was really important for me, personally, that year,” says Murphy. “We didn’t win a lot of games. He tried to keep me sane. He was like, ‘You gotta keep doing your job.’ We had a rotation of pitchers coming in and out and trying to stay on top of everything. He was really important in that.

“You knew he’d want to manage or stay involved in any way he could. He wasn’t playing that much at that point, but he was so important to have around, in terms of that team having so many young guys, and there’s the one old guy who’d been around the block.

“He was a necessity on that team. Because it wasn’t going well.”

Vogt’s selflessness was partly a matter of paying it forward, of remembering his own debut on a veteran Tampa Bay Rays team in 2012, and the counsel he received from Sam Fuld and Wade Davis and, later, Billy Butler in Oakland.

But Vogt’s empathic tool was developed long before the big leagues and he credits his father, Randy, with showing him the way. Now 68, Randy Vogt is a valued consultant to the agriculture industry in their Central Valley hometown of Visalia, California and served as president of their church's Visalia Rescue Mission.

“The thing he always talked to my brother Danny and I about was, ‘You need to put everyone around you above yourself,’” says Vogt. “When you serve them, you’re going to get the results you want to.”

Two years after All-Star career, Stephen Vogt managing Guardians to MLB's best record (2)

'He's a connector'

In Cleveland, the results have been fantastic. The Guardians have not lost more than three games in a row, have an eight-game lead in the AL Central, are 26-9 at home and hit the 50-win mark faster than any Cleveland squad since their late-‘90s glory days.

It really shouldn’t be that much of a surprise: Seven of their key position players got significant at-bats during their 2022 playoff run, when they toppled the Rays in the wild-card series and pushed the 99-win Yankees to five games in a wild ALDS. Even with Shane Bieber lost to Tommy John surgery, the Guardians always have enough pitching, and this year their bullpen is deep and daunting, with a major league-best 2.34 ERA.

It doesn’t hurt that the guy punching the buttons has already made an impact.

“He’s definitely a players’ manager," says Guardians right-hander Triston McKenzie. "Especially being closely removed from the game, he has a very good pulse on when guys are feeling good or not so good, being able to communicate on a very good level as opposed to maybe an older manager where it might have been different when he played. He does a good job connecting with the guys, building relationships, especially with a young team.

"Spring training was a big indicator for me. One of the things he said to me was, I’m not looking to change the culture here. I’m looking to enhance it. And I think he’s done just that."

Vogt and the players both say a lively give-and-take prevails, each side giving as good as they get. Yet the “big goober” persona, as the Orioles’ Irvin calls it, is but one dimension.

“That’s 1% of what he is,” says Arizona Diamondbacks manager Torey Lovullo, who managed Vogt in his penultimate 2021 season. “He’s a very intense competitor, a very smart competitor that knows how to have a good time and lighten the load.

“He’s a connector. A connector of people and personalities and knows how to have conversations with anybody inside a clubhouse. That’s hard to do. He’d be able to talk to me, to talk to a clubbie. And he was fearless in his ability to communicate.”

Those Diamondbacks lost 110 games that year, most of them by the time Vogt was traded to Atlanta. Two years later, they’d reach the World Series, many of them holdovers from that grim ’22 season and the guy who made it a little easier.

“When things felt heavy, he could pull you aside and put his arm around your shoulder, and talk you off the ledge a little bit,” says Arizona first baseman Christian Walker. “Top to bottom, that guy was A-plus. When I heard he was going to be done playing, I knew it’d only be a matter of time he’d be a manager somewhere.

“It was always worth it to hear his perspective.”

Two years after All-Star career, Stephen Vogt managing Guardians to MLB's best record (3)

Built for bumpy roads

It is a valuable perspective if only for the eras Vogt’s career spanned. He was drafted in 2007, debuted in 2012, walked away in 2022. Given the game’s advancements the past decade, that’s like living long enough to walk with dinosaurs but also have WiFi in your home.

“The game I grew up in was, ‘Go play,’” remembers Vogt. “It’s old school, we don’t have much information. I had to learn how to play baseball and grow up in the minor leagues and early part of the big leagues still watching the game and asking questions.

“We didn’t have video, we didn’t have all these things we have now. And then throughout my career, getting things introduced to me along the way and having to adapt to new information while still going out and doing my job. So now I feel like I have a good understanding of, this is what the data is for, this is what that is for.”

Beyond veteran pitching coach Carl Willis, Vogt has a thoroughly modern staff alongside him in Cleveland, with bench coach Craig Albernaz and major league field coordinator Kai Correa plucked from Gabe Kapler’s progressive former staff in San Francisco.

As for Vogt, he has just one year of coaching experience, but remains grateful to Seattle manager Scott Servais for giving him significant latitude during a 2023 season in which he was nominally the bullpen coach, yet had a hand in all game preparation.

Paul Sewald, who began 2023 as the Mariners’ closer, said Servais called him when Vogt was hired: Vogt, Servais told Sewald, is going to be a manager someday, but for now he’s your bullpen coach, and he will have a hand in everything.

A year later, Vogt is perhaps the platonic ideal of a manager who combines human elements with the game’s modern trappings.

“At 6:40, the game starts, and there’s nothing you can do about anything other than playing and grinding,” says Sewald, now a Diamondbacks reliever. “Some of this, you just cannot compute it. Somebody who came up with that and adapted to what’s going – especially in the Cleveland organization where they’re going to take the data pretty seriously – it was very important he had some experience in that.”

For now, it is going startlingly well. The Guardians are tracking to become the first AL Central team to earn a first-round bye since the expanded playoffs began. Corner infielders Jose Ramirez and Josh Naylor have already slugged 21 and 20 home runs, respectively. Steven Kwan is batting .385 with a 1.006 OPS in 51 games.

Certainly, it won’t be this good all the time, not even this year, certainly in coming years. Vogt has clearly proven he was prepared to handle success.

And when the road gets bumpier, he’ll be ready then, too.

“It has to be fun,” he says. “You gotta be laughing. You gotta be smiling.

“Even in the dark times.”

Two years after All-Star career, Stephen Vogt managing Guardians to MLB's best record (2024)
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