What do you get when you combine Derek Norris, John Jaso and Stephen Vogt? Up until recently, the answer was: three middling baseball players you probably haven't heard of.
Now, thanks to a dollop of unconventional thinking and a dash of Oakland A's magic, that trio has put up some of the best numbers in the American League from the catcher position—and it's possible they've even revolutionized the game.
The A's and their general manager, Billy Beane, are famous for innovation (maybe you saw the Brad Pitt movie?). Their "moneyball" formula—identifying undervalued players and signing them on the cheap—has led to an impressive string of winning seasons and playoff appearances despite a perennially undersized payroll.
What Oakland is doing behind the plate this season looks like another giant leap forward.
As of Wednesday, the Norris-Jaso-Vogt triumvirate had produced a .295 batting average, 12 home runs and 54 RBI as catchers (the stats go up if you include at-bats taken while playing other positions).
Among regular American League catchers, only Kurt Suzuki of the Minnesota Twins has a better average (.312), and only the Seattle Mariners' Mike Zunino (14) and the Cleveland Indians' Yan Gomes (13) have more big flies. No AL backstop has driven in more runs.
The secret is exploiting matchups: Jaso and Vogt hit mostly against right-handers, while Norris takes the bulk of the at-bats against lefties.
By spreading out the playing time at the most physically taxing position on the diamond, Oakland has kept each player fresh. Norris, in particular, has seemed to benefit from the reduced workload and favorable splits, posting a .293/.396/.481 slash line and making his first All-Star team.
Jaso, who has started 26 games as the designated hitter, is also enjoying a career year, hitting .289/.365/.469.
Then there's Vogt, a 29-year-old journeyman who started for the A's in the division series last year but didn't make the team out of spring training.
Since getting called up in May, Vogt has hit .355 with four home runs, while also seeing action at first base and in the outfield. He even has his own chant, which can be heard in the stands at the O.co Coliseum whenever he takes the field: "We believe in Stephen Vogt."
Vogt's success is almost hard to believe, so it's easy to see why A's fans are so readily embracing him:
"It's pretty cool to be in the batter's box and hear that [cheer]," Vogt told John Hickey of the San Jose Mercury News. "It's cool to have the fanbase behind you and to be up here contributing a little bit."
That's the key: Each guy contributes what he can, and the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts.
It makes sense, particularly at a position where any offense is generally considered a bonus. But the formula can be applied anywhere.
Indeed, using platoons to minimize cost and maximize production is something Beane and the A's have done throughout their remarkable run. This year's catching collective, though, might be the most extreme and successful example—especially when you check the price tag.
Norris, Jaso and Vogt will earn a combined $3.4 million this season. That's just over one quarter the money the cross-bay San Francisco Giants will pay their star catcher, Buster Posey.
That isn't to say Posey is not worth it. For this year, though, Oakland is getting equal production for a fraction of the cash.
|Sharing The Load: Combined Production of A's Catchers|
|Player||G (at catcher)||AVG||HR||RBI|
Advanced statistical analysis and some version of the moneyball philosophy have been adopted throughout baseball. Will this new breed of super platoon be the next hot trend?
Maybe. It's tougher to implement in the DH-free National League. And it means individuals must set aside their egos, surrendering at-bats and numbers for the sake of the team.
That can be mitigated by a manager who communicates with his players and keeps everyone on the same page. By all accounts, skipper Bob Melvin is doing just that in the Oakland locker room.
"Bob does just such a nice job of letting us know," infielder Nick Punto told the San Francisco Chronicle's John Shea. "I pretty much know when I'm playing for the next 10 days. As a platoon player, it's a lot easier to prepare when your manager is up front and lets you know exactly when you're playing."
It also helps when you're winning. Entering play Thursday, the A's sat atop the AL West with the best record in baseball.
If Oakland gets back to the playoffs, its envelope-pushing, matchup-optimizing catching troika will be a major reason why.
And if someone asks what you get when you combine Derek Norris, John Jaso and Stephen Vogt, your answer will be: good things.
All statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com.