Should Jason Vosler Excite You?
I mean, I'm not here to stop you!
Have you caught Vosler Fever yet? The power-hitting infielder has been the talk of camp with his torrid spring training start, going 8 for his first 16 at bats and generally crushing balls down corners and up alleys with aplomb. Harbinger of things to come or false flowers of spring? While the veteran Giants fan looks at spring surprises and thinks instantly of March legends like Randy Elliot or J.R. Phillips, there are some legitimate reasons to look at Vosler as one of the most interesting acquisitions of the off-season.
So who is Jason Vosler, exactly? Well there are several answers to that question. Vosler is a cold weather guy. He’s a swing change guy. Not surprisingly, he’s a “good swing decisions” guy. And he’s frequently been a “victim of numbers” guy. But most importantly, he’s a serious “overcoming the odds” guy — Vosler has never been high on anybody’s scouting card, prospect list, or dynasty team. Step by step, he’s walked a long, lonely Cinderella path, well away from the limelight for many years, until suddenly finding himself in that most incredible of positions, the precipice of a dream come true.
Why don’t we start with the cold weather part? Cold weather guys obviously start at a disadvantage. They don’t have the mild springs, the long languorous summers, the gentle winters to work on their crafts that the kids from California and Texas and Florida do. They hit indoors through the winter. Their spring seasons are short and chilly. In Vosler’s case, that season came at the conclusion of a longer ice-hockey season.
Jason was born up the Hudson River in West Nyack, NY, just north of Joe Panik’s birthtown of Yonkers. He grew up playing hockey and baseball and he was good enough athlete to get into Don Bosco Preparatory in Ramsay, NJ. Something of an athlete’s factory, Don Bosco boasts on its website of producing more NCAA athletes than any high school in New Jersey. C.J. Nitkowski is their most famous baseball alum. There, Vosler had something of a storied career, being named All League, All County and All State shortstop his senior year. The Don Bosco team won its league in both 2010 and 2011 and took a County championship the latter year. The team was strong enough that two of Vosler’s teammates went on to be selected in the draft (though both have moved on to Indy ball by now).
But his work there didn’t get Vosler a full-ride to a major D1 program somewhere sunny. Instead, he leaned into being a cold-weather guy and headed to Northeastern University in downtown Boston (a young Rog used to watch Northeastern games on my way over to an afternoon at the Museum of Fine Art on the Fens back in the day). And there the fresh faced young Jason had an immediate impact for the Huskies, immediately taking over the starting shortstop position. Check out the happy college Freshman version of Jason!
Vosler’s college career was solid but he didn’t exactly generate a ton of buzz. Instead of getting into the prestigious Cape Cod League, it was the (far) less heralded Futures Collegiate Baseball League of New England for him in the summer time (though Old Orchard Beach Raging Tide is a pretty bad-assed team name and I’d buy the t-shirt in a heart beat). In Vosler’s junior year at Northeastern, his power plummeted and the one home run he hit sunk his draft prospects as much as it did his slugging percent.
But there were those who had their eyes on different numbers, and let’s just see if you can guess what those numbers were! Maybe it will help if I include this quote from Theo Epstein, whose Cubs organization (with Scott Harris in the decision-making mix) would select Vosler in the 16th round:
"We try to look for certain profile hitters, especially deeper in the draft,” Epstein said. "Guys who recognize pitches really well out of the hand, guys who control the strike zone, guys who make a lot of contact, guys with elite hand-eye coordination, and both those guys fit that profile. [Vosler’s] got a sweet left-handed swing and real good strike-zone recognition.”
Yup, it was the ol’ BB/K ratio that got Vosler noticed by the Cubbies. During that junior year that produced such disappointing power, Vosler walked 32 times to just 20 strikeouts. This is where the computer models help supplement area scouts’ reports. That number popped just enough to make a 16th round pick and a five-figure signing bonus worthwhile on a player who most teams probably didn’t even turn in a report on (Vosler wasn’t listed anywhere in Baseball America’s Top 500 or even on their “Best of State” lists for that draft).
Still, for the first few years, it didn’t seem like Chicago was getting much more than an org guy out of the low-round flyer. Vosler showed some elite contact rates, keeping his strikeouts consistently in the 12-15% range through the low levels of minor leagues. And his walk rates were equally impressive, often in double digit percentage range as well. But, beyond impressive BB and K%, he just didn’t hit much. He didn’t hit for power (just 3 home runs as a 22 year old in a season split between High A and Double A), and he didn’t hit for average (.254 that same year following a .238 effort the year before). He walked a lot, he seemed to make good decisions concerning when to swing, but he sure didn’t impact the baseball when he did swing (and yeah, I’m intentionally echoing my Logan Wyatt piece here).
Having moved off of shortstop and more or less permanently ensconced at 3b, it was essential that Vosler add power to his game. He showed raw power in BP, but it just wasn’t appearing in games. So it was time for a checkup with the swing doctors. I don’t play a swing doctor even on TV, but the term that has followed Vosler around much of his career is that he suffered from an overly “rotational” swing. I don’t want to get into the whole “rotational” versus “linear” swing debate (though I promise you a quick google search will produce a mountain of information for you to wade through), but I read Ted Williams’ Science of Hitting when I was young, and The Kid was the progenitor and original advocate of “rotational” hitting, so I think it’s probably a good thing. Rotating around a single axis, Ted believed, brought the large muscles of one’s core into one’s swing as a power-generating force, rather than relying on just the strength of one’s hands and wrists. The general visual analogy used is that a rotational swing uses the power of a pendulum, while a linear swing creates whip-like power snapping the bat on a more direct path to the ball.
If you’d like to really dive into the topic, here’s a quick explainer video:
While the rotational swing has much going for it (like Ted Williams and Albert Pujols being proponents), one issue you can see with it is that is has a comparatively longer swing path and, when exaggerated, that swing path can become too long to effectively square up pitches. That’s generally referred to as an “over rotational” swing, and if you look up old Vosler scouting reports, “over rotational” is a term you’ll become very familiar with.
The key to getting to his power, then, was to keep the power potential of his rotational swing, but make sure that it was short enough to get to the kind of premium stuff that your average 10th arm in a Double-A bullpen produces with ease these days. In 2017, Vosler felt like he’d made the changes he needed to do just that. He’d moved closer to the plate and adjusted his swing path to produce more loft. He’d gotten some launch angle religion, in other words. You can see in the comparison below how, while still rotating like pendulum, he’s taking a much quicker path to the ball on the right (2019) compared to his college swing (2012):
The results were immediate and they were impactful. Vosler exploded with 21 home runs in 2017, second most in the Double A Southern League. The batting average was still on the lowish side and the strikeouts jumped up, but the compensatory power and walk rates more than made up for the additional Ks. You want a Max Muncy starter kit? A Justin Turner starter kit? A Mike Yastrzemski starter kit? This was it.
The knowledge of the strike zone and understanding of when to swing began to be married to an ability to do maximum damage when he did. His Isolated Slugging jumped up 80 points between 2016 and 2017 and an additional 50 points the next year when he once again started at Double-A. He’d found something. A player who had hit just 14 home runs in his first three seasons combined powered more than 20 homers in each of the next three seasons, producing highlight after highlight:
But baseball is a cruel task master. There were still doubters. Vosler’s athleticism didn’t leap off the page, none of his scouting scores (except now his power) were impressive. We’ve seen how fast a prospect can go from “minor league revelation” to “oh he’s still here!” in Jaylin Davis’ rise and fall the past two years (hopefully there’s still a rise to come in that story). Vosler was producing results, but he was still having trouble moving up the depth chart.
Following the 2018 season, the Cubs reviewed their 40-man situation and determined that Vosler didn’t quite deserve inclusion. To protect against losing him in the Rule 5 draft, they made a deal with San Diego (one of three they made in a single day to clean up their own 40-man situation), bringing over relief pitcher Rowan Wick. The Padres were initially reported to have put Vosler on their 40-man, but, in fact ,they did expose Vosler to the Rule 5 draft. He went unselected however, and stayed with the Pads, producing another big year with Triple-A El Paso, where he hit another 20 home runs and drew walks at a 10.6% clip to power a .367 OBP. All of the relevant caveats about the PCL and El Paso and the major league ball apply, but the fact is that Vosler produced a well-above average offensive line for the league. It was the third consecutive year that he’d done so.
In March of 2020, the now-26-year-old did something he’d no doubt been dreaming about for more than a decade — he reported to major league camp as a non-roster invitee for a talented and deep San Diego Padres team. And, mixing it up with Fernando Tatis, Jr. and Manny Machado, Vosler was the talk of camp, going 9-for-20 (.450) with a homer, three doubles, three walks and two strikeouts. Dude knows how to light up Arizona! Manager Jayce Tingler said that Vosler was having “as good of at-bats as any of our guys” before spring training was shut down by the COVID-19 pandemic. But the impression he’d made garnered Vosler an invitation in July to Summer Camp and he’d spend the year at the Padres Alternate Site, waiting for an opportunity that didn’t come. He was, again, buried on a depth chart behind guys like Machado and Rookie of the Year 2nd place finalist Jake Cronenworth. But, as the saying goes, players are always auditioning for 30 teams. The path to San Diego’s 40-man was blocked, but he was making impressions.
Have I said anything here that you weren’t expecting? Isn’t this the blueprint for a Farhan Zaidi-era Giants pickup?
Overlooked because he didn’t pop on traditional scouting grades.
Long history of patience, walks, and good swing decisions
Swing change unlocking power
Approach geared to swinging only when maximum damage can be generated
Check. Check. And CHECK! This is the prototype. Folks (myself included) were surprised when Vosler garnered a major league contract (and 40-man spot) from the Giants, but it’s worth noting that the Giants are far from the only team out there running on these same principles. The Cubs drafted Vosler in the first place based on this profile. The Pads took advantage of the Cubs 40-man glut because they were interested in this profile. They snuck him through the Rule 5 draft once but knew they were unlikely to a second time. It’s a profile the industry is interested in.
That doesn’t make it destined to work. There’s no Yastrzemski Algarithm that gets plugged into a computer and instantly produces All Star Season on MLB the Show. Connor Joe had this profile. So did Michael Reed. Pre-back injury Joe McCarthy oozed this profile. It doesn’t always work. But it offers the potential to work for players who can seize an opportunity and ride it to glory. It’s not like the guy is completely intimidated by big league stuff after all:
There are two crucial, primary experiments it feels like the Giants’ development staff are currently undertaking:
take guys with good strike zone knowledge; teach them to hit the ball harder; and
take guys who throw strikes (preferably with multiple pitches); teach them to throw the ball harder.
We’re still a few years away from knowing how those experiments are going to turn out on the whole. We’re watching the Logan Wyatts and Nick Swineys of the system like canaries in a coal mine to see if the laboratory is going to start gushing big league talent like the Dodgers Factory. The beauty of a guy like Vosler (and Sam Long, for that matter) is that these are already near-finished products of those same experiments, conducted in other organizations or in private institutions like Driveline. Vosler started as a guy who knew the strike zone but hit the ball like he was swinging a rolled up Boston Globe pulled fresh out of a pile of snow slush (which I imagine is exactly what spring practice at Northeastern looked like). With help from the Cubs, he worked himself into a guy who kept his knowledge of the strike zone but sacrificed some contact for much greater impact when he swung, and made himself into exactly the sort of lottery ticket the Giants are purchasing in bulk these days. Adding versatility to the mix (he’s played 2b, 1b, and LF so far this spring in addition to 3b) gives him more doors to stick his toe into, more scenarios in which the right opportunity could come his way.
And just maybe when it comes, he’ll learn the truth of that famous Sun Tzu aphorism:
Opportunities multiply as they are seized.