SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Stephen Vogt was no longer a Giant, but he was still looking out for his old job.
As last season’s popular Giants catcher landed with Arizona, he alerted an old buddy of his about the backup gig in San Francisco, endorsing a job that called for a lefty bat who handles pitching staffs and clubhouses well. The perks of the backup job — beyond just being in the major leagues — included learning from Buster Posey for a franchise Vogt “loved.”
“He said, ‘I think it’d be a great fit for you if they’re interested,'” Tyler Heineman, a rare switch-hitting catcher, told KNBR this week from Scottsdale Stadium. “And he congratulated me when I [announced] it online. He called me up and said, ‘Dude, anything you need, any kind of information you need about any of the guys, if you want to pick my brain, feel free.'”
Vogt, asked if he helped groom his potential heir as he was exiting, offered: “We talked.”
It is clear that in Heineman’s catching upbringing, they have talked. Heineman is loud behind the plate, praise and direction pouring out for everyone from Johnny Cueto to Sam Selman. He walks with a confidence around the clubhouse that belies his major league experience — all of five games. He introduces himself to the few he isn’t familiar with, asking what they like to be called. (“Duggie” for Steven Duggar.) He learned from Vogt, whom he played with in Milwaukee’s system, about the desire to be a “teammate first, player second.”
He did not learn where “magician” falls into the hierarchy.
Heineman does not have the pedigree of the Giants’ present, a three-time world champion and six-time All-Star, or their future, second-overall pick Joey Bart. Heineman was a UCLA walk-on, a product of Windward School in Los Angeles, which was so small it escaped scouts’ and recruiters’ radars. The colleges that did give him a glimpse didn’t think he could catch heat because he hadn’t caught much heat; tough to prove you can catch without being thrown to.
“So I committed to UCLA to be the bullpen catcher because I always wanted to go there,” shrugged Heineman, who saw little time his freshman and sophomore seasons before he finally earned the starting job his junior year.
He parlayed All-Pac-12 honors into an eighth-round selection by the Astros in 2012. He reached Double-A in 2014 and Triple-A in 2015, and that’s when he stalled.
He’s been in big-league camps every year since 2014 (save ’18, which he missed with injury), but never with much of a chance to make the roster. He was flipped to Milwaukee in 2017, where he met Vogt, who was rehabbing in the Brewers system, and breathed in everything from the renowned teammate. The two only had a few weeks in the same clubhouse, but Vogt kept watch of Heineman’s personality and game.
If Vogt, who began his major league career 0-for-32, who recently battled back from severe shoulder surgery to resurrect his career, saw something in Heineman, it may have been a reflection.
“He [was] kind of an older guy and hadn’t made it to the big leagues yet,” Vogt said. ” … I just wanted to encourage him that hey, just because you haven’t made it at a certain age doesn’t mean you can’t make it and have an impact. Don’t let anyone tell you that you’re too old. Don’t buy that lie.”
Heineman didn’t, and so after he became a minor league free agent following the season, he signed with Arizona, then was traded to Miami last June. His numbers were never poor, but neither were they overwhelming. Thirty-nine home runs in eight minor league seasons does not catch the eye.
“I think that I always have to prove people wrong to go where I ultimately want to be,” Heineman said. “I think it’s just a good mindset to have in general — not to be content. You gotta prove that you belong, so you gotta outperform and you gotta outwork people.”
He told Gabe Kapler that “I’m not the biggest or the strongest or the most powerful,” the manager relayed, “but I am looking to get every possible edge. Because my arm strength isn’t top of the charts, I need to make very accurate throws.”
His best attribute has been minor league on-base percentage, which has always been above-average yet is not the most reliably projectable statistic. He’s shown few coveted tangibles: There was not much power in his bat or his arm behind the plate.
The intangibles, though, are part of how he hopes to separate himself. He and journeyman catcher Rob Brantly are fighting to be Posey’s backup, and Heineman, always talking, has a wild card. Nearly literally.
Heineman is a magician, and not the kind Ozzie Smith was. He’s picked up magic over the years and was the star attraction of a clubhouse morning meeting this week.
The affable personality did three card tricks, and not just a pick-a-card-any-card. He fooled Pablo Sandoval, but that was merely appetizer. He was told to mess with Bart as a means of connecting with the young stud prospect. So, Heineman asked “Showy Bart” to step forward to a show the apprentice did not know was coming.
“Do you think you’re better than me?” the 5-foot-11, 28-year-old trying to cling to a roster spot questioned of the 6-foot-3, 220-pound wall of a 23-year-old.
Anything to throw Bart’s mind from the sleights of hand that were coming. Anything to bring the group together, the whole purpose of the show. The room was transfixed and briefly tense, backs beginning to arch forward as Heineman engaged in some deception.
“Yeah,” came the honest response. The two went back and forth, a magician and star of tomorrow who had been demoted to card-picker.
The exchanges didn’t last long. Bart picked his card. Heineman egged him on. Bart realized he was the, well, butt of the joke.
“[The card] was in my back pocket. I guess he stuck it in there at some point,” Bart said.
“That shit’s crazy,” were the words from one veteran in the Giants clubhouse, which later crowded around Heineman as he broke code and explained some tricks.
“With magic and stuff, it really helps. Just in the game, a lot of people know that I do it and it’s a very easy icebreaker,” Heineman said.
He’s been breaking himself into the clubhouse because that’s what backup catchers do. He broke into the majors last year, and any advantage that will bring him back there is worth exploring.
Heineman is no longer the dreaded minor league lifer. The magic, the chatter, the switch-hitting, the on-base all paid off last September, when he got the call both right on time and slightly too late.
His younger brother Scott already had gotten his moment, debuting with Texas Aug. 2. Sept. 1 — roster expansion day — arrived, but Heineman didn’t. He was playing in New Orleans with the Marlins’ affiliate and arranged for his car to be shipped back to Los Angeles; he wouldn’t need it. His Triple-A catching coach, Chris Briones, called him into his office and confirmed his car was gone.
“OK, good,” Briones said — and paused. “No, you’re going to Pittsburgh.”
They were an eventful five games — a first career hit off Jacob deGrom (“I was very late” on the pitch, he admitted), a homer off Zack Wheeler — and then it was over. He was a free agent again. Vogt began to reach out, and now Heineman has his first real chance at an Opening Day gig.
The two have been planning for a meal in the coming days, Diamondbacks camp a short drive away. It’s too much to ask they share a dish, right?