During yesterday’s telecast of the final game between the Houston Astros and Los Angeles Angels, Victor Rojas and Mark Gubicza began talking about Hank Conger‘s work as an Angels catcher. Rojas pointed out how confidence from the coaching staff can help with a player’s own confidence which can lead to better results on the field. While Gubicza pointed out something Angels fans should be familiar with when he stated that, with Mike Scioscia and his catchers, offense was an added bonus, but what he focuses on most is defense and catcher framing.
The comments from the Angels television announcers came on the heels of Hank Conger’s fourth start in a six-game road trip during which Conger threw out three out of four base-stealers and saw each game he started end in a Angels victory. While there’s been no official change in the catching platoon of Chris Iannetta and Hank Conger, this past road trip might be a sign of things to come, particularly if Scioscia’s said value on defense behind the dish is true.
Currently, Chris Iannetta finds himself last in all MLB amongst qualified catchers in caught stealing percentage with a lowly 10% of base-stealers caught. While Hank Conger has played significantly less time than Iannetta, his caught-stealing rate has been exceptional when he does. Currently, Conger’s caught stealing percentage sits at 36% with 9 out of 25 base-stealers gunned out by Conger. If he qualified for the MLB leaderboard, that would put Conger fifth in all of baseball. Not bad for a guy whose spring training throwing woes almost lost him his job.
In addition to his gun of an arm, Conger has proven himself to be quite the framer of pitches. Over at Baseball Prospectus, editor Ben Lindbergh has dedicated much of 2013 to exploring the art, importance and value of framing pitches. Each week he releases a leaderboard of catchers that shows how many outside the strike-zone strikes catchers have caught and then, in addition, how many strike-zone balls they’ve caught. To put it plainly, the leaderboard hopes to reveal what catchers are getting more strikes and what catchers are “losing” strikes due to their framing. Atop of the leaderboard is Hank Conger with a ratio of 1.71 for every ball caught outside the strike zone called a strike versus pitches inside the strike-zone called for balls. While battery-mate Chris Iannetta finds himself fourth from last on the list.
These are all encouraging stats. However, it should be noted that in both instances of pitch-framing and caught-stealing percentage, Conger’s sample size is much smaller than Iannetta and many other catchers in the league. And while these statistics are in favor of Conger’s prowess behind the plate, he’s also leading American League catchers in errors committed with five. And in Iannetta’s defense (no pun inteded), he seems to be having an off year defensively. Since his rookie season, Iannetta has never posted a negative dWAR beyond -0.1 and his career CS% is 23%, well above the 10% he has on the year.
Nevertheless, Conger’s seemingly improved defense in 2013 is an encouraging sign for the Los Angeles Angels. For a player that was always considered a “bat-first” prospect coming through the minors, Conger has, at least momentarily, found the way to Mike Scioscia’s heart by bettering his skills behind the dish. The result has been some increased playing time and in the very small sample size of the Angels past road trip, he’s continued to exhibit a high level of defense.