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Hank Conger Out to Prove Doubters Wrong in 2016

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The Rays have become experts at buying low on players that seem to have played themselves out of jobs. Last year they landed J.P. Arencibia who clearly outplayed expectations. This year, it may be Hank Conger's turn to surprise.

With a good bat and tremendous receiving skills, there's a lot to like in Conger's case. And when the team lets a great receiver like Rene Rivera walk, you know they have a ton of faith in both Curt Casali and Conger.

(Fun fact: Conger hit his first HR off a Rays SP, Jeff Niemann, almost exactly 5 years ago today. Thought that was a great connection to the Rays.)

The Rays obtained Conger from the Astros for an unknown amount of money.  The Astros had spent a great deal more to get him:  they had traded C Carlos Perez and RP Nick Tropeano to the Angels.

For those of you wondering why the Astros paid such a high price, it's because Conger managed a 17.3 FRAA and 2.9 WARP in 2013, and followed it up with an improvement to 23.7 FRAA and 3.1 WARP in 2014. These are not sky high totals, but they pointed to a catcher on the rise.

But his his value dropped considerably, largely thanks to one missing tool:  in 2015 he failed miserably in controlling the running game.  Last year he managed only one caught stealing in forty-three attempts.

The causes of this uncharacteristically terrible performance remain a mystery, and Conger is in TB now to show everyone it will turn out to be an anomaly. Steamer agrees and projects that he'll return to an approximate 2.6 WARP value in 2016.

But before we cover that in detail, let's rewind things a little and look back through his last 2 seasons.

2014 and 2015: Offensively speaking

Conger's stats overall are very confusing, whether you look at them defensively or offensively. First, on the offensive side of the game, we can see how much of a jump his K% took, whether against LHP or RHP. His OBP took a major hit vs LHP, but his ISO rose by a good margin.

Season Handedness BB% K% BB/K AVG OBP SLG OPS ISO BABIP wRC wRAA wOBA wRC+
2014 vs R as L 6.40% 22.50% 0.280 0.223 0.279 0.335 0.614 0.112 0.277 19 -6.2 0.276 79
2014 vs L as R 29.20% 16.70% 1.75 0.188 0.435 0.188 0.622 0.000 0.250 3 0.3 0.326 114

Season Handedness BB% K% BB/K AVG OBP SLG OPS ISO BABIP wRC wRAA wOBA wRC+
2015 vs R as L 10.30% 25.90% 0.400 0.279 0.353 0.538 0.892 0.26 0.328 19 6.4 0.382 144
2015 vs L as R 9.80% 29.50% 0.330 0.175 0.270 0.351 0.621 0.175 0.213 9 -3.4 0.276 71

In essence, his overall value at the plate remained the same but was mostly premised on his power surge, not his hitting ability. This approach at the plate was one adopted by many Astros hitters, such as Colby Rasmus and Evan Gattis, and may be something they asked Conger to take on.

To teams looking to add power to the lineup, his ISO surge was the perfect "within budget" addition to the lineup for 2016, despite its high K% and low OBP. And his line vs RHP was good enough in 2015 to make him the lead on a catching tandem. With Casali being better vs LHP, the pairing makes a whole lot of sense.

An example of what he provides, check out this beauty of a night which included 2 HRs, including a Grand Slam:

His flare for the dramatic at the plate has been evident throughout his short career, whether with the Astros or the Angels. He's been hit by pitch for a walk off in the 11th inning, and hit a 9th inning pinch-hit HR against the Brewers closer while with the Angels. In short, he relishes the pressure.

2014 - 2015 Defensively Speaking

Angels Manager Mike Scioscia, who knows a lot about catching, said this after watching Conger for just a short while:

"Hank has definitely shown us the ability to do what a catcher needs to do," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. "His next challenge is to do it for a full season -- and a career."

The point here is that the defensive skills are there and evident in how he receives and calls games. However, it seems that a lot of what he does best defensively changed some from 2014 to 2015. To demonstrate this, I didn't just want to show the CS rates, which everyone knows dropped. Instead, I also wanted to include the inside edge fielding statistics from Fangraphs which does a better job indicating how much his game dropped off defensively in 2015.

Fielding Inside Edge Fielding
Season Team Inn PO E SB CS PB WP FP Unlikely (10-40%) Even (40-60%) Likely (60-90%) Routine (90-100%)
2014 Angels 637.1 599 7 57 18 1 30 0.989 20.0%    (30) 75.0%     (4) 100.0%      (4) 95.8%    (24)
2015 Astros 514.2 472 4 42 1 1 19 0.992 5.0%    (20) 0.0%     (1) 50.0%      (2) 88.2%    (17)

Whether we're talking a routine play or one that demanded tremendous skill, Conger's play behind the plate dropped off so much that he only cost the Rays a bit of money to acquire.

This is also supported by the catching statistics from Baseball Prospectus who have a drop off from a FRAA Adj. of 22.9 in 2014 to 1.8 in 2015.

Year Framing Chances CSAA Framing Runs Blocking Chances Blocking Runs SB Attempts SRAA TRAA Throwing Runs FRAA Adj.
2015 3687 0.007 3.6 2404 0.1 38 0.095 0 -1.9 1.8
2014 4768 0.035 23.8 3017 -0.1 72 0.02 0.005 -0.8 22.9

The question is, can Conger and the Rays staff right this ship?

If Kevin Cash and others can help Conger bring his defense back to 2014 levels, he will prove to be quite a steal. After all, it's pretty hard to acquire a catcher who is so effective defensively and also brings 20+ HR potential when pro-rated to full season play.

2016 Expectations

Kevin Cash has been a big supporter of Conger's since his arrival, saying:

"The way he has gotten to know our pitchers and communicated with them, that goes a long way," manager Kevin Cash said of Conger. "If you go ask any pitcher, they’re going to rave about him, I would imagine. And that’s just over a five-week, six-week period."

Meanwhile, the PECOTA projections have Conger managing the following in 2016:

PA R H 2B HR RBI BB SO AVG OBP SLG TAv VORP FRAA WARP
352 38 74 15 11 40 28 81 0.234 0.301 0.388 0.251 7 C 17 2.7

Combine the two factors, and you can see why the team felt so comfortable letting Rene Rivera walk. Between Conger and Casali, the Rays possibly have the most powerful hitting tandem behind the plate that they've ever had, and both work well with the staff.

It is important, however, to note that Conger didn't catch a base stealer this spring, but his efforts were noted and his throws were not the issue.

The intangibles he's going to bring to the Rays this season may also be something that many people under-rate. He's a bright individual who has an appealing personality and works as hard as anyone to get the job done.  He was popular on the young Astros team and will no doubt fit in well with Rays.

Closing Thoughts

If the goal is for Conger to add more value than Rivera might have done (or might do elsewhere should he land on another team) my prediction is that the results will be positive.  The anomaly that was his defensive play in 2015 should remain behind him and if he's used correctly and primarily vs RHP, his offensive numbers should all be up in 2016.

The fact that he enjoys the limelight and has a flair for the dramatic also makes him a valuable asset when coming off the bench. As he showed us with the Angels and Astros, he's someone you can count on to give you a great AB when needed and is definitely not an easy out when the game's on the line. That's something the Rays have lacked from their backup catchers for a long time, and something that could help them win a few more close games.

There's a lot to of potential in Conger's game and at 28 years old he should be hitting his prime behind the plate. With the cost to the Rays being so small, this gamble is definitely one that I approve and it should help the Rays reach out this season.

Kudos to the Rays for taking a shot on Hank Conger. He could prove to be very valuable to the team in 2016.