Iannetta or Conger? Conger or Iannetta? It is one of the hottest question under the Halo right now. What's that you say? You think two defensively limited catchers competing for playing time is hardly a hot topic? Well, clearly you have never paid attention to the news cycle of a sub-.500 three weeks in advance of the deadline when they haven't decided to be buyers or sellers yet.
There is nothing new about a catcher controversy in Anaheim. We all know far too well that it is something of a Scioscia specialty. What is new though is that Scioscia is faced with picking between two catchers that appear to be relatively equally matched.
On one hand, he has Chris Iannetta, the veteran catcher who has struggled with his throwing and receiving and has been an inconsistent offensive producer. We all know that the Big Catorce loves him some veterans but he also has a predilection for catchers who receive the ball well and squat like a pro. The shaky defense has really cost Iannetta this year. Not only has he been comically inept throwing out base stealers, he ranks nearly dead last in Klaassen's aggregate catcher defense ratings and in Baseball Prospectus' catcher framing ratings. As much as the saber community embraces Iannetta for his ability to carry a .368 OBP despite batting just above the Mendoza Line, it is hard to justify keeping him in the lineup if he is such a negative on defense. As funny as it might be to compare his situation to that of Mike Napoli, Iannetta is not nearly the offensive force that Napoli was and he is arguably an even worse defender, at least this season, than Mike ever was.
On the other hand, Scioscia has Hank Conger, a young catcher who he has never trusted. While Hank is earning praise for his improved defense this season, let's not forget that there was so much concern over his throwing in training camp that the team was compelled to acquire Chris Snyder as an insurance plan. Nor should we forget that in the previous two seasons, Conger struggled to break into the lineup or even to get promoted from the minors due to his defensive shortcomings. For the time being though, Conger has shown enough improvement to earn at least some of Sosh's trust, although Klaassen's catcher ratings still think rather poorly of him. The fact that he leads all catchers in the aforementioned framing metric certainly helps since that was always part of the mystery sauce of excuses Scioscia referenced when he justified Jeff Mathis staying in the lineup. Those throwing issues have been mostly cleared up, though he does still get infrequent bouts of the yips.
What is almost bizarre about the situation though is that the through line of this catcher debate is the narrative of Conger's defense and how much he has improved. What he is doing and can do with the bat gets almost completely overlooked. While his .303 OBP leaves a lot to be desired, Conger's .205 ISO has offset the lack of on-base ability. In fact, Conger is just a hair ahead of Iannetta with a .332 wOBA and 113 wRC+ versus Iannetta's .328 wOBA and 111 wRC+. And as we have seen in recent weeks, Hank has only gotten better with the bat as his playing time becomes more regular. It is almost as if he was originally drafted because he was considered to have a significant offensive upside.
Oh, right! He was! How quickly we forget. Though his output has never quite lived up to the hype, even in the minors, Conger was drafted as a catcher who could hit for average, get on base and hit for a lot of power. He wasn't just a guy who was going to be "a good hitter for a catcher" but rather just a good hitter even if he ended up at first base. That ceiling is still within reach for Hank who, through his and Scioscia's own admission, has neglected his performance at the plate in favor of focusing on shoring up his defense. One can't help but wonder what Conger could do with a starting job and Scioscia not breathing down his neck about his squatting.
That would certainly suggest that the Halos would be better off in the long-term and probably the short-term by handing the starting job to Conger, but it isn't that simple. One of the offensive skills that Hank has ignored while working on his defense is his swing from the right side of the dish. Scioscia thinks so little of his ability to hit left-handed pitching that Conger has a paltry 33 plate appearances against southpaws in his career, with 16 coming this season. His performance in the minors in recent years have certainly justified Scioscia hiding Conger against lefties, so it seems that the team would be wise to continue to do so, at least for the rest of this season.
Another factor to consider is that Hank has been dogged by injuries much of his career. None were major, just a lot of nagging maladies that have limited him from ever taking on a full workload. The same could actually be said for Iannetta as well. Chris has only twice appeared in more than 100 games in a season. Perhaps this is why he wore down last season after he returned from his wrist injury and caught almost every single game down the stretch.
So, what you have is a one young catcher with a high-ish ceiling who is currently a superior defender, but isn't a proven commodity, can't hit lefties, isn't getting on base very much and has durability concerns as well as one veteran catcher who is struggling defensively, is limited against right-handed pitching, has durability concerns but has a proven ability to get on base at a high rate. Hmmm, it is almost as if they complement each other perfectly, no?
In this era of "embrace debate" it seems as if we have forgotten that compromise is a possibility. Instead of Iannetta or Conger, why can't it be Iannetta and Conger? The Angels get the best of the platoon advantage on offense, keep both guys relatively fresh and protect themselves against the ups and downs of their respective defensive abilties. Really the only reason not to do it is that Scioscia has such a blind spot for catchers that he might not be able to employ a strict platoon without letting his own personal biases get in the way. It is a situation that should maximize the strengths of both players while minimizing their weaknesses. At worst, it should give the Angels an idea of exactly what Conger is capable of as a live audition for him to take the reins all to himself in 2014.
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