In one of the more ironic twists of fate in recent memory for Mike Scioscia's tenure with the Angels, it appears he might have himself a catcher defense dilemma. We all remember far too well the bad old days of Scioscia being too blinded by his personal defensive biases to see that Mike Napoli should be the starting catcher and Jeff Mathis should be manning a radio tower in Alaska. Now, it seems, the tables have turned and Scioscia has a real conundrum on his hands.
It was well-documented coming into the season that the Angels were so worried about Hank Conger's defense that they made a trade for Chris Snyder as an insurance policy. So very worried. Hank was able to quiet those concerns and earn a spot on the Opening Day roster as the back-up catcher. But now it looks like his defense has advanced to a point where he might very well deserve a promotion up the depth chart.
Through the first month of the season, the defensive metrics strongly suggest that Mike Scioscia is, GASP!, starting an inferior defensive catcher in order to get better offense from the position. I'll allow you a moment to look out the window to make sure the sky hasn't turned red or that your dog and cat aren't enjoying a little afternoon delight together.
Seriously though, it is true and I can prove it, with the obvious caveat that we are dealing with a relatively small sample size.
Don't worry, I won't go all Lyle Spencer on you and start dropping catcher ERA figures, although I could since they strengthen my case. No, a lot of this is even more basic than that. The biggest problem thus far is also the most ironic. Iannetta can't throw anyone out but Conger can, which is the exact opposite of what we would have thought coming into the season given how Conger had a hard time just getting the ball near the base all spring. But sure enough, Iannetta has managed to nail just 2 of the 23 base stealers who have run on him. Conger, meanwhile, is two for four on steal attempts. That is hardly conclusive of anything for Conger given how few attempts there are, but he obviously is no longer an error waiting to happen, so teams aren't running wild on him. There are also some real issues on the side of the pitching staff failing to hold runners, but still, Iannetta has to do better than 2-for-23.
Iannetta has also struggled with one of the other main duties behind the plate, keeping the ball in front of him. In 23 starts, he has been responsible for two passed balls and fourteen wild pitches, the second-most wild pitches allowed by any catcher in baseball. As for Conger, he has yet to be tagged with a passed ball and just three wild pitches in eight starts. The eyeballs suggest that neither is particularly good in this area though. Conger in particular had a rough night handling Garrett Richards last week where he was behind the plate for two wild pitches, both of which he showed poor technique on as he twisted his body to the side and made a backhand stab at the ball.
The most compelling evidence though is in catcher framing results. Baseball Prospectus has been tracking this area all season long and in their latest update, Conger rated amongst the best framers while Iannetta was amongst the worst. Again, the sample sizes here are small and I don't begin to know the threshold where framing data can be considered stable and conclusive, but it does support our preconceived notions about each catcher. Iannetta most definitely had an iffy defensive reputation in Colorado. His arm was fine, but his blocking was inconsistent and his receiving skills were generally regarded as poor. That hasn't changed much in Anaheim.
The reputation of Conger is less clear. His path to the majors was slowed repeatedly because of questions about his defense. Throwing was always a big problem for him and he could get sloppy on balls in the dirt, but I never got a good sense about how his receiving skills were, well, received. But more to the point is that Scioscia knows catcher, or at least portends to. One of the major reasons he was so lovestruck with Mathis was because he considered Jeff to be an exceptional receiver. The framing data has never graded him as elite, but he was good. So why is that not swaying Scioscia now?
Perhaps it really is a small sample size issue. Specifically, Conger has only caught eight games and four of those were C.J. Wilson starts. Considering that C.J. has walked 15 batters in those starts, his framing hasn't been all that helpful, although I doubt that a whole army of Jose Molina's could save C.J. from his bases on balls problems. On the other hand, that would seem like more of an endorsement to me that Conger is able to steal strikes for a starter that has a difficult time throwing strikes, despite what his prolific use of the hashtag might suggest.
What makes this situation so much more intriguing is that there is not nearly the same offensive gap between Iannetta and Conger as there was between Napoli and Mathis. Iannetta is a league average hitter on his career, literally. His career OPS+ is 100, though he is down to 90 so far this year. Conger is 74 OPS+ for his career and 82+ in 2013, but he has only been given 295 career plate appearances and never received anything resembling regular playing time. What Conger does have though is a prospect profile of a guy who was supposed to be a pretty good hitter, especially for a catcher, and the minor league numbers to back that up. Given that latent talent and his ability to switch-hit, it seems like Conger should at least be able to hold his own with the bat, if he is able to keep playing this kind of defense. We aren't sure he can keep defending this well, but there is only one way to find out.
The only thing we can't quantify here is game-calling, another infamous Scioscia fallback when defending Mathis. If the card that Scioscia wants to play against Conger, we can't argue against that with anything other than the previously mentioned lukewarm defensive reputation of Iannetta.
If ever there was a time for Mike Scioscia to err on the side of run prevention, now is that time. The pitching staff has been the Achilles heel of this team, which is about the most obvious thing I could type ever. If Conger can help mitigate that weakness, Scioscia should at least explore the idea. There is a chance that Sosh would be sacrificing offense, but there is also a chance that he might actually be adding offense, so he could have his tiramisu and eat it too.
If Scioscia does hear this plea and Conger becomes the next Jeff Mathis, then I apologize in advance.
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If Conger were a better catcher than Iannetta overall, there would be no need for debate. However, I don't believe that Conger is better than Hester who is trapped in Salt Lake City. Let me preface my comments by saying I am an Iannetta supporter and was very disappointed when the Angels brain trust decided to part ways with Napoli. Many of Iannetta's "struggles" this season truly have little to do with him and more to do with a horrible pitching staff that are slow to the plate, throw wild and very inconsistent, and pay little attention to the runners at first. In fact, there was a recent game in which Hanson (I believe) was so bad at watching the runner and getting the ball to the plate, Iannetta had no chance or reason to try to throw the runner out. All of these stats appear to go against Chris and that is narrow thinking.
Last night's 3 error game by Conger is more reflective of the type of catcher that he is. We have seen this effort many times from him including this last spring when he was horrible with the baseball. Yes, it is spring training, but look back further and it is apparent why he does not deserve starter consideration let alone a backup role on a "contending" team. It is easy to say that he frames pitches better when he is catching the "best" pitcher the Angels are running out there. He is not nearly as solid as Chris behind the plate, or at the plate for that matter, and heaven forbid something happen to Iannetta, because more games would show us the true disaster Conger is behind the plate.
Scioscia babbles on and on about building chemistry with the pitching staff and yet catcher is the one position in which he never lets anyone get in a groove. He sites night/day games, extra innings etc. as reasons to mix things up. He has always done this and it has hurt everyone. While I was just a young kid, I seem to remember the likes of Terry Humphrey, Brian Downing, Bob Boone and the like catching practically every night, so why can't Scioscia just pick and stick to one guy? The Angels re-signed Iannetta to a mulit-year deal for a reason. They had the opportunity to let Conger take over and knew better. Now is the time to look at the loss in Houston and understand that Hank is not the answer. Perhaps it may also be time to admit that Butcher and possibly even Scioscia are not the answer for this team as well.
@napoli44 Conger's tough night was definitely ill-timed and it certainly shows how inconsistent his defense can be. It doesn't change the fact that up until that game, he has been having a strong defensive season. People don't realize this enough, but guys can have hot and cold streaks with the glove just as much as with the bat.
The real interesting note that emerged before last night's game is that Scioscia himself said he would work in Conger more because he felt Iannetta was having a hard time handling the staff. Framing and game calling have long been knocks on Iannetta who also has a rep as being inconsistent defensively, like Conger.
I like both players and they each have their own strengths and weaknesses. Both are also very streaky with the bat and glove, so I think there is some logic in "riding the hot hand" at catcher rather than just riding one guy and one guy only.
If Conger had an accurate arm and had better fundamentals behind the plate, such blocking better and keeping his throwing arm behind his back, he'd be making a strong case against Iannetta. Keep in mind that Iannetta is a bottom of the order hitter, and his selling point is his OBP; his ability to draw walks. He Callaspo provide a major boost in OBP for the bottom of the order that doesn't exist on most teams.
Also, Napoli should never have been a catcher in the first place. He was proven to be too injury prone behind the plate all the way back to 2007, and looking back I think it would've been wiser to deal Casey Kotchman for a pitching, especially instead of Mark Teixeira, because it was obvious that with K-Rod walking after 2008 that the bullpen would take a major hit. And it did, and hasen't been the same.
I would've dealt Kotchman among others for pitching, and put Napoli at 1B / DH, with some games as C, just enough to keep the pressure off his ailing shoulder. When Morales stepped forward, perhaps the Angels could've dealt Napoli then for more pitching, or Morales, and we never have to put up with Vernon Wells.
Had the Angels done something like what I've mentioned here, they might have gotten what the Rangers got out of him in the second half of 2011, and what the Red Sox are getting from him now.
His inconsistency came back in 2012, the same way Fernando Rodney's inconsistency returned this season, and I think that had a lot to do with the Rangers continuing having him behind the plate instead of dealing Mitch Moreland and/or Michael Young sooner for more pitching.
Remember, the Rangers let Napoli go as well. Overall, Texas experienced the same thing with Napoli as the Angels did: inconsistency and too many injuries. And it's Boston who finally wised up and is keeping Napoli from catching. Now, as a result, it's in Boston where Napoli is finally showing that he may be a top power bat through an entire season. We'll see.
But good article nonetheless. I just wanted to share my opinion and see what you think.
@RyanWKrol The handling of Napoli was a debacle on several levels. Him catching was the least of their problems. Scioscia and Reagins just didn't recognize what they had in terms of his bat. That is why the most underrated error of the Wells trade was that Reagins basically gave Napoli away for free.
As for Conger and Iannetta, it is important to recognize that Conger does have potential with the bat. He doesn't walk as much as Chris, but he has a solid eye and makes better contact, so he could sport an average that allows his bat to be commensurate or better than Iannetta. If he can sustain his improved defense, then there is a real scenario where he could start stealing playing time.