Friday, November 28, 2014

So Exactly How Different Are Jason Castro and Hank Conger??

When I first heard about the trade for Hank Conger, my first reaction was a definite WTF?!?  My second reaction was a bit of sadness that Nick Tropeano was on his way out: he was a favourite of mine, and I was always interested in how his career would progress.  But is is not exactly like he is changing leagues - let alone divisions - so I guess we will get plenty of chance to see how it all pans out for him.

Anyhow, I still sometimes find the trade a little puzzling.  At the time, I wrote:
"This will make more sense when the next move happens, but I am picking that Castro and Corporan will be traded this offseason.  This may, in turn, free up uniform-number-15 for Will Harris.  Stay tuned."
Still waiting for that "next move", but I am also picking that the FA market will gather steam now that Panda and Han-Ram are both winging their way to Boston, and Russell Martin has returned to Canadia.  Once the first of the FA pitchers comes off the market, it could all speed up as a number of teams will spring into action with their "Plan B's".  The price for Castro has been described as ... um... high, and so this one may drag on toward Spring Training before it is - if it ever is - resolved.  And if the worst thing is a job-share between Castro and Conger, that would not be the end of the world either.

The whole thing may also become a little clearer come December 2, which is the deadline for when contracts need to be tendered.  Carlos Corporan may be a little worried, but I imagine that he will be at least offered a contract.  Then after that, more may be more whispered / known about during the Winter Meetings - which are being held in the entirely un-winter-like San Diego between Dec 8 and Dec 11.

But back to Castro and Conger...

Hyun Choi Conger will play most of 2015 as a 26-year-old.  Jason Castro will play most of 2015 as a 27 year old.  Conger is approximately 10 months younger than Castro.  Conger was picked in the first round of the 2006 draft out of Huntington Beach High School.  Castro was picked in the first round of the 2008 draft out of Stanford University, after originally being drafted in the 43rd round of the 2005 draft by the BoSawx.  He returned to school late last year to finish his degree.

There is considerable value in Jason Castro: a lefty-catcher with good framing skills who had a 130 OPS+ season a year ago and who is still under team control for two more years.  Hank Conger also hits well from the left side (great for a catcher), is rated as one of the best framers, and is under team control for three more years.  Conger is described as a switch-hitter, but one amusing AC reader described him instead as a "switch batter".  So there are parallels between Castro and Conger from the perspective of age, where they come from, handedness, framing-ness, and service times to this point.

So they seem kind of similar, which is why a number of pundits are predicting a trade.  The main point of difference seems to be that Castro has a reputation as being a stronger hitter, but Conger has the rep for being the better defender.  This may have something to do with the narratives surrounding each player: Castro has been a mainstay of a relatively weak Astros middle-order for the best part of two years, whereas Conger is normally stashed away in the 8 or 9 hole on a strong hitting Angels team.  But as a very handsome and observant reader, Terence, pointed out in the comments section of the article linked earlier:
"It might seem like Castro hit much better than Conger but that's because they played their home games in two very different parks. After park adjustment, Conger had a wRC+ of 82 last year, Castro was at 84. There's no discernible difference in the offensive skills displayed by these two players last year. Conger is younger, healthier, and produced better offensive numbers in the minors coming up. It is possible that the front office sees Conger as the better offensive player and that 2013 Jason Castro is never coming back."
Astro County readers are awesome!!

So lets look at exactly how different Castro and Conger are - mostly from the perspective of hitting (but I will draw upon some primitive defensive stuff at the end).  The offensive comparisons are made easier because both players logged a significant number of plate appearances in the California League, Texas League and Pacific Coast League at around the same time.  At worst, they were a year apart at each level, as the interested reader will discover below.

Because Conger turned pro out of High School, he started in Rookie Ball, aged 18 (2006).  He signed right after the draft, and managed 19 games before the end of the 2006 season.  At age 19 (2007) - his first full year as a pro - he split time between the Rookie League and Lo-A.  At age 20 (2008), he spent the whole season in Hi-A with the Rancho Cucamonga Quakes in the California League.  And this is where we can pick up the comparisons, because Jason Castro played his first full pro-season in 2009, starting at Hi-A as a 22 year old.  (Castro also signed in his draft year, and played in 39 games at Lo-A in the New York Penn League in 2008)

Conger, as a 20 year old in the California League in 2008, slashed .303/.333/.517 in 73 games - which constituted the whole season for him.  He hit 13 home runs, and walked 14 times versus 55 strikeouts.  As a 22 year old in the California League (Lancaster, 2009), Castro hit .309/.399/.517 in 56 games.  Castro hit 7 home runs, walked 32 times, and struck out 41 times.

There are two big differences here: the relative ages for the league (favouring Conger), and the walks (favouring Castro).   I note that Castro also had surprisingly little home-run power for the California League.  Castro was promoted to Corpus Christi in time to play 63 AA games in 2009.

Conger played as a 21 year old in the Texas League, spending the whole season (2009) at Arkansas.  In 123 games, his triple slash was .294/.368/.423, and he managed 11 home runs, with 55 walks versus 68 strikeouts.  Castro, as mentioned above, caught up with Conger in AA, as he spent the second half of his 22 year old season (again, 2009) in the Texas League, slashing .293/.362/.385, and hitting 3 home runs, managing 25 walks against 35 strikeouts.

Conger's walk rate jumped in AA (10.5% versus 4.4% in Hi-A), and he showed a little more power than Castro, which is an impressive feat after a challenging jump between levels.  However, 2009 was also Castro's first full pro season, and he was only sharing catching duties at Stanford, so it is very possible that wore down for the second half of the season, having played more baseball in a shorter time frame than he was previously used to.

Conger spent his age 22 season (2010) mostly at Salt Lake, in the Pacific Coast League.  He also got a cup of coffee (13 games) in the Majors that year.  In 108 AAA games, he slashed .300/.385/.463, with 11 home runs, and 55 walks versus 58 strikeouts.  Castro got a little more than a cup of coffee in 2010 - kind of the whole pot, really - as a 23 year old.  He played 67 games in the majors after 57 games at AAA Oklahoma.  His AAA-line was .265/.365/.355, with 4 home runs and 32 walks against 34 strikeouts.

Advantage: Conger.  He had a superior OBP, hit for more power and was the younger prospect.  Castro's line was in a smaller sample, because his time in AAA was cut short by virtue of his midseason promotion.

2011 saw Conger return to Salt Lake for 27 games, before being promoted for 59 games in the Bigs.  He continued to mash at AAA: .300/.375/.490, with 5 home runs and 12 walks versus 18 strikeouts.  Conger also hit .209/.282/.356 with 6HR in 197 plate appearances in the Majors.  Castro sat 2011 out because of an ACL injury that required a knee reconstruction, sustained while running to first base during spring training.

2012 saw Conger log 67 games in AAA Salt Lake, where he hit .295/.347/.473.  Castro was back in the Bigs in 2012 for 87 games (after a total of 7 games in the minors on rehab assignments, where he absolutely raked) where he managed a pretty decent line: .257/.334/.401 (OPS+ of 99).

In 2013, both players were at the same level again: the major leagues.  Conger played in 92 games, with a .249/.310/.403 line, hitting 7 bombs, and walking 17 times versus 61 strikeouts.  His OPS+ was 101.  Castro had a breakout 2013, propping up a bad Houston offence while slashing .276/.350/.485 in 102 games, hitting 18 home runs, walking 50 times, and striking out 130.  His OPS+ was a very robust 130.  Astros fans will remember Castro's monster 2013 quite well - or at least they should - as it was one of the very best offensive years in Astros' catching history.

In 2014, both players were again in the Majors.  Conger played in 80 games, with a .221/.293/.325 line, hitting 4 home runs, and walking 22 times versus 57 strikeouts, resulting in an OPS+ of 79.  Castro was similarly bad: .222/.286/.366, 14 home runs, 34 walks, and a hefty 151 strikeouts.  His OPS+ was 83.

So that brings us to where we are now.  What is surprising to me is how similarly their offence has been tracking, aside from Castro's outstanding All Star performance in 2013.  Conger appeared to be a slightly superior prospect in A+, AA and AAA, mostly as the younger player.  Castro seems to have handled the transition to the Major Leagues better, but much of his offence was in a fabulous 2013.  And as reader Terence pointed out, they were pretty damn similar in terms of offence in 2014.

We can't ignore defence.  Conger seems like the better defender.  In the Major Leagues, appearing in 223 games wearing the Tools of Ignorance, Conger has allowed 3 passed balls, been involved in 84 wild pitches, and has caught 22% of baserunners stealing.  Castro, in 358 games where he has appeared at catcher, has been responsible for 36 passed balls, been associated with 138 wild pitches, and has gunned down 24% of baserunners.  Castro's 11 passed balls led the league in 2014, and he has never ranked better than 4th in the league in passed balls.  It seems passed balls are a problem.

Caveat: the defensive statistics are clearly deficient, and are affected by the quality of the pitchers and the different philosophies of the pitching staffs.  But there is still some use in the raw numbers, just avoid reading too much into them.

So now it is time for some conclusions.  And here is what I see.  Conger has been the better prospect (statistically speaking), playing at most levels at a younger age, hitting for more power, and, in some seasons, getting on base slightly better. Castro may have adjusted to Major League pitching better, and has one great year under his belt, which can't be discounted, because it may mean that he will do it again.  Conger will be cheaper - projected to make 1.1 million on MLBTR in his first round through arbitration, whereas Castro is projected to make 3.9 million.  Conger has breakout potential, Castro has broken out already, which makes predicting a strong offensive year in 2015 not entirely stupid.

So as Terence said, it is very possible that Conger is the better offensive player, and he certainly seems to be the better defensive catcher.  He is younger, has another year of control, and is likely to be cheaper in 2015.  The resolution of this situation - if there is one - will be fascinating, and may not be resolved until the 2015 trade deadline.  We will see what the Front Office have planned in the coming months.

PS:  Happy Thanksgiving!!

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Annyong, Lucas Harrell

Fans of Arrested Development (1:51 in this video) may randomly happen to know that "annyong" is Korean for "hello".  Lucas Harrell may need to know this, because he has recently signed with a Korean team, the LG Twins.  I wonder whether Harrell knew that he would eventually become a baseballing Twin, but he probably didn't predict that it would be in Korea.  Jim Adduci, formerly of the Texas Rangers, is also going to Korea, but playing for a different team (Lotte Giants).

When we last checked in with Lucas Harrell, he was doing OK in Reno, having thrown 44 frames with an ERA of 3.89 in an offence-friendly environment.  Things went a little south from there, because he finished his season - and possibly his baseball career in North America - at 106 innings at an ERA of 5.15.  His WHIP was a hefty 1.800, by virtue of him giving up more than a hit an inning (115) and walking more than he struck out (77 walks versus 66 strikeouts).  He was released by the Diamondbacks prior to the end of the season.

Astros fans may think that his career cratered after 2012, but really, it was 2012 that was the outlier.  It was the only year where he had a reasonable FIP (3.75) in which he pitched more than 18 innings.  The FIP's in the other years where he threw greater than 18 innings were 5.04 (2010, in 24IP) and 5.42 (2013, in 153IP).  In smaller samples, he had a great 2011 (2.86 FIP in 18IP) and a disastrous 2014 (5.97 FIP in 12IP).  Astros fans remember 2014 altogether too well.

As 2013 slid into 2014, and Harrell's struggles worsened, he developed a less-than-stellar reputation.  I don't put too much emphasis on clubhouse stories like those linked, because repeatedly throwing meatballs and getting continuously lit-up in the biggest possible baseball stage would be a severe test of anyone's character.  Just ask Mark Appel.  However, there was a time when pundits thought that the Astros were going to turn a waiver-wire acquisition into some pretty good players.  (As an aside, check out the first comment of the second link.)  However, Harrell was never going to be parlayed into Lucas Giolito, no matter what Jeff Luhnow hoped or thought, especially by mid-2013.

In Luhnow's defence, he was probably right to ask the world for him, as trading Harrell would have been difficult decision for the Astros prior to - or even during - his 2013 cratering.  At the time, they had no real rotation, and desperately needed innings eaters with upside.  In Harrell, they had a cheap and durable groundballer who pumped gas in the low- to mid-90's with pretty decent movement on his pitches, and at that stage, the Astros had few other rotation options.  Thanks to Scott Feldman, Dallas Keuchel and Collin McHugh, things look a little different a year-or-so down the road.

Those who are cynical with regards to the Astros' rebuild will probably see the Harrell non-trade and subsequent value-less exit as a sign of how much of a joke the Front Office is.  Astros supporters may see Harrell as a lottery ticket that had most of the winning numbers, but fell just short of a jackpot.  But really, this is elite sport, and in all elite sport, the margin between success and failure is razor thin.  Harrell just happened to straddle that thin line, existing on both sides at various times of his career.

And in the thin line between success and failure in sports, all sorts of awful things can happen.  At least Harrell gets to continue his career - albeit not with the Twins team that he may have thought - and he will continue to be handsomely remunerated for it.

My Ridiculous Trade Proposal, About Which I Am Totally Serious

The Astros biggest need, in my estimation, is a third baseman. Matt Dominguez now has 1300+ major league plate appearances with a .275 on base percentage, and is trending down. There are several prospects in the system that could take that spot, including Colin Moran and Rio Ruiz, but they are not ready yet, and are not sure things. The free agent market is one option, but could require a 5 or 6 year commitment to a declining asset.

Meanwhile, in New York, there is a team with a 3rd Baseman, who, by all accounts, they are done with. That's right, I'm talking about Alex Rodriguez. I know what you are thinking. He's overpaid, he's declining, he's a cheater, he once posed for a picture kissing himself in the mirror. All those things are true, and are the reason why he might be obtainable for very little. He is also, almost certainly, a legitimate upgrade at third. A-Rod has never posted a wRC+ under 113, and his full season low on base percentage is .348. Even in 2013, he put up .5 WAR in just 44 games. There is no guarantee he could produce those numbers after a year off at 39, but the bar to upgrade 3rd base is very low. I think its safe to assume he could be a legitimate 2 win upgrade over what the Astros had at 3rd last year.

This might not be a safe assumption, but assume the Astros would be able to absorb a large chunk of A-rod's contract. Right now, he's due to be paid 20 million a year for the next three years. Lets say the Astros take on 15 million of that. In that event, the Yankees might practically give him away. The Astros' surplus of catchers matches up with the Yankees' need. They have Brian McCann, but just lost their backup to Pittsburgh. Meanwhile, Carlos Corporan put up another fine season, and has proven himself to be a worthy backup. Would Carlos Corporan for Alex Rodriguez be something the Yankees would consider? I'm not sure, but it actually makes a lot of sense for both sides.

The Astros would have an immediate upgrade at 3rd, and the Yankees would be freed of a player they no longer desire, plus getting a nice backup catcher. The three year commitment is probably better than the Astros could do in the free agent market, and in the event one of the Ruiz or Moran is ready earlier, Rodriguez could easily move to a 1st/3rd/DH rotation.

Monday, November 24, 2014

It's HOF Voting Time Again

The BBWAA announced the release of the 2015 HOF Ballot today. Of course, it still features two too many prominent Astros (three if you count Roger Clemens). I cannot actually believe I am writing another Hall of Fame preview with Craig Biggio on the ballot. But there he is, tantalizingly close to induction.

You might recall him fall two measly votes short of induction last year. Only two players in history have fallen short by that little, Nellie Fox (1985) and Pie Traynor (1947). Fox was in his 15th year on the ballot and Traynor made it the following year. Dating back to 1966, when they started having BBWAA elections every year, only one player has ever received 70% of the vote with years remaining on the ballot, and not been elected the following year. Jim Bunning actually did it twice, getting 70% in 87 and then 74.2% in 88, before dropping all the way back to 63.3% the following year. That was weird, and best I can tell it was due to Ferguson Jenkins and Gaylord Perry joining the ballot for the first time. The comparison did him no favors. I see no such problems in this election, and Biggio should sail in. I wouldn't be surprised if he got 80% of the vote.

The more interesting thing to watch will be Bagwell. The crowded ballot dropped him down to 54.3%, from 59.6% the year before, with his doppelganger sailing in in his first year on the ballot. Was that just a one year anomaly, or was that an example of negative momentum that will have him ultimately stall out? The new 10 year on the ballot rule makes his situation more dire. I am hopeful he can jump back up to 60%, which will make his ultimate election much more promising. If he stays around the same, or regressing further, it will make it tough going forward.

In the meantime, is picking up the Bagwell campaign and running with it, and doing a fine job. And there is still time for the BBWAA to adopt my perfectly reasonable proposal, which would solve so many problems.

Do Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio belong in the Hall of Fame?


Saturday, November 22, 2014

Tales from the GOATpen Update

It's been another two weeks in our alternate universe; let's see what happened.

The standings are still relatively tight, which isn't surprising given the structure of the league. Nacogdoches continues to have the best record overall, but is only 4 games better than the worst team.

Here are the highlights from the last two weeks. Shutouts seem to be very common so far:

4/14 - Delayed Honorees starter Mike Hampton threw a 4 hit shutout against Little Rock, striking out 10 and walking 3. He's currently 3-2 with a 3.55 ERA.

4/16 - Nacogdoches pitcher Larry Dierker shutout Huffman on 5 hits with 10 strikeouts and no walks. He's 4-2 with a 2.70 ERA.

4/19 - Shane Reynolds joined in the fun as Greenville shutout Albuquerque on 6 hits. Reynolds is 2-3 with a 2.95 ERA so far.

4/21 - Our two Players of the Week for week 3 were Mark Bailey and Ken Caminiti. Bailey hit .500 with 1 HR and 6 RBI for the week, while Caminiti hit .433 with a homer and 4 RBI.

4/21 - Getting back to shutout news, Philadelphia's Brett Myers shut out Huffman on 4 hits. Myers is 3-1 with a 3.00 ERA.

4/23 - Shane Reynolds pitched his 2nd straight shut out, this time against Houston. He struck out 8 and walked 1.

4/27 - J.R. Richard had a monster game in Huffman's 1-0 win over Little Rock. Richard went 10 innings and allowed just 2 hits and 2 walks while striking out an amazing 19 batters. So far on the season, Richard is 2-4 with a 2.98 ERA and 77 strikeouts in 48.1 innings.

4/28 - Biggio and Berkman picked up Player of the Week honors this week. Biggio hit .409 with 2 HR while Berkman hit an even .500 with a home run and 6 RBI.

In addition to the traditional standings, we also get a set of power rankings. Here's how those shape up so far.

And the individual stat leaderboards.

Mark Bailey's hot streak has put him near the top of many categories so far. While it's still very early in the season, this is a bit surprising.

The pitching leaderboard is a bit more diverse, though JR Richard seems to be a bit ahead of most everyone else so far. Oswalt is also quietly putting together a good season so far.

This is shaping up to be a competitive season. Who do you think comes out on top?

Also, OOTP has much, much more detail than the basic summaries I'm showing you. Is there anything else you'd like to see? Keep your comments and suggestions coming!

Friday, November 21, 2014

So Let's Recap the 40-man News

As expected, a flurry of moves - from all teams, not just the Astros - occurred just prior to the Thursday 20 roster deadline at midnight ET.  A large number of players were DFA'd, waived, claimed, and added to various rosters all around baseball.  Lets look at what the Astros did.

But firstly, a large nod - well, a bow, really - in Batguy's direction for looking at the habits of the Astros in the Rule V Drafts since the late 1990's.  Really worth a read if you haven't already.  And secondly, thanks to Framin' Mike Fast - or at least someone who knows about the November 20 deadline with a google account called "Mike Fast" - for stopping by and answering a question.  ZOMG!!!  Someone who actually knows about baseball (other than the other 17 learned readers that frequent these web-pages) actually reads this blog.  And is good enough to comment after stopping laughing at my crappy, uninformed analysis.  Excellent!!

Lets look at what actually happened.

Added to the 40-man were Vincent Velasquez, Ronald Torreyes and - at the 11th hour, according to the previously linked MLBTR page - Michael Feliz.

Subtracted from the 40-man roster were Anthony Bass (I guess we have to disconnect the 534-8455 bullpen phone number now - not that it was either funny, clever or used much) and Josh Zeid.  Zeid was subsequently claimed by the Tigers, who, like, really need bullpen help.  Given that his sesamoid bones in his foot were playing up all year (ie. he was pitching with an injury) and he has decent velocity, that is probably a great grab for them.

By my count, the 40-man sits at 39 now.  Feliz isn't listed on the publicly-listed roster at the time of writing this, which sits at 38.  I am guessing that the webpage-update-programmer is asleep in bed, as they should be.

I whiffed on DDS, thinking that he would be added, but as Evan Drellich/Jeff Luhnow elegantly pointed out, it is waaaaay easier to stash a pitcher in the back of the 'pen than short-hand your bench with a guy whose hitting may be questionable.  The counter argument would be something along the lines of "gosh, it is a weak FA market at CF this year, lets take a flyer on this guy", whereas the counter-counter argument would be "the Astros already have 5 guys (including Aplin) above DDS on the depth chart who can man an at-least-passable CF".  I won't even bother with the counter-counter-counter argument, which would be something about the additional possibility of an infield-gig.

I find this process so interesting - which probably says more about me than the actual process.  MLBTR has been frenetic all day.  There must be tactics employed by teams - like shoving everyone through on waivers when there are a lot of other transactions in the hope that the teams that are looking to acquire talent may either not realise a valued player is trying to slip through, or that teams have already gorged themselves on talent from other clubs already.  There must be counter-intelligence - like "Team A will grab Player B if he is available, so lets add him to the roster, or wait until Team A's 40-man is full".  Those subtleties will be lost on the casual observer, but it must be pretty intense for those participating.  All because young talent is important, cheap, and hard to get.

I also find it interesting that the Astros have left one spot on the 40-man free - perhaps with a specific target in mind for the Rule V draft, or perhaps looking to get a good waiver-claim in.  Or to add Mike Trout in a trade.  Time will tell.

My guess is that this process has really tightened up over the last decade - for all teams - because of a huge change in how talent is perceived.  Teams can't afford to whiff on players they like anymore.  Everyone is looking for an edge, and it is a fine line between success and failure.

Anyhow, the gist of all of this is that Delino DeShields Jr, Jandel Gustave, Roberto Pena, Mitch Lambson (who would have been extensively scouted in Arizona recently) and Danry Vasquez (who is apparently having a good winter season) are all available to be nabbed in the December Rule V draft.  All of those guys scream "lottery ticket" to me (perhaps not Lambson, but he is a reliever) and perhaps Johan Santana would have as well.  We will find out what the other teams think.

In terms of those definitely staying, Ronald Torreyes seems to have an interesting mix of skills at a very young age, despite doubtful scouting opinions regarding his build and stature, and how it will impact on his power.  Vincent Velasquez and Michael Feliz are a couple of good, mid-rotation righties with a chance to be better, so the Astros thought it important to protect them.  None of these guys are going anywhere, unless they are outrighted or traded between now and April.

The whole thing is fascinating.  Lets see what happens next.

Update:  Apparently, Feliz may have been initially left off the 40-man because the extra roster flexibility was needed for a trade, but Evan Drellich appears dubious about this explanation, and wonders whether the FO reassessed its position with an hour to go.  Like I said, fascinating!