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!!