Thursday, December 3, 2015

Why trade Hank Conger?

Today many of us were sad. Not necessarily because Chris Carter will no longer thrill us with three-week stretches of Ruthian power - because those three-week stretches were always belied by 23-remote-breaking/laptop-throwing-week stretches marked by a complete inability to make contact -  but because of a backup catcher. 

Thirteen months ago the Astros traded catcher Carlos Perez and pitcher Nick Tropeano to the Angels for Conger. Perez - a projected backup catcher at best - hit for some average, got on base a little, and had no power. But he could throw some dudes out, that's for sure - 48% of baserunners were caught stealing by Perez in 2013, 32% in 2014. So apparently the cost of upgrading from a backup catcher who had never played in the majors to a backup catcher who had played fairly well in the majors was a projectable pitcher who had never pitched in the majors. 

But 2015 happened, and Conger was alright at the plate. He hit .229/.311/.448, and it was the power that gave him his value. His 107 wRC+ was 11th among the 45 catchers with at least 200 plate appearances in 2015. He was projected to make around $1.8m in 2016. He was the robot-dancing life of the dadgum party. Why trade him?

As many of you have noted at me on Twitter, Conger threw out an impossibly small number of baserunners in 2015. 43 runners tried to steal the next base while Conger was behind the plate and only one - former Astros great J.B. Shuck - was thrown out. One out of 43. 2%. League-average was 32% in 2015. Hell, that's only one more baserunner than Carlos Lee threw out from behind the plate in 2015. I don't know if that's telling of regression, or just fluky bad luck, but it's not a question that if you had any speed at all with Conger behind the plate, you could probably steal a base. 

Of course there's more to catcher defense than being able to throw out baserunners, but if you can't even do that on the semi-reg, then you better make up for it in other places. One of the allures of Hank Conger was reportedly how good he was at pitch-framing. I link to this with all the caution in the world, because I'm not exactly sure how it works, but Conger was above average in that department in 2015, but Castro was better. 

Could it be that the Astros decided to simply allocate the $1.8m they were projected to have spent on Conger in 2016 elsewhere? In the alternate universe that is baseball economics, $1.8m is not a lot of money. Luhnow already said as late as last week that the Astros could afford all of their arbitration-eligible players, if they wanted to. The Astros saved the $1.8m on Conger's 2016 salary plus whatever amount of cash comes back from Tampa Bay to complete the deal. How much is clubhouse chemistry worth? 

And I think that's why it hurts. I think we can all agree that the Astros aren't just being cheap. They're running up tabs on service time and pre-arb players that are going to have to be paid in the not-too-distant future. But for years the Astros had absolutely zero personality. None. They were a collection of mercenaries, hired to keep the general manager in his position, faceless agents of baseball not necessarily meant to delight us, but to win just often enough to make it watchable. 

Conger's MVP moment came *after* the Astros clinched the Wild Card on the last day of the season - two words, half of them profane, hilarious in timing and content. The robot dancing every time someone else hit a home run, the mythical Clubhouse Presence that perhaps fans value too highly. Well, as we have noted ad nauseum, the Astros value things differently than we do. Maybe it'll work out, but today I'm just sad over a backup catcher.