Let’s All Welcome Hyun Choi “Hank” Conger to the Tampa Bay Rays
Two men separated by hundreds of miles recently had a staring contest over the phone. It’s inaccurate to say there were only two individuals involved because this tête-à-tête also involved a clock or maybe a watch or some kid’s potato-powered homemade time-telling device fresh off earning the bronze in a local science fair. You see, one of these guys was up against a hard deadline. He had a commodity that he didn’t really want anymore, but he also didn’t want to give it away for free. The other guy, our hero in this instance, was willing to take that commodity, but he didn’t really want to give anything in return. So they took turns not showing much interest in what the other had on offer. Eventually, the clock hit 11:59 and the other guy broke his glare as sweat poured forth from his brow. He muttered, “F**k it, gimme the cash.” Our hero silently pumped his fist and said, “That’ll do” in reply. /click
The commodity in question was an extraneous catcher that the Houston Astros had just acquired a little over a year ago for a not nothing mid-rotation starter named Nick Tropeano and a maybe reliever named Carlos Perez. The catcher in question, Hyun Choi “Hank” Conger, was and is a switch-hitter with remarkable ability to do a lot of the things that you hope a catcher can do. He’s an above average framer, but he’s also an above average blocker, which is something you don’t traditionally find in this world of trade offs. In his career his glove has been worth maybe around a win above average, on it’s own, but in this world of limited resources he does come with the downside that he’s below average at throwing out runners. Last year he walked off a cliff allowing 42/43 successful steal attempts. That’s bad, but maybe not as bad as you would think. Seriously, click that and go read it. I don’t even care if you don’t come back, because it’s a great article from an even better author.
While that should give you a firm understanding of the pluses and minuses behind the dish I wanted to look at what he does when standing at the plate to see if there’s anything else that we can like. I mentioned that he’s a switch hitter, but that’s really more for show than he has shown. Of the 62 switch-hitters that got at least 100 plate appearances in 2015 he showed the 21st largest regressed platoon split as he has hit lefties at a woeful 76 wRC+ over his career. Of course, if he has a wide split then we would expect him to hit righties much better, and he has! In 735 plate appearances versus northpaws he has worked them to the tune of a 93 wRC+, which is pretty good for a catcher. The Rays have tried like hell for years to get a left-handed catcher that would make for an ideal platoon at the most platoonable position on the diamond. So what has he looked like:
All data from here on out comes from the obscenely awesome Baseball Savant. Let’s start by looking at his run values over his career. We see a couple of valleys where he was pretty bad as a hitter and one of them came fairly recently, but over his career he has also been something like a league average hitter for long stretches. That’s good for a catcher and we especially like seeing his last season featuring some of his greatest successes. This gives us an idea of a baseline, but we can do more:
Zone% here uses the rule book strike zone so these figures are going to be lower than those at other sites that use the commonly called zone. You can see he has generally seen about a third to two-fifths of his pitches have been in the zone and he has always swung at more than that. He started seeing more pitches in the zone last year, but managed to mostly hold steady with his swing rate. That is generally a good thing! You want to be swinging at hittable pitches in the zone and he started to do a better job of that once he entered a new organization. Of course that is meaningless if he is just whiffing a ton more so here’s a look at contact rate on swings:
Well, that kind of looks like the case. I’m including foul balls as contact here and we do see that he did invite some more swing and miss to his game last year showcasing his worst contact rate of his career after mostly holding steady around 75%. That’s not so good, but what if the tradeoff was that he was hitting for more power? After all he did hit a career high number of extra base hits last year:
Ok that does seem to stand out some. After a mostly powerless stretch he did amp up his extra base hits per hit getting that gap back to something like what we saw through the early part of his career. If the tradeoff is that he’s swinging at more hittable pitches and hitting them harder even if he’s hitting fewer of them, well, that’s a workable scenario. Let’s switch gears and dig into what he has done against the three specific pitch types starting with the heater (2 & 4 seamers, cutters, and sinkers):
That’s interesting. Again, we see the gap between zone and swing rate, but that mostly held steady. However, it looks like he performed really well against the fastball. It was a high water mark, for sure, but he has been ok enough against this pitch in the past and he was able to do even more with it over this past season. Perhaps, it should be stated again that he joined a new organization that might have been able to correct a mechanical issue or the new boss was able to institute a different philosophy that helped him do better against the most used pitch in baseball. How about the offspeed pitch (change ups and splitters):
There you go. He saw more change ups in the zone and while he increased his swing rate more it looks like a pitch that he has difficulty picking up as his production waned on all those taken strikes and swung through or mis-hit balls. It’s a pitch he has struggled to be even average against and this past year saw some of his worst performance. Moving on to the third pitch let’s look at breaking balls (curves, knuckle curves, and sliders):
Ain’t that something. He saw an even bigger increase in pitchers putting the breaker in the zone, while actually seeing a slight downturn in his swing rate. Couple these two with a lack of authority on batted balls and you see that he REALLY struggles with anything with a wrinkle. Fastballs get mashed, but he seems to really struggle with the other stuff so how did pitchers change their approach, if at all:
It’s almost like pitchers are smart or something. On a team rabid with free-swingers it makes sense for pitchers to stop offering the fastball quite as often and this led to a big increase in the number of breaking balls thrown. While he was mostly around league average over the year you can see a decline in production that mostly mirrors the downturn in fastballs seen. If half his pitches seen are of the secondary variety then it stands to reason that he’s not going to be a real threat at the plate unless he can really capitalize on the fastballs he does manage to get. Here’s a look at his overall numbers by pitch type:
As if you needed this reinforced anymore than it already has been you can see that he really struggles with the breaking ball, isn’t a whole lot better chasing the change, but can have real value if and when he does get the fastball. Perhaps batting him behind Kevin Kiermaier or someone else that evolves into a credible stolen base threat can help neutralize the book against him, but that remains to be seen. If Kiermaier is going to lead off against a righty and you figure Longoria is in the three-hole I might not have much of a problem with Conger batting second even if he’s an overall sub-optimal guy for the most important slot in a lineup. This should leave him seeing more fastballs than he would anywhere else, which would be his best case for adding any value at the plate.
You’re looking at a guy that is going to need to be strictly used if you want to squeeze positive value out of him, but that’s mostly fine, because the Rays are very good at positioning guys to promote strengths and hide weaknesses. Being able to get something like a 90-100 wRC+ out of our catcher who also happens to be pretty good behind the plate could go a long way in solving what has been a nightmare situation for the Rays for nearly as long as they have been a franchise. Pairing him with an elite gunner like Rene Rivera can also offset his biggest liability against those most likely to steal a bag so that Rivera can see all the lefties and even some of the righties where you don’t want to expose Conger. This puts Curt Casali back in Durham, which sucks for the Casali family, but leaves the Rays in a very solid position of depth in the event of injury at a position where everyone gets injured or if Rene Rivera’s plate woes continue into this year, such that, Kevin Cash gets sick of making this face: