Sunday, October 12, 2014

A Trade Target Guaranteed to Solve the Rockies’ Problems

A Trade Target Guaranteed to Solve the Rockies’ Problems1

Hello. Here’s a brief list of things: Our pitching was poor this past year. Altitude is the hardest place to pitch. Free agent pitchers generally don’t like signing with the Rockies. Pitchers are fragile. Awesome. 

The team’s hands are tied regarding pitching more than any other club. This had led to what I’m calling ‘pitching themes’ over the years such as Hampton/Neagle, a staff of sinkerballers, a staff of groundballers, emphasizing pitching in the bottom half of the zone, etc. However, one key way to improve the pitching is to improve the defense and for the Rockies, their weakest area of defense has been catcher defense. A strong defensive catcher may be the best and easiest way to improve our pitching staff and it won’t come with the cost associated with luring Free Agents, the time/luck of developing pitchers, and is immune to the fragility of UCLs, rotator cuffs, labrums etc. So what can be done?

Let’s recap the situation:

Wilin Rosario
Strengths: Being lovable, hitting baseballs better than most catchers, maybe still has a lot of power, cool nickname, that one time he made a pretty sweet play when playing 3b2.

Weaknesses: Defensive improvements have come alongside some defensive declines (look at that stolen base %) leaving him more or less where he started – rather poor, maybe doesn’t have a lot of power anymore, not loveable enough, nicknames involving the word ‘baby’ have a much shorter half-life than nicknames involving the phrase ‘fully mature’.

In other words, catcher represents a roster problem. There are reasons to be optimistic about Rosario however – players have down years all the time and an 86 wRC+ as a catcher’s worst year is pretty damn good. He has continued to improve defensively, will only be 26 next season, and is just beginning arbitration. The issues are 1. He is still not likely to be an asset defensively, and 2. There is perhaps a bit of fool’s gold involved here when you consider that his two ‘great’ offensive seasons produced a combined total of 6.3 offensive runs of value. Michael McKenry gave the team 7 offensive runs of value this season alone in just 192 plate appearances.

Regarding replacement options for Rosario a few things need to be made clear:
  • McKenry had a career year and is not necessarily impressive defensively either (he’s not an especially good pitch framer and he is terrible at throwing out runners).
  • Our internal options are rather messy as there is no one who is both close to the majors and well-regarded defensively.

Essentially, staying in-house to improve our catching should not be expected to result in appreciable gains. 

The Free Agent market for catchers consists of the following options:
  1. Russell Martin
  2. Geovany Soto
  3. Andrew Martin (no relation)
  4. Freeing up two roster spots by having no catchers and just throwing everything at the umpire’s chest protector.
This takes us to possible trade candidates if they really wish to improve (assuming Russell Martin is unable to be lured to CO – which would have problems of its own, namely $ and his age). When looking at trade candidates, there is one option who (to me at least) stands out more than any other option:

Hank Conger
Hank Conger was drafted 25th overall in the 2006 draft by the Los Anaheim Angels of Los Anaheim – the team for whom he currently plays. 

Strengths: Will be 27 next season, is a switch hitter (and Coors Field favors lefties more than righties), he’s entering his first year of arbitration, was a league average bat in 2013, and is one of the best defensive catchers in baseball.

Weaknesses: Has not been a league average bat in any other season other than 2013, posted an 82 wRC+ this past season, currently plays for a team that is not the Rockies, unclear if he’s available and what his cost is if he is.

Essentially, Hank Conger is in the discussion for best defensive catchers, is cheap, and has been used only as a backup catcher his entire career thus has endured less wear-and-tear. It is currently unclear if he’s available and the Angels only have Chris Iannetta signed through next year creating a opening at C in the near future. The Angels may use Conger as a backup one more year and then switch to him full time. I suppose the good news however is that the Angels have been weird about catchers in the past (Mathis/Napoli) and also never used Conger full-time prior to Iannetta being around nor in 2011 when Iannetta only played 79 games. This suggests (to me at least) that the Angels are not as high as they could or should be on Hank Conger.

Regarding their numbers, here is a comparison between Rosario and Conger:

Career Offensively:


The way I interpret this is that Conger, while clearly a downgrade from Rosario is not such a tremendous downgrade. If we were okay with Torrealba (or DJ Lemahieu at 2b is perhaps another good analogue), we can live with what Conger is expected to provide offensively.

Defensively: (the first table is career, the second table considers only 2013 and 2014)

PBs per 1000 innings

(minimum 2000 pitches)
Baseball Prospectus
Strikes per Game
Extra Strikes
Runs added by County
56 of 62
61 of 62
111 of 116
111 of 116
44 of 58
51 of 58
48 of 100
85 of 100

Per 9k Chances


2 of 62
5 of 62
3 of 116
6 of 113
1 of 58
4 of 58
4 of 100
3 of 100

Per 9k Chances


X RAA refers to runs above average. A quick-and-dirty explanation here is that when considering the average run-value of a strike or a ball, RAA is a figure that presents a catcher’s framing contribution relative to a league-average catching value.
Y Runs added by count. This can be interpreted similarly to RAA except that the excellent staff at BPro consider the count of the framed pitches. In other words, if you’ve ever thought a ball in a 3-1 count is worse than a ball in an 0-1 count, you’re right and BPro considers that.

There’s a lot to digest here and for brevity, I won’t go through all of it but take some time and look at those numbers. Take extra time to look at Conger’s numbers because they’re extra sexy and because you deserve it. 

For Wilin, what we see is that he has a quite respectable caught-stealing percentage, allows a lot of passed balls, and is a much-improved-but-still-middling-to-poor framer.

Regarding Conger, we see that he has a sort of unremarkable-but-not-terrible caught-stealing percentage, can be expected to allow 1 or 2 passed balls a season, and is perhaps the best pitch-framer in baseball. Especially impressive in Conger’s numbers is that for both RAA and Runs added by Count, where Conger has ranked anywhere from 3rd through 6th, these values are affected by playing time. The players ahead of him are either full-time catchers like Lucroy and Zunino, or Jose Molina. If Conger had been the starting catcher instead of the backup, it’s quite possible he’d be #1 in all of these (and would be #1 in some of these). 

In summation, Hank Conger represents a catcher who has the following attributes:
  1. Elite defensive catcher.
  2. Chance to be a league average bat (and possibly more if you’re the type to believe that playing only sporadically prevents a player from getting into an offensive rhythm and depresses their offensive output).
  3. Is in the middle of his prime years age-wise.
  4. Is fairly cheap financially.
  5. Would likely have a price-tag in a trade that we can meet without being crippled.
Conger isn’t the only person around to attempt to acquire, but he may be the only one that is young, cheap, competent offensively, and offers the greatest potential to improve our pitching staff. If we’re interested in doing something different at catcher next season, then we should go after Conger as hard as possible.

1Not a guarantee.
2Probably more of an indictment given that he’s a catcher