In one of the more ironic twists of fate in recent memory for Mike Scioscia's tenure with the Angels, it appears he might have himself a catcher defense dilemma. We all remember far too well the bad old days of Scioscia being too blinded by his personal defensive biases to see that Mike Napoli should be the starting catcher and Jeff Mathis should be manning a radio tower in Alaska. Now, it seems, the tables have turned and Scioscia has a real conundrum on his hands.
It was well-documented coming into the season that the Angels were so worried about Hank Conger's defense that they made a trade for Chris Snyder as an insurance policy. So very worried. Hank was able to quiet those concerns and earn a spot on the Opening Day roster as the back-up catcher. But now it looks like his defense has advanced to a point where he might very well deserve a promotion up the depth chart.
Through the first month of the season, the defensive metrics strongly suggest that Mike Scioscia is, GASP!, starting an inferior defensive catcher in order to get better offense from the position. I'll allow you a moment to look out the window to make sure the sky hasn't turned red or that your dog and cat aren't enjoying a little afternoon delight together.
Seriously though, it is true and I can prove it, with the obvious caveat that we are dealing with a relatively small sample size.
Don't worry, I won't go all Lyle Spencer on you and start dropping catcher ERA figures, although I could since they strengthen my case. No, a lot of this is even more basic than that. The biggest problem thus far is also the most ironic. Iannetta can't throw anyone out but Conger can, which is the exact opposite of what we would have thought coming into the season given how Conger had a hard time just getting the ball near the base all spring. But sure enough, Iannetta has managed to nail just 2 of the 23 base stealers who have run on him. Conger, meanwhile, is two for four on steal attempts. That is hardly conclusive of anything for Conger given how few attempts there are, but he obviously is no longer an error waiting to happen, so teams aren't running wild on him. There are also some real issues on the side of the pitching staff failing to hold runners, but still, Iannetta has to do better than 2-for-23.
Iannetta has also struggled with one of the other main duties behind the plate, keeping the ball in front of him. In 23 starts, he has been responsible for two passed balls and fourteen wild pitches, the second-most wild pitches allowed by any catcher in baseball. As for Conger, he has yet to be tagged with a passed ball and just three wild pitches in eight starts. The eyeballs suggest that neither is particularly good in this area though. Conger in particular had a rough night handling Garrett Richards last week where he was behind the plate for two wild pitches, both of which he showed poor technique on as he twisted his body to the side and made a backhand stab at the ball.
The most compelling evidence though is in catcher framing results. Baseball Prospectus has been tracking this area all season long and in their latest update, Conger rated amongst the best framers while Iannetta was amongst the worst. Again, the sample sizes here are small and I don't begin to know the threshold where framing data can be considered stable and conclusive, but it does support our preconceived notions about each catcher. Iannetta most definitely had an iffy defensive reputation in Colorado. His arm was fine, but his blocking was inconsistent and his receiving skills were generally regarded as poor. That hasn't changed much in Anaheim.
The reputation of Conger is less clear. His path to the majors was slowed repeatedly because of questions about his defense. Throwing was always a big problem for him and he could get sloppy on balls in the dirt, but I never got a good sense about how his receiving skills were, well, received. But more to the point is that Scioscia knows catcher, or at least portends to. One of the major reasons he was so lovestruck with Mathis was because he considered Jeff to be an exceptional receiver. The framing data has never graded him as elite, but he was good. So why is that not swaying Scioscia now?
Perhaps it really is a small sample size issue. Specifically, Conger has only caught eight games and four of those were C.J. Wilson starts. Considering that C.J. has walked 15 batters in those starts, his framing hasn't been all that helpful, although I doubt that a whole army of Jose Molina's could save C.J. from his bases on balls problems. On the other hand, that would seem like more of an endorsement to me that Conger is able to steal strikes for a starter that has a difficult time throwing strikes, despite what his prolific use of the hashtag might suggest.
What makes this situation so much more intriguing is that there is not nearly the same offensive gap between Iannetta and Conger as there was between Napoli and Mathis. Iannetta is a league average hitter on his career, literally. His career OPS+ is 100, though he is down to 90 so far this year. Conger is 74 OPS+ for his career and 82+ in 2013, but he has only been given 295 career plate appearances and never received anything resembling regular playing time. What Conger does have though is a prospect profile of a guy who was supposed to be a pretty good hitter, especially for a catcher, and the minor league numbers to back that up. Given that latent talent and his ability to switch-hit, it seems like Conger should at least be able to hold his own with the bat, if he is able to keep playing this kind of defense. We aren't sure he can keep defending this well, but there is only one way to find out.
The only thing we can't quantify here is game-calling, another infamous Scioscia fallback when defending Mathis. If the card that Scioscia wants to play against Conger, we can't argue against that with anything other than the previously mentioned lukewarm defensive reputation of Iannetta.
If ever there was a time for Mike Scioscia to err on the side of run prevention, now is that time. The pitching staff has been the Achilles heel of this team, which is about the most obvious thing I could type ever. If Conger can help mitigate that weakness, Scioscia should at least explore the idea. There is a chance that Sosh would be sacrificing offense, but there is also a chance that he might actually be adding offense, so he could have his tiramisu and eat it too.
If Scioscia does hear this plea and Conger becomes the next Jeff Mathis, then I apologize in advance.