For the first time Hank Conger is headed into the season trying to force his way onto the roster or convince the great and mighty Scioscia that his defense is good enough to earn playing time. What can he do now to capitalize on the opportunity he has earned?
*The MWAH projections are simply my best guess based off my own personal opinion and research (my wOBA calculation is approximate because my math skills are only "meh")
What happened in 2013?
Things were looking pretty bleak for Hank Conger headed into training camp in 2013. There was grave concern that Hank's throwing had become so bad that he couldn't be trusted behind the plate. The team even acquired Chris Snyder as an insurance policy should Conger's yips not clear up. Fortunately for Hank and the Halos, they did.
Not too far into the season, Hank not only proved that he could be trusted, but he started to siphon away playing time from Chris Iannetta. While his bat performed adequately, the real reason he was given more starts was his defensive work, much to everyone's surprise. So much attention had been paid to his throwing problems that it snuck up on most everyone that Conger had developed into a quality receiver. In fact, Conger rated out as one of the best pitch framers in baseball in 2013, according to Baseball Prospectus.
He did still spend some time going in and out of Scioscia's doghouse as minor throwing woes popped up in the second half of the season as did an offensive slump, but even with all that, Conger proved that he deserved to remain in a timeshare situation with Iannetta in 2014.
What do the projections think he will do in 2014?
One of the weird things about Conger's 2013 season was that he struck out quite a bit even though that was never really an issue for him in the minors. The projection systems all see that not really being as much of a problem going forward. However, that is really the only improvement they see him making.
As it turns out, the systems seem to think he is going to take a step back, especially in the power department which might be a remnant of Conger only mustering a .107 ISO in the second half of the season. With his average also expected to dip without his walks increasing by very much, that puts him at a production level more befitting of a back-up catcher than a part-time starter.
Does the Monkey agree or disagree?
Nuts to that, I say. Hank is my pick to be the breakout player of the year for the Angels. Hooray!
This is normally the part where I would throw a bunch of statistics at you to justify my claim, but I don't really have much to offer. What I have is just general indicators. For starters, Hank is 26, right in the beginning of his prime, so he should be at the height of his powers. As much as it seems like he has been hanging around for forever, he has only 508 major league plate appearances under his belt. For all intents and purposes, he might as well be heading into his sophomore season. More importantly than that, I think Conger knows his role and knows what is expected of him. As we saw with him earlier in his career, he was getting a lot of pressure from Scioscia to shore up his defense and he admitted himself that he sacrificed his offensive focus to make that happen.
Now, Hank has turned himself into an above average backstop and earned Scioscia's trust, as much as that can be earned by someone without a Mathis or Molina surname. He also knows that he is going to be used almost exclusively against left-handed pitching and should get fairly consistent playing time as a result. Not only will that give him a chance to get in a rhythm, but it could free him up from trying to work out his issues from the right side of the plate. In fact, part of me wonders if he might not just want to give up on switch-hitting altogether.
If you really want to have some statistical justification for this, look no further than his minor league numbers. As I like to remind everyone, Conger was originally drafted for his bat. His power has never really come in at the level that was expected, but Conger did hit for average at every level and drew a ton of walks. Neither of those skills have translated to the majors, but my theory is that part of the reason for that is Conger being too aggressive in order to try and hit his way onto the roster. Now he doesn't have to do that.
With all that pressure to perform and a promise of regular playing time, I think Conger is finally going to blossom. Assuming he doesn't fall into a deep depression after having his BFFs Trumbo and Bourjos traded away in recent months.
What are the known unknowns?
A lot of my breakout theory relies entirely on Conger being able to stay on Scioscia's good side. It blows my mind that Scioscia harps on Conger for his defensive issues but gives Iannetta so much more leeway despite Conger clearly being a superior catcher in almost every aspect of the game. We saw how that messed with the head of Mike Napoli, hopefully Conger won't fall to the same fate.