The Astros Get Their Jose Molina

Sometimes, a transaction is so immediately obvious you don’t have to spend any time at all trying to work out the rationale behind it. Other times, a transaction only seems that immediately obvious, because we’re not privy to all of the relevant information. In each case, though, we get to pretend like the move in question is immediately obvious, because we can’t know what we don’t know, and on Wednesday, the Astros made a trade. They got a guy they like, and they like him because of course they like him.

The Astros got one guy for two guys, giving up catcher Carlos Perez and pitcher Nick Tropeano. Perez might take over as the Angels’ backup, and Tropeano might manage to crack the Angels’ starting rotation. But the guy the Astros added is Hank Conger, and though Conger’s is by no means any sort of household name, you could say the Astros just got their Jose Molina. Have I mentioned lately that the Astros employ Mike Fast? Do I even need to?

On the surface, it’s a C-list transaction. Few know Perez, few know Tropeano, and Conger’s never played 100 games in a season. I can’t remember the last time I watched Sportscenter, but this isn’t the kind of headline I imagine they’re likely to discuss, because it’s hardly even a headline for baseball-specific programming. Conger owns a career 84 wRC+. That comes with a .294 OBP, and he’s at 1.6 career WAR. He’s thrown out 22% of attempted base-stealers.

Conger’s pretty cheap and under control through 2017, so that’s something. He joins what’s become a crowded backstop situation in Houston, with Jason Castro, Carlos Corporan, and Max Stassi. It seems pretty apparent the Astros are going to make a change between now and the start of next year, so what they have for the moment is flexibility. This move probably wasn’t about the next move. This move was probably about getting Conger, because I haven’t yet mentioned his strength.

It’s pitch-framing, naturally. Or pitch-receiving, or basic catching, or whatever you want to call it. Fast’s research brought framing into the spotlight, and we’ve heard before about how the Astros organization works on framing drills to make their own guys better. Until this week, Conger wasn’t one of their own guys, but it doesn’t get much better than him, in terms of catching the ball in a quiet and artful way. And that’s why I feel like this move is so obvious. The Astros are likely to appreciate the skill more than the Angels have.

How good a receiver is Conger? We can go the more simple way, or we can go the more complicated way. The answers are the same: he’s outstanding. Let’s go to StatCorner first. In 2013, out of regular and semi-regular catchers, Conger ranked third in extra strikes per game. In 2014, he ranked first, ahead of Molina, Christian Vazquez, and Rene Rivera. No one in baseball has been better at preserving strikes; almost no one has been better at gaining additional strikes.

For the more complicated way, we turn to Baseball Prospectus. Their framing numbers are based on more intricate formulas, controlling for a great number of variables. In 2013, out of regular and semi-regular catchers, Conger ranked tied for fifth in framing runs expressed as a rate stat. He was third in extra strikes per game. In 2014, Conger ranked first in runs as a rate stat, and second in extra strikes per game. Let’s combine the last two years. Let’s set a minimum of 5,000 so-called “framing opportunities”. We’re left with a pool of 56 catchers. Within that pool, Conger ranks second in extra strikes per game, and second in framing runs per game. The only catcher better: Jose Molina, who wasn’t better in the season that just ended.

Take the BP numbers at face value, and the last two years, Conger’s framing has been worth more than 30 runs alone. People quibble with the magnitudes of these things, and people debate over how to distribute responsibility, but it makes sense that the Astros would be believers in this, just as the Rays have been and just as the Brewers obviously are. The Astros, presumably, see Conger as an elite-level framer, and though he doesn’t have too many other skills, Nelson Cruz doesn’t have too many other skills aside from clobbering dingers, and the dingers make him valuable. It doesn’t matter how a guy’s good, as long as he’s good. The Astros identified and got a good player, according to the ways they evaluate players.

Here’s something fun. BP breaks down framing data by pitching battery. Conger, last year, split time on the Angels with Chris Iannetta. There were eight guys they each caught for at least 100 plate appearances. Let’s see how they did with each catcher:

Pitcher Conger, Chances Conger, +Strikes Iannetta, Chances Iannetta, +Strikes Advantage
Jered Weaver 856 51 1062 17 Conger
Hector Santiago 798 -2 481 -15 Conger
C.J. Wilson 832 26 1102 8 Conger
Garrett Richards 521 15 931 -25 Conger
Matt Shoemaker 461 9 656 -2 Conger
Tyler Skaggs 254 3 632 -9 Conger
Kevin Jepsen 233 0 323 5 Iannetta
Joe Smith 262 19 330 4 Conger

Of the eight, seven got better strikes zones pitching to Conger, and the one exception — Jepsen — had some pretty small sample sizes. Conger was great on his own team; Conger was great.

Using data from Baseball Savant, let’s look at a .gif of different 2014 strike zones. I selected three catchers: Conger, Devin Mesoraco, and Jarrod Saltalamacchia. Conger was a good receiver, Mesoraco was an average receiver, and Saltalamacchia was a bad receiver, at least by the measurements we have. The differences might be a little subtle, but pay attention to the edges:


Conger’s pretty strong everywhere, and in particular low in and beyond the zone. He’s able to steal high strikes, as well, and he’s excellent on the horizontal edges. Four .gifs, now, of called strikes in different areas. By selecting strikes, I essentially selected for Conger presumably showing good technique, but despite that bias, you can admire his technique anyway.


CongerCatch (1)


CongerCatch (2)

Arm side:

CongerCatch (3)

Glove side:

CongerCatch (4)

You can teach catchers to get better, and the Astros have taught Jason Castro to get better, but everyone has an ability ceiling. Conger’s is higher than most, because he’s able to remain just so incredibly quiet and confident. The one I like most above is the second one. Conger had a target down, around the knees. He caught the pitch above Dustin Ackley’s belt, but from watching the .gif, you’d never really guess that the pitcher missed to the opposite part of the zone. Conger read how Wade LeBlanc was likely to miss, so he prepared before the ball had even arrived. The target was missed by something like two feet, and Conger couldn’t possibly have received it any better.

If you believe in the value of pitch-framing, you believe in the value of Hank Conger. If any team in baseball believes in the value of pitch-framing, it stands to reason it would be the Astros. So they picked up a 26-year-old with three more years of team control, and his strength isn’t the kind of thing that gets rewarded handsomely through arbitration. So now the team has options, as they figure out how to proceed with Jason Castro, and if Conger remains as a backup, he’ll be okay with that. If he gets an expanded role, he’ll be okay with that, and while Conger’s framing compares well to Jose Molina’s, Conger’s also younger, with greater offensive potential. Conger seems like a pretty good catcher overall, because of one particularly strong strength, and it’s not often you can get a pretty good catcher for a worse catcher and a back-of-the-rotation project.

Not that this is a blockbuster or a rip-off or anything. The Angels might be fond of Perez. Chris Iannetta just ran a 126 wRC+. Nick Tropeano has had success in Triple-A, and everyone likes his changeup. Pitchers with underwhelming fastballs but good changeups can end up underrated prospects, and Tropeano could start for the Angels for the league minimum. That’s valuable, especially for a team with so much big money already committed. The Angels are looking to do certain things on a budget.

So from the Angels’ side, you can understand it well enough. From the Astros’ side, you can understand it even more. Because of Mike Fast, we all got to learn about the amazing hidden value of Jose Molina. The Astros just picked up their own younger version.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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9 years ago

All hail our BP overlords at the Astros!