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Astros catcher Hank Conger: what you need to know

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What is so special about recently acquired 'Framering Hank?'

USA TODAY Sports

On Wednesday the Astros acquired this guy for prospects catcher Carlos Perez and right-handed pitcher Nicholas Tropeano:

WTF?!?

Carlos Perez and NiTro for this guy? I mean the dude only hit for a .280 wOBA, a 82 wRC+, and a 79 OPS+. Ewwwww.

Carlos Perez is a major league defensive first catcher and Nicholas Tropeano had a pretty good debut. I mean his 4.57 ERA was nothing to get excited about, but he had a 3.32 FIP to go along with it. There's reason for some optimism with a guy that was considered a rotation candidate for next years Astros rotation.

At first glance, it looks like the Astros ended up on the losing side of the Hank Conger for Carlos Perez and Nicholas Tropeano deal. Conger looks like a downgrade if you compare him to Carlos Corporan. Offensively, Corporan had a much better year offensively, however, compare their career totals and Conger has a slight advantage. By slight, I mean a .007 difference in their wOBA. Defensively, DRS has Corporan ahead by a full 5 runs over their careers. So, what gives? Why has the Astros front office seemingly downgraded the backup catcher position by trading away two very nice prospects in Perez and Tropeano.

Why indeed

Well, to appreciate Hank Conger we have to dig a little deeper. To do that we're going to head back over three years, to a Mike Fast article written on Baseball Prospectus titled Spinning Yarn: Removing the Mask Encore Presentation. In the article Fast detailed the benefit of having a catcher that could get a called strike from an umpire, by simply framing the pitch in a certain way. Five months later, on January 24, 2012, Fast was hired by the Astros to work in its analytics department.

In the past three years several analytically inclined sites have delved into how much of an impact catcher framing has on a major league team. And it would seem that those reports are all coming back with positive reviews for catchers who are showing a knack for getting strikes called for their pitchers. Harry Pavlidis penned a piece for ESPN this past summer that covered this emerging catcher skill. Sites like statecorner.com are starting to incorporate this skill into their statistics. And guess what? Conger is coming up as one of the best at this particular skill.

In 2014, Hank Conger produced 21.3 runs above average (RAA) for the Angels pitching staff. He essentially helped the Angels give up 21 less runs this past season in a part-time role.  Only three catchers were better than Conger at pitch framing this past season: Diamondbacks' Miguel Montero; Mariners' Mike Zunino; and the Brewers' Jonathan Lucroy. All three had at least 3000 more pitches to work with than Conger. It's safe to say that Conger is one of the better pitch framers in this league and that isn't something that's going to show up in your regular stat sheet.

Carlos Perez is a fine defensive catcher and Nicholas Tropeano has a really good changeup, but both of those skills pale in comparison to what Conger can provide on a pitch-by-pitch basis. And it's not like Conger isn't without his own upside. Sure, he's struggled at the major league offensively, but he's also had success at the minor league level with a .825 OPS and his 8% walk rate is at about league average. He's striking out a little bit more than he did in the minor leagues, but if he makes the necessary adjustments he has a chance to improve his offensive production. He's also much younger than Carlos Corporan, another aspect that shouldn't be overlooked.

Role with the Astros

Conger's role on the team will likely be as a backup catcher. Jason Castro is a positive pitch framer in his own right, with a better offensive profile and an all-star appearance under his belt. Who knows what happens with Carlos Corporan and Max Stassi. They could be traded or they could be kept as depth. Both guys could have roles on a Class-AAA squad that just lost some depth with Perez and there's always a worry about injury. Remember when Cody Clark was the starting catcher because Castro, Corporan and Stassi were all injured at the same time? I wouldn't say that Stassi or Corporan are gone because of this move. There's certainly an increased chance that one of them is moved, but it's not a guarantee.

While losing Perez and Tropeano is certainly a hit to the Astros minor league system, it's also an improvement to the Astros major league team, albeit a small one that can be hard to see. What this deal essentially comes down to is how Tropeano and pitch framing are evaluated individually. For the Astros this was a no-brainer move to make.