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Astros spring training roster battles: Catcher

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Jason Castro will likely be the starter; how much will Hank Conger play?

Framin', Framin'

The whole day through

Just a new sweet article

Keeps framin' on my mind

(I'm so, so sorry, Mr. Charles).

Not many subjects have garnered more attention on Crawfish Boxes over the past few months than pitch framing.

We knew about it before the Astros traded for Hank Conger, but we didn't talk about it as much as we did after the Patron Saint of Framing came along.

But, it's still "new" enough as a concept that luminaries around baseball continue to delve into the research. We talked last week about how pitchers could affect framing as a skill. Then, Baseball Prospectus did another article, talking about Johnathan Lucroy and how his reputation may cause more swinging strikes.

That concept makes a ton of sense. We know guys have reputations. We know there are scouting "books" on hitters, so why wouldn't there be books on catchers, too. Heck, I'm sure there are scouting reports on individual umpires and their tendencies.

In discussing the impact Hank Conger could make on the roster, we've dealt more with what he can bring by getting more called strikes above average. We haven't factored in any swinging strikes he generates from his reputation nor have any way to calculate the weaker contact he may get from a guy swinging at a borderline pitch.

I'm sure the Astros have a better handle on what his actual impact may be. I doubt it's as big as it looks, judging by the Called Strikes Above Average calculations, just because that's such a huge number. It'd double his WAR from last year.

What we do know is that Conger's impact could mean more than just the power he brings. He can bring a lot to the pitching staff.

If we're looking at straight offense, there may not be a battle between Jason Castro and Conger. Castro might win going away. If we're looking at defense, Castro might have a slight edge there, too. The knock on Conger was all on his ability to hold runners, after all. That's why Angels fans cackled when they got real value for him in a trade.

Factor in framing. Factor in the difference between Castro (a good framer in his own right) and Conger (one of the best in the game) is about as much of an impact as Castro had himself by framing.

Factor in the pairing of pitchers with good control and an elite framer. Factor in his reputation as a great framer, which could influence how batters take at-bats against his battery.

It sure seems like Conger should be the starter, doesn't it?

This spring's battle at catcher may not be characterized as that. The two spots are set, pretty much. It's an assumption that Jason Castro will be the starter and that the two will share time.

How much time is the battle. Who gets the lion's share of the time? How will the Astros maximize the roster impact of both players?

Since four of the five projected starters all have above-average control numbers, that won't be the tiebreaker in deciding which games Conger starts.

Instead, let's look at which starters gave up the most steals last season.

Keuchel led the pitching staff in stolen base percentage. Only four stolen bases were attempted against him in 267 attempts last season. Of those, just one was successful.

Because no one runs on him, it makes sense for Conger to be paired with him. That battery should maximize his value and Keuchel's value while limiting his deficiencies.

Next up is Collin McHugh, who gave up six steals in 11 attempts against him. That's not a great percentage of holding runners, but it's second-best among the starters.

McHugh also had the worst control numbers of the four starters. He's still better than the league average in walk rate, but he's not as elite as the other three.

Still, maybe pairing him with Conger will get guys to swing at pitches they may not have swung at last season.

The one guy I bet Conger doesn't get paired with is Scott Feldman. Houston's biggest free agent addition from 2014 was pretty horrible at holding runners. He gave up 35 steals in 42 attempts. Only two other Astros pitchers gave up double-digit steals and neither allowed more than 10.

That leaves Oberholtzer, who allowed 83 percent success rate on stolen bases last season, but only saw 12 attempts in 237 opportunities, and whoever wins the fifth starter role. If it's Dan Straily, he gave up the third-lowest stolen base rate of the five, but he was still over 70 percent last season.

The most likely case for Obiehockey and the fifth starter is a rotation of Castro and Conger, based on opposing matchup. Heck, you may even see the odd Gattis start in here, to get his bat in the lineup.

If the pairing goes like this, that means Hank Conger could be your Opening Day catcher, paired with Dallas Keuchel. Assuming Gattis, Luis Valbuena, Jed Lowrie and Colby Rasmus also start on Opening Day, it means that Houston will have turned over five of its nine starters from last year's inaugural game.