Is Hank Conger Undervalued?

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The Astros acquired Hank Conger, 27, from the Angels early in November for prospects Nick Tropeano and Carlos Perez. Giving up Tropeano seemed like a steep price to pay for Conger, who will likely serve as no more than a backup catcher in Houston. Yet, with the Astros’ front office loving their analytics, there is one reason that this acquisition makes sense: Conger is an elite pitch framer.

According to Baseball Prospectus, “His most notable contributions…came from behind the dish, where pitch framing metrics estimate that he conned 20-plus runs worth of extra strike calls from gullible umpires, implying world-class hands.”  Keep in mind that Hank Conger only played in 80 games last season, so the ability to have a bigger impact defensively is certainly there.

Why didn’t he play even more if he is such an asset? His offensive output is a bit of a liability. Last season he hit just .221 with a .293 on-base percentage while belting four home runs and driving in 25. There is room for some optimism with Conger’s bat, being that Minute Maid Park saw an average of 1.173 home runs per game last season, while Angel Stadium of Anaheim saw just 0.837. That could equate to a couple of extra home runs for the switch-hitting catcher over the course of a season, and possibly a few balls hit off the wall in left that add to his rbi total.

Baseball Prospectus thinks that the drop in Conger’s offensive numbers from 2013 to 2014 could be fluky, and “might indicate that he’s just a mechanical tweak away from rebounding mightily in 2015.” That is all speculation, however. The real value he brings to the team is in his pitch framing.

The twenty runs that he saved last season would have moved the Astros pitching staff from 25th in earned runs allowed to 22nd in the majors. Add in the bullpen pieces that were added a month after Conger in Luke Gregerson and Pat Neshek, and we could be looking at a team that allows something closer to 600 earned runs in 2015, as opposed to the 657 from last season. That decrease in runs allowed would move the Astros up to 18th in last year’s rankings.

While this still may not sound like much, couple the improved pitching staff with an offense that is likely to be better than a year ago, and we’re looking at more wins coming Houston’s way. If Hank Conger starts to hit like he did in 2013 (.249 average, .310 OBP, 7 home runs, 21 rbi in 233 at-bats), it’s conceivable that he could steal playing time away from Jason Castro as the season progresses.

Next: Astros Best and Worst Investments

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