30 Players in 30 Days: Hank Conger
Hank Conger found his way to the 2015 Houston Astros on Nov. 5, 2014, when the team dealt right-handed pitcher Nick Tropeano and catcher Carlos Perez to the Los Angeles Angels in exchange for the backup catcher. The door opened for Conger to become the catcher next to Jason Castro after the Astros traded Carlos Corporan to the Texas Rangers just two months later. A 27-year-old switch hitter, Conger came over with a prowess in pitch receiving and framing – not hitting. Conger’s best season at the plate before this one came in 2013 when he hit a modest .249/.310/.403 with seven home runs.
Conger made his first appearance with the Houston Astros on April 9 against the Cleveland Indians, going 0 for 2 with two walks and a strikeout. His next appearance came three days later against the Texas Rangers in extra innings. Castro walked to lead off the top of the 12th inning and was replaced by a pinch runner, but the Astros failed to score and Conger came in as a defensive replacement. In the 14th inning with one runner on, he stepped into the box from the left side and hit a home run into right field to give the team a 6-4 lead and seal the victory.
Conger struggled offensively the rest of the month though and recorded only one more hit in 12 at-bats in April. May was not much kinder to Conger and through two months of the season he had only seven hits in 45 at-bats. On June 1, Castro went down with a right knee contusion giving Conger an opportunity to be an everyday catcher for the Astros, and he responded with his best month of the season.
For the month of June, Conger hit .310/.383/.548 with a couple of home runs. After Castro’s return, the two catchers split time behind the plate almost evenly in July. His best offensive game of the season came on Aug. 1 against the Arizona Diamondbacks when he hit a home run in each of his first two at-bats (including a grand slam) and finished the night with three hits and 5 RBIs. Conger slumped through the rest of August and lost out on playing time before Castro went down once again on Aug. 28 with a right quad strain.
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Conger took over and caught in 18 straight games – a heavy load for a catcher to take on late in the season. In those games, he hit .231/.268/.462 with three home runs. Conger started only one game behind the plate from Sept. 17 through the end of the season and was not a factor for the team in the postseason as the team relied more on Castro’s defense.
Conger had only one at-bat in the postseason, but he became a fan favorite for doing the ‘Chappelle’s Show’ robot after every big home run the team hit down the stretch. The routine became must-watch television every time a Houston Astro rounded the bases after a home run and entered the dugout. The execution was 10/10, and it’s worth checking out if you’re not familiar with it.
In 2015, Conger appeared in 73 games for the Astros and set career highs in home runs (11), RBIs (33), OBP (.311), and SLG (.448). His OPS of .759 tied him with Marwin Gonzalez for fifth highest on the team, mostly because 22 of his 46 hits on the season went for extra bases. Conger was much better against right-handed pitching, hitting for over .100 points higher from the left side.
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Conger’s defense took a hit in 2015 with a career-low -0.2 dWAR. 43 runners attempted to steal a base on Conger in 2015; he threw out ONE of them for a 2% caught-stealing rate (the league average in 2015 was 32%). The last player he threw out came on May 29 when he threw out J.B. Shuck against the Los Angeles Angels. Conger did have some shoulder issues in September, but it’s a surprise that teams did not run on him at every opportunity late in the season.
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What to expect in 2016
There’s not much competition at the major league level for the Astros at catcher right now. Conger can get hot with the bat, but won’t get any extra playing time because of the separation defensively between him and Castro. All in all, Conger is a solid offensive backup catcher and seems like a great clubhouse guy, but he isn’t going to develop a rocket arm over the offseason.
Conger can continue to get better offensively, though, and will almost certainly receive more playing time if he can get his caught stealing rate closer to his career averages. If not, don’t be surprised if the Astros take a look at Max Stassi or venture outside of the organization for another backstop to complement Castro.