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Why The Rays Traded For A Catcher Who Can’t Throw

On Wednesday night, the Houston Astros traded backup catcher Hank Conger to the Tampa Bay Rays for cash considerations, just minutes before the midnight deadline to tender 2016 contracts to arbitration-eligible players. The glass-half-empty take on the trade is that the Astros, who gave up two MLBready players to acquire Conger from the Angels last offseason, decided he wasn’t worth the $1.8 million he’s projected to earn in 2016, which is less than half of last season’s average major league salary. The positive spin is that the Rays, who aren’t known for their cash flow, decided he was worth that sum, plus the convenience fee they sent to the Astros. And that’s curious, considering that Conger’s 2015 season made him, by one measure, the most incompetent catcher of all time:

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2015 Hank Conger 43 2.3%
1999 Brian Banks 28 3.6
2012 Rod Barajas 99 6.1
1970 Bill Sudakis 32 6.3
1983 Luis Pujols 46 6.5
1959 Clint Courtney 30 6.7
1990 John Russell 28 7.1
2009 Chad Moeller 27 7.4
2010 Mike Redmond 27 7.4
2010 Craig Tatum 27 7.4

By all accounts, the 27-year-old Conger is a good guy: He just won an award that says so. Conger is well-liked in the clubhouse, politically conscious and a master of memes. He’s also really, really bad at throwing the baseball. Conger’s 2015 caught-stealing percentage sits atop a deeply undistinguished list of catchers who couldn’t control the running game. Forty-three runners tried to steal a base with Conger behind home plate. Forty-two succeeded, including 11 from the division-rival Rangers.

Three questions present themselves. First: How does one go about being history’s very worst catcher at throwing runners out? Second: Who was the one guy Conger caught? And third: Why would any team want to trade for the real-life catcher with a glass arm?

1. Just how the hell?

The first is easy: Conger got rid of the ball very slowly on steal attempts, and he didn’t make up for lost time with any extra oomph.

Conger 0.71s 76.6 mph 2.12s
MLB avg. 0.62s 79.4 mph 1.97s

According to Statcast data provided by MLB Advanced Media, Conger’s average throwing speed ranked 56th among 61 catchers with at least 10 tracked throws to second base last season. His average exchange speed (the time elapsed between the catch and the throw) ranked 60th, and his average pop time (the time elapsed between the catch and the throw’s arrival at the second-base bag) ranked dead last. Compare Conger’s release (right) to that of Braves catcher Christian Bethancourt (left), who erased nine of the 20 runners who tested him in 2015 and led all catchers with an average pop time of 1.83 seconds and an average throwing speed of 86.0 mph:

By Bethancourt’s standards, Conger seems to move in slow motion: He comes out of his crouch less quickly, looks less balletic with his footwork, and doesn’t get the same whip with his arm.

2. OK, who was it?

So how did he end his 0-fer? The magic occasion came on May 29, against White Sox outfielder J.B. Shuck, Conger’s former Angels teammate.

Conger got the throw off more quickly than usual (pop time of 2.01 seconds) with just a little more juice than usual (77.6 mph). But he also had help from Shuck. The runner’s speed was in line with the MLB average for attempted steals of second, but he got a bad jump, which isn’t visible in the video. Shuck’s first step was slow, and his primary and secondary leads — his distances from the first-base bag when the pitch was released by pitcher Josh Fields and caught by Conger, respectively — were between half a foot and a full foot off the league average. As a result, it took him almost two-tenths of a second longer than the typical runner to reach second. That slow start might explain why Shuck has been a bad base-stealer overall, going 7-for-12 last season and 19-for-27 over the past three years.

Shuck (5/29) 11.2 ft. 19.5 ft. .306s
MLB average 11.6 ft. 20.4 ft. .217s

It took a perfect confluence of events — a fast Fields delivery (1.33 seconds), a bad jump by Shuck and an accurate, unusually rapid release from Conger — to put the catcher on the scoreboard. And the Rays just made him a trade target.

3. So what gives?

The Rays may believe that Conger’s arm will bounce back: According to Inside Edge, his pop time was 0.11 seconds faster in 2014 than in 2015, and he owned an almost-respectable 22.4 percent career caught-stealing rate heading into last season. Moreover, while the Astros have a durable starter in Jason Castro, an array of young understudies who’ll make the league minimum, and even Evan Gattis, who dabbles behind home plate, the Rays ranked 25th in catcher wins above replacement last season and would otherwise be relying on René Rivera, last season’s worst-hitting catcher, and Curt Casali, who’s never made more than 32 starts in a big-league season. As a matter of roster balance, there’s some logic here.

More importantly, though, the Rays seem to be banking on one of this decade’s central catcher-defense discoveries: Throwing just doesn’t matter that much, relative to other aspects of the position that Conger can handle. Baseball Prospectus recently revamped its fielding stats for catchers to account for the pitchers they work with and the runners they face. Research suggests that pitchers are far more responsible for base-stealing behavior than their battery mates, so in theory, the spread in catcher throwing runs should be small. That’s exactly what BP’s numbers reveal: The range between the best- and worst-throwing catcher in 2015 was only 6.3 runs, slightly smaller than the range in blocking runs (6.9), and a fraction of the range in framing runs (44.2). Conger, who ranked among baseball’s best framers from 2013 to 2014 — which may have made him attractive to the framing-friendly Astros — declined sharply last season but remained above average as both a blocker and a receiver, more than making up for his league-worst throwing-runs rate. And because Conger has been a roughly league-average hitting catcher over the course of his career, the Rays aren’t sacrificing offense for framing the way they did with out-machine Jose Molina in 2014.

Further, Astros pitchers deserve a good deal of the blame for Conger’s historic base-stealing struggles. Weighted by batters faced, the pitchers Conger caught averaged 1.49 seconds to home plate from the stretch, according to Inside Edge, which was barely above the 1.47-second MLB baseline. But although Astros pitchers weren’t especially slow to the plate, they were oblivious to base runners. The Astros’ staff attempted only 23 pickoffs per 100 stolen-base opportunities, which ranked last in the league, well below the MLB average of 40 per 100. Pickoff attempts aren’t just for show, so it’s not surprising that Astros pitchers also had the AL’s worst Swipe Rate Above Average, a measure of their impact on runner success rates, independent of Conger. In other words, had Conger thrown just as poorly on a team whose staff paid more attention to runners, he wouldn’t have had such an eye-catching caught-stealing percentage.

Conger’s continued employment, then, is to some extent a sign of the times. Where once a strong arm was the ultimate signifier of a catcher’s defensive prowess, greater understanding of stats has taught teams that most catchers’ arms are almost an afterthought. Which brings us back to Bethancourt, who has a cannon but doesn’t do anything else well: He can’t hit, and he’s also a below-average blocker and framer, which means he was worse than Conger on defense — and spent most of last season in the minors — despite his sublime pop time and caught-stealing percentage. In baseball’s brave new world, sometimes it’s better to be the catcher with the worst arm than the one with the best.

Thanks to Ezra Wise of MLBAM, Hans Van Slooten of Baseball-Reference.com, Rob McQuown of Baseball Prospectus, and Kenny Kendrena and Keith Isley of Inside Edge for research assistance.

Ben Lindbergh is a former staff writer at FiveThirtyEight.

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