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Iannetta, Conger, and the End of the Arencibia Era

If one were willing to go out on a limb, one might say that Blue Jays’ catcher J.P. Arencibia did not have the best year. Sure, he hit 21 home runs and, well, that is about it. With the rumor mill firing up in anticipation getting into full swing after the World Series, word has it that the Blue Jays are interested in acquiring one of the Angels’ catchers: either Chris Iannetta or Hank Conger.

On a superficial level, the Jays’ interest in replacing Arencibia might seem strange. He will be just 28 next season and has averaged just almost 21 home runs over the last three seasons. That is good power from a catcher. The problem is that power is about all Arencibia brings to the table. When Arencibia (then 25) was in his first full season, his bat was below average (91 wRC+), but that was just fine for a catcher, and his contact issues were made up for in large part by his good power. He did not walk much, but he was just below average in that respect, and given his age, could be expected to improve. With a bit of promise with the bat, his problematic glove might have been something with which the Jays could live, given a little regression up to the mean.

However, Arencibia’s bat, rather than improving or even staying the same, has gotten worse in each of the last two seasons. Reading meaning into linear trends in player performance is dangerous, but it is striking in Arencibia’s case. Each season since 2011, Arencibia’s walk rate, strikeout rate, and isolated power have gotten worse. His contact rate, never good, was at its worst this season, but he continued to swing away. Arencibia’s batting average on balls in play (BABIP) will likely bounce back, but he is a slow, fly-ball hitter, so expecting it to come close to .300 would be extremely optimistic.

Defense is difficult to quantify for any position, but I think it is fair to say that whether one looks at various metrics or scouting opinions, Arencibia is not often confused with Yadier Molina.

Arencibia is eligible for his first year of salary arbitration in the coming off-season, and probably will not get a huge raise. Steamer actually sees him as having a decent 2014 season, despite the decline in his significant peripherals. Still, the Jays see more of Arencibia than anyone, and it makes sense for them to pursue other options. The targeted Angels are cut from a somewhat similar mold (one not uncommon among catchers) as Arencibia: slow, fly-ball hitters with seemingly problematic defense.

Five or six years ago, Iannetta looked like he might be a very good catcher, indeed. His batting numbers were inflated by Coors Field, but even after the adjusting for that, he was still a good hitter for a catcher, although there were always questions about his defense. One could get into chicken-and-egg discussions about whether the Iannetta’s performance was the justifiable cause of his subsequent benchings and demotions or the other way around, but the Rockies had clearly become frustrated with the low batting averages and dubious defense, and after 2011 Iannetta was traded to the Angels to make room for the disciplined approach (ahem) and defensive wizardry (AHEM) of Wilin Rosario.

Iannetta’s 2012 season was interrupted by injury, but in his two years with the Angels, he has been at least decent when on the field. His defensive work has been poor, but not bad enough to cancel out the value of a catcher with an above-average bat (107 and 111 wRC+ in his two seasons with the Angels, respectively). Iannetta still strikes out a lot and hits lots of fly balls thus leading to a low batting average, but he hits for enough power and takes enough walks to make up for it. Steamer projects more of the same. Iannetta is owed just over $10 million combined for 2014 and 2015, a good price for a player of his quality, even if the most plate appearances he has ever had in a season was 426.

While Iannetta is a known quantity as a decent veteran starter, Conger might be more intriguing. After seemingly languishing in the Angels system waiting for a chance behind Mike Napoli (OK, that makes sense) and Jeff Mathis (…), Conger got a bit of look in the majors in 2011, and a slightly better one in 2013. While he was in the minors, there were hopes that — at least in terms of his bat — he would turn out to be a mini-Napoli, but he has not yet showed that kind of power in the minors or the majors. This season, though, Conger — who will turn 26 in January — did show that he might be a viable major league catcher. Like Arencibia and Iannetta, he has a bit of a problem with strikeouts and contact. He does not walk much (and one should take his Pacific Coast League walk rates with a grain of salt), but he is not completely awful in that respect. Conger’s power is decent, and Steamer projects him to hit better in 2014 (96 wRC+) than Arencibia (82 wRC+), and a 96 wRC+ is fine for a catcher even without the comparison to Arencibia.

As with Arencibia and Ianetta, most evaluations of Conger’s ability to control the running game and block pitches are not positive. But there is another dimension of Conger’s work behind the plate that needs to be mentioned: His pitch-framing skill. It has been pointed out to me that ideally, pitch-framing would not be a usable skill at all, since we would want balls and strikes to be called perfectly. But we do not live in that ideal world, and there is some evidence that whatever his other problems behind the plate, Conger is very good when it comes to framing pitches, as Jeff Sullivan discussed in detail earlier this year. How much this improves his value, it is difficult to say, but it does matter. Conger is likely not the hitter than Iannetta is, but his pitch framing, age and lower cost make him arguably the better trade target.

Of course, this is all from the Jays’ standpoint. The Angels would have a say in any potential trade, too, and may very well want more for Conger. Either player would be better for the Jays, who despite their very disappointing 2013, are pretty clearly in “win now” mode given last off-season’s moves. As for Arencibina, I suppose one could make an argument for keeping him around as a backup, but it is not clear that he is all that much better than Josh Thole, who is already under contract for 2014.

While I personally find Conger more interesting, one can also see the arguments for Iannetta. Either way, it is probably time for the Arencibia Era in Toronto to come to a close. This assumes the Angels want to dance, of course. They could keep both Conger and Iannetta and have a nice catching combination next season. But if the Jays are somewhat eager to trade, the Angels might be able to extract something good. Maybe it would be a small measure of revenge for an earlier occasion when they traded a catcher with questionable defense to Toronto.