Given all of 2013’s disappointments, it’s easy to overlook the things that actually went right last year (other than Mike Trout, of course). One can be forgiven for not pushing through the not inconsiderable haze of Albert Pujols’ injuries, Josh Hamilton’s frightening inability to hit lefties, and Jered Weaver’s ever-declining velocity to find more positive narratives. They are there if you squint, though. For instance, did you know that Chris Iannetta and Hank Conger put together arguably the best season by Angels catchers in Mike Scioscia’s 14 years at the helm in Anaheim? Because it sure as hell surprised me.
Iannetta and Conger were worth a combined 3.1 fWAR in 2013, marking the first time this century an Angels catching cohort has topped three wins. The surprisingly adequate duo also posted 1+ WAR each, making them only the second pair of Halos catchers to do so in a season under Sosh’s tutelage—the elder Molina brothers first accomplished the feat back in 2005.
Neither catcher lit up the stat sheet outside of Iannetta nearly earning more free passes than hits1, but they really weren’t supposed to. The whole purpose of a platoon is to create a two-headed monster of sorts that’ll equal or surpass the production of one average player, which is exactly what Iannetta and Conger did. Each started 60 games against righty starters1, and the right-handed hitting Iannetta got the nod in 42 of the club’s 44 contests versus southpaws. In the end, their combined .237/.341/.385 batting line was good for a 109 OPS+, which means that the league’s catchers, as a whole, were nine percent worse at the plate than the I/C tandem. That’s nowhere close to the league leaders, of course, but it’s still sufficiently better than just about any other unit Scioscia has trotted out behind (and to) the dish since taking over in 2000.
Thanks largely to Jeff Mathis and Jose Molina, those wielding the tools of ignorance for the Angels have been below average at the plate in 11 of the past 14 seasons. Only a gargantuan half season from Mike Napoli in 2008—a 971 OPS in 269 PA—keeps last season’s production from Iannetta/Conger2 out of the top spot by OPS+.
Iannetta and Conger are never going to hit for a high batting average, but they more than make up for it in on-base percentage. The 81 unintentional walks the pair drew last year is not only the franchise’s highest total since the club’s inaugural season in 1961, it’s also seven more than Halo backstops accrued in 2010 and 2011 combined. Prior to last year, no Scioscia-led catching corps had ever posted an OBP above .320 in a season, and only three squads had eclipsed even .310. To put it in even sharper relief, last season’s .341 OBP was a full 45 points higher than the average on-base mark catchers have tallied under Scioscia.
Given the success Iannetta and Conger had last season, it makes sense that they’re planning on going with a similar arrangement this season. Sayeth the Sosh:
“I think the combination worked well and we’ll probably use some form of that … Exactly how or what it’s going to be is tough to say, but we expect a lot of both guys.”
Just what combination they should go with is tough to say given the myriad factors involved, but I think there are at least a few things that can be said:
1) The Fewer Starts Iannetta Gets Against RHPs, the Better
A lot was made this spring of the coincidence between Chris Iannetta’s 2013 late-season surge and the prescription for contact lenses he received in late July. His strong second-half numbers combined with a stellar spring made the story of better vision causing better results an easy one, and even Iannetta is somewhat of a believer in the effect. While I don’t doubt his now-20/15 vision has had some impact4 on his play, like most sports narratives it oversimplifies the situation.
What isn’t mentioned in any of the pre-season stories is the fact that Iannetta’s improved second half also coincided with significantly fewer starts against right-handed pitching, against whom he does not have the platoon advantage:
Iannetta and Conger may have ended the season breaking even in terms of starts against righties, but only because the Angels enacted a massive shift in strategy midway through season. If we delve a little deeper, breaking down the starts by month, the picture becomes even clearer:
As you can see the shift in usage was a gradual one, growing more pronounced as the season went on. The relationship between the above graph and Iannetta’s OPS isn’t perfect, but we shouldn’t expect it to be given the small sample size involved in each month. What stands out, nevertheless, is that his high mark for the year—a 911 OPS in September—occurred in the one month Iannetta saw more than half his plate appearances (59.4%) come against lefties.
Everyone struggles to some extent against players who hit/pitch from the same side. This is not really up for debate. There is variance, however, in just how badly one will struggle when he doesn’t have the platoon advantage. Pujols, for instance, has a platoon split of just .013 OPS over his career. Iannetta, on the other hand, has an OPS gap of .128—against southpaws (.860 OPS), he’s freaking Mike Napoli; against righties (.732), he’s merely Gregg Zaun. And I think we can all agree that the less Gregg Zaun, the better.
2) When Iannetta Does Start Against RHPs, Play to His Strengths
In a perfect world, Chris Iannetta would hit left-handed. This would allow him to naturally slide into the bigger part of a platoon (because roughly 70% of starters are right-handed), and no one would give it much thought. He doesn’t, though, so his occupying the primary catching duties creates a bit of a conundrum.
The simplest solution, of course, would be for Hank Conger to take all the starts against righties. That isn’t going to happen, nor should it. Hank is improving at the dish to be sure, but he’s already getting 90% percent of his plate appearances from the left side. Can we really expect him to improve much on last year’s 713 OPS when he’s already at the extreme limits of a platoon? Probably not.
The alternative, then, is to continue splitting their time against righties somewhat evenly, but with an eye towards playing to their strengths:
For Iannetta, whose primary weapon is plate discipline, this means giving him as many starts as possible against right-handers with control issues. Iannetta has drawn a free pass in 14.2% of his plate appearances over his career, which is 14th all time among catchers. Pretty dang good. His facing of same-side pitchers with below-average walk rates (>7.4%) wouldn’t necessarily guarantee a base-on-balls frenzy—he’s always had a higher BB rate against lefties—but common sense dictates that it would help him notch more free passes than if his starts were distributed randomly.
For Conger, an optimal platoon means utilizing him against fastball-heavy righties and/or having him sit against the guys with strong offspeed pitches5. Hank owns a stellar .219 ISO against the righty hard stuff—with 73% of his extra-base hits vs. RHPs coming on fastballs—but a merely .105 ISO on change-ups and splitters. If Conger can get more starts against righties like Bartolo Colon, who leans on his fastball (and who, incidentally, Conger took deep on Sunday), and avoid cambio artists like Felix Hernandez, he should have a better chance at finding success at the plate.
Crunching the numbers, there’s no indication that the Angels have taken any of these approaches as of yet, other than Iannetta getting fewer starts overall. The extremely varied walk rates of the righties each catcher faced last year, and the seemingly random distribution of who faced whom—both had starts vs. King Felix, A.J. Griffin, Yu Darvish, and more—suggest that there has been some other deciding factor. This holds true even when limiting the query to the second half of 2013 and the start of this year.
It would be cool to figure out what it is that dictates who starts when behind the dish—even if it’s something as simple and intangible as pitcher comfort—but for now it’s fun just to theorize on what could make the platoon more effective. It’s certainly something to keep an eye on, if nothing else.
1 Iannetta began September with 61 walks to 57 knocks, only to disappoint us all by notching 16 hits in the final month.
2 The reason the overall numbers don’t add up is that those 120 starts were made in 118 games. Conger twice started at DH in May while Iannetta was behind the dish.
3 Saying their names back to back sounds like one of the Mario Bros talking about his fishing catch for the day.
4 If you really think improved vision was the only factor involved, Dan Uggla has a bridge he’d like to sell you.
5 Iannetta has some serious trouble with the swing-and-miss on offspeed pitches—his Attackability Score is among the league’s worst—but he mashes those offerings well enough (.184 ISO) when he does make contact that avoiding the guys with the best junk pitches wouldn’t really help him.