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Friday, August 5, 2011
Free Hank Conger!

By The Common Man



I'll be honest that I'm shocked -- shocked! -- the Los Angeles Angels have made it this far. With Kendrys Morales out for the season and Vernon Wells racking up outs by the dozen, there was almost no doubt in my mind before the season started that the Angels were going to fall off. Yet here we are, 112 games into the season, and the Angels are just a game back of the Texas Rangers for the AL West lead. Good for them.

At this point, it's essentially a toss-up as to who wins the division, given that there are 10 contests left to play between the two rivals, including the last three games of the season in Anaheim. Provided they maximize the resources on hand, there's no reason the Angels can't pull past the Rangers.

In part, that's going to mean making sure that Jered Weaver and Dan Haren, one of the top one-two punches in all of baseball, start as many times as possible. Weaver has been incredible, going 14-5 with a 1.88 ERA and walking fewer batters than ever. Haren (12-6, 2.81) has also been incredibly impressive. Prior to Haren's start against the Twins, they had combined for 9.5 wins above replacement, according to Baseball Reference, while the rest of the pitching staff has just 5.0 WAR. And since June 1, Ervin Santana has stepped up to provide the Angels with a viable third option, posting a 2.52 ERA and tossing a no-hitter.

It's fortunate that the pitching has picked up the slack, because the Angels’ offense ranks just 12th in the American League in runs scored per game. In July, when offenses are supposed to be at their hottest, the Angels hit just .229/.295/.371 as a team. This is a team that struggles to get on base and needed a bat at the trade deadline to shore up their offense. Of course, they did not get it. Standing pat, the Angels decided to live with their offense that is 11th in the league in OBP and 10th in slugging percentage.

After moving Joel Pineiro (14.85 ERA in his last four starts) to the bullpen, there's only one obvious move left for the Angels to make. They must free Hank Conger.

As bad as the Angels’ offense has been, it’s their catching that has been especially atrocious in 2011. Jeff Mathis has started more than half the games behind the dish while hitting just .184/.229/.263 in 214 plate appearances. Among players with more than 200 PAs, he has the lowest OBP in the game. According to FanGraphs, he's been worth -0.8 WAR this year alone. It's not like this is a fluke. In 218 plate appearances last year, Mathis hit .195/.219/.278, for just a 37 OPS+. Indeed, the evidence is simply overwhelming that Mathis is just not a good baseball player. Nor is his current backup, Bobby Wilson, who has just 57 plate appearances on the year despite being active all season, and has a career line of .212/.279/.359.

The good news is that Conger is ready to help at Triple-A. The 23-year-old was the 62nd-best prospect in baseball according to Keith Law before the season began, when he wrote, "Conger could step in and catch every day for any number of clubs right now, and if he doesn't beat out Jeff Mathis for a roster spot, there's something very wrong with the Angels' decision-making process." Conger did break camp with the club, hitting a somewhat disappointing .214/.297/.357 in 173 plate appearances, and was sent down to Triple-A Salt Lake City on July 19.

Before that demotion, Conger was never truly put in a position to succeed by manager Mike Scioscia. He didn't start until the fifth game of the Angels’ season. After that, he entered an odd job-sharing arrangement with Mathis, where he and Conger basically alternated starts for much of May and June, never allowing Conger to get in a rhythm at the dish. Since his demotion, as he's gotten a chance to play every day, Conger has dominated minor-league pitching, hitting .333/.397/.614 with four homers in 63 plate appearances. In other words, he's done exactly what you'd expect a major league-caliber hitter to do. And perhaps more importantly, even though his results were below what the Angels hoped for from their rookie, Conger was still demonstrably better than Mathis.

There's no doubt that Conger is ready. If the Angels are going to hang tough in the AL West, they need all hands on deck. Their best nine must be out on the field every day to pass and hold off the Rangers. That means benching Mathis and installing Conger as the everyday catcher. They have already wasted enough time with a player who actually makes their team worse when he's on the field. It's time for Scioscia to simultaneously embrace the future and the present. Conger is better than he’s shown, and he needs a fair opportunity to prove it. If that proof helps them to slide past the Rangers, that’s excellent. But if they don’t make the move and finish just a game or two back of Texas, there's no doubt who is to blame.

PHOTO OF THE DAY
Casey Kotchman
Everything is illuminated: Casey Kotchman makes sure he scored, with a witness.
The Common Man writes for The Platoon Advantage and fights the good fight on Twitter.