B/R Exclusive Interview: LA Angels Catcher Hank Conger and His MLB Development
Los Angeles Angels rookie catcher Hank Conger has been given the opportunity to start over half the games thus far by Halos’ manager Mike Scioscia. Conger has responded, hitting .273 with three home runs through the first 45 games of the season.
Conger was called up last season when the roster was expanded to 40 players on Sept. 1, and with the Angels out of contention in the American League West, Conger saw action in 13 games, giving the youngster a brief glimpse of life in the majors.
Heading into spring training this season, with the departure of Mike Napoli, Scioscia declared an open audition for the starting catcher’s position.
While Jeff Mathis hit .391 and Bobby Wilson hit .304, Conger hit just .231, but Scioscia saw enough that he wanted Conger with the big club on Opening Day, electing to carry three catchers on the 25-man roster.
When Conger got his chance to start, he not only impressed at the plate, but defensively as well.
During Scioscia’s 11-plus year tenure with the Angels, he has regarded defensive abilities to be paramount among his catchers. Conger has shown an ability to not only handle the pitching staff well, but has added offense at the bottom of the order.
With Mathis hitting just .193 and Wilson essentially relegated to spot duty as the third option behind the plate, Conger is seeing more opportunities.
In an exclusive interview, Bleacher Report talked with Conger about his development in the majors, his maturation process, and his relationship with his fellow catchers.
Doug Mead is a featured columnist with Bleacher Report. His work has been featured on the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, SF Gate, CBS Sports, the Los Angeles Times and the Houston Chronicle. Follow Doug on Twitter, @Sports_A_Holic.
LA Angels Hank Conger: What a Difference a Year Makes
B/R: Hank, you have now played in roughly twice as many games as you did last year in your September call-up. What are the biggest things that stand out in terms of your impressions of the majors thus far between this year and last year?
HC: I think it was huge for me to get that experience last year for that one month, just to go into the offseason and really evaluate myself as a catcher and a hitter. Try to make adjustments at the plate, and also behind the plate, making sure I get on the same page with the pitchers.
LA Angels Hank Conger: The Price of a Good Education
B/R: Was the learning curve bigger than you had imagined moving to the majors?
HC: There’s a lot of scouting going on. Everywhere you turn your head, we’ve always got video everywhere, so for me, I have to do a scouting report on both sides. I have to make sure I get with the pitchers, and also hitting.
I think one of the toughest things in adjusting has been facing a new pitcher every day. It takes a while to see everyone once or twice, so I think that’s one of the toughest things.
LA Angels Hank Conger: Double Duty Comes with a Price
B/R: How difficult has it been to adjust to facing new pitchers and keep up with your homework behind the plate?
HC: It’s tough. My priority right now is to get our pitchers through the game and make sure we win, so when I’m looking at video of other teams and their pitchers, it’s tough, because I have to put twice as much work in as everybody else.
LA Angels Hank Conger: Youth Is Being Served
B/R: A lot has been said thus far about the youth movement for the Angels this season. Yourself, Mark Trumbo, Peter Bourjos, Jordan Walden, Tyler Chatwood and now Alexi Amarista. Talk to us about how you feel about the makeup of the younger players and how they are impacting the team.
HC: It’s kind of cool, I’ve gotten to play with them now for the past couple of years, Mark and Pete I’ve played with since ’07, and we’ve moved up every single level together, so it’s kind of cool.
I think for the most part, we still have a lot of work to do. We still have a lot of things we can improve on to get better in order to help the ballteam out.
LA Angels Hank Conger: The Support of a Good Leader
B/R: Mike Scioscia has never been shy about playing youngsters in the past. Being a former catcher himself, what type of guidance and direction has he given to you?
HC: It’s been huge. Just talking with Mike and also to Butcher, our pitching coach, just the little things—getting the feel for everything, making sure that I’m on top of my game, and that we stay focused and prepared for each ballgame.
LA Angels Hank Conger: Learning to Get Along with New Family
B/R: Obviously, with three catchers on the roster, a lot has been said about who should play, when they should play, and so on. How has the relationship been between you and Jeff Mathis and Bobby Wilson?
HC: It’s been great, especially last year, when I first came up, I think the biggest help was through Jeff and Bobby, and also when Nap (Mike Napoli) was here as well, they made sure I felt comfortable, getting pointers from them and how they’ve been progressing through this, and just learning from them has been huge for me.
LA Angels Hank Conger: Soaking in Information from His Elders
B/R: Do you get together with Mathis and Wilson to compare notes and talk about handling the pitching staff?
HC: Actually, we get together with our pitchers, too. We have a big meeting together before the start of each series, and just learning from both. They’re both outstanding defensive catchers, so just to learn from them and take notes from them has been big for me.
LA Angels Hank Conger: The Key to Continued Growth
B/R: What is the one part of your game that you want to improve on?
HC: I think just to have a little bit more maturity, and the positive that I’m taking throughout the season is that with each start, each time I get in there, I’ve been feeling more and more comfortable, with our pitching staff and with our team.
Just trying to talk to everyone as well, I was a little shy—I would be too timid to talk to the players, but the more and more I get comfortable and keep talking to my teammates, that’s going to help continue my development as a catcher.
LA Angels Hank Conger: Respect Is Earned One Pitcher at a Time
B/R: Jered Weaver and others have talked about how well you handle yourself behind the plate. That has to feel good at this point in your career.
HC: That’s a huge compliment coming from Jered. We have a veteran pitching staff. That was the one thing that I really wanted to be focused on was to make sure our pitchers do feel comfortable, knowing that they have confidence pitching when I’m behind the plate.
I think that’s probably every catcher’s worst fear behind the plate—to have a pitcher saying ‘Ah, he’s catching again,’ so that’s definitely one of the things that I’m feeling pretty positive about.
LA Angels Hank Conger: Interleague Play Is Just Fine with Me
B/R: This is your first experience with interleague play. Any opinion for or against?
HC: I like it. I like it a lot. Obviously, being my first season, it’s kind of cool getting to see other teams. Growing up, I was a huge Chipper Jones fan.
Even in high school and going through the minors, one of the guys I idolized a lot behind the plate too was (Brian) McCann, so it’s fun. It’s fun to see different types of players, so for me it’s going to be a lot of fun.