Alan Dell

DELL COMMENTARY: Rays betting they can unlock the Conger mystery

Solving the mystery of Hank Conger is a priority for the Tampa Bay Rays.

For the people who sit in the hierarchy of the organization, there has to be a bit of anxiety because a repeat of last season for their new catcher could be embarrassing.

Cynics could have a field day with Conger, who will start the season opener and play at least half the games, according to manager Kevin Cash.

No team wants a catcher who is a base stealer's dream.

Last season with Houston, Conger was the worst catcher perhaps in baseball history at throwing out base stealers when he nabbed one in 43 attempts.

Cash put the onus on the Astros pitchers, saying they did not do a good job at holding runners on.

The Rays apparently subscribe to the theory that pitchers are more responsible for stealing than catchers.

But the Astros' other catcher, Jason Castro, threw out 24 of 66 base stealers for a 36 percent success rate compared to Conger's 2 percent.

The Astros staff attempted 23 pickoffs per 100 stolen base opportunities, which ranked last in the league and well below the MLB average of 40 per 100.

But Conger's average throwing speed ranked 56th among 61 catchers with at least 10 tracked throws last season accord

ing to MLB Advanced Media. His average time elapsed between the catch and the throw's arrival at second base ranked last.

Conger is a good framer of pitchers, but a catcher who turns singles and walks into doubles could be a liability even if management likes the switch-hitter's bat.

The Rays say they can change his technique and he did have a 22.4 percent career caught stealing rate prior to last season.

"Our pitchers pride themselves in doing a good job of giving those catchers a good chance to throw. The pitchers love throwing to Hank," Cash said.

Stealing a base involves the runner, pitcher, catcher and fielder making the tag. A prevailing argument is that the runner has the biggest impact with his speed and ability to get a jump, though that puts the onus on the pitcher.

Rene Rivera, who the Rays cut to make room for Conger, threw out 36 percent of would-be base stealers, but his bat was dismal and the Rays are intent of improving their offense.

The AL East is not overflowing with speedy runners, but some present a legitimate threat. Toronto led the majors in stolen-base percentage last season (79.3 percent), but they traded Jose Reyes and Kevin Pillar, who stole 41 bases in 47 attempts.

What could be in Conger's favor is teams are not trying to steal as much these days. Last season there were 2,505 stolen bases, the lowest total since 1974 when 2,488 bases were swiped. The per-game average of 0.52 steals per team last year was the lowest since 1973.

One reason for decline is the risk factor. If teams don't feel they can successfully steal bases in 70 percent of their attempts, they don't think it's worthwhile. Some use the 80 percent threshold.

Bases running threats also help hitters because pitchers tend to throw quicker to the plate and lay off the breaking balls with a legitimate base stealer on first.

Last year, teams converted base stealing attempts at a 70.2 percent rate. Bottom line for the Rays is that Conger will be tested.

Alan Dell, Herald sports columnist/writer, can be reached at 941-745-7056. Follow him on Twitter @ADellSports