Has Austin Hedges be given a fair shot to play every day at the major league level by the San Diego Padres?
In 2011, the Padres took a chance by drafting a young catcher in the second round. Known as a defensive marvel at JSerra Catholic High School in San Juan Capistrano, other teams stayed away from Austin Hedges thanks to his commitment to UCLA. Obviously, Hedges decided to forego college and signed for $3 million, thus beginning his rocky road with the only organization he’s ever known.
During his tenure with the Padres, Hedges has gone from catcher of the future to forgotten man to limbo. Until Francisco Mejia returns from the IL, he will be behind the plate for the majority of games. But the acquisition of Mejia and reports that the Padres will be searching for catchers in the off-season signal the relationship has reached the point of no return.
Never mind that Hedges leads all catchers with 23 DRS (according to FanGraphs measurement of defensive runs saved) and that he has helped guide the young pitching staff through hazardous territory. The Padres have signaled their intent and do not place a high value on Hedges’ defensive skills, his relationship with the pitchers, or the intangibles he brings to the game.
Before the trade deadline, the Houston Astros made overtures regarding Hedges’ availability. The Angels have a dire need behind the plate, and other teams that place a high value on defense will come calling.
Hedges got his first taste of the big leagues in 2015, general manager A.J. Preller’s first full year in San Diego. He backed up starter Derek Norris, who played in 147 games. The following year, Hedges appeared in only eight games (in part, because of a broken hamate bone), while Norris played in 125.
After the Padres traded Norris, talk show host Darren Smith (at the time with the now-defunct Mighty 1090) debunked the rumors that Matt Kemp had been a cancer in the clubhouse. Instead, he revealed, the real cancer to be Norris, who targeted Hedges but apparently was extremely unpopular with all his teammates.
Finally, in 2017, Hedges got his first real opportunity and played in 120 games. But the following year the Padres added veteran A.J. Ellis (66 games) as well as Rafael Lopez (37 games). At the trade deadline, the team gave up Brad Hand and Adam Cimber to the Cleveland Indians for Mejia. Before his injury this season, Mejia had virtually taken over behind the plate, although he also spent some time in left field.
In his short career, Mejia has shown he can hit (.299/.412/.711). But the Indians did not trust him behind the plate and chose to let him go. Hedges, on the other hand, has never been much of a hitter as witnessed by his career batting line of .205/.258/.368/.625. However, in 2017, when he received the most playing time he did manage 17 doubles, 18 home runs, and 55 RBIs.
However, Hedges’ defensive wizardry cannot be denied. His 23 DRS far outnumber those of the runners up Buster Posey with 12 and J.T. Realmuto 9. In FRM (framing runs) Hedges leads with 17.9, followed by Yasmani Grandal (15.0) and Tyler Flowers (13.0). According to FanGraphs, Mejia rates -2 DRS, -4.4 FRM. In other words, Mejia’s value stems solely from his bat.
To put Hedge’s defensive stats in perspective, the Padres as a whole have 16 DRS to Hedge’s 23. The Los Angeles Dodgers lead the way with 123 DRS with the Arizona Diamondbacks a distant second at 86. Hunter Renfroe comes close to Hedges with 22. But too many other Padres’ players help bring the team’s total DRS down including Eric Hosmer -4, Josh Naylor -2, and Wil Myers -7.
But he added that Hedges “is a stupendous defensive catcher, probably the best in baseball,” citing his 31.8 fielding runs above average (FRAA) in just 120 games. He also points out that Hedges plays the toughest position and cites the example of Yadier Molina who had similar offensive numbers into his late 20s. However, the St. Louis Cardinals trusted a guy hitting (.216/.274.321) behind the plate in the 2006 World Series and ended up winning that elusive prize.
This June, Mark Simon of Sports Info Solutions pronounced Hedges “phenomenal behind the plate for the Padres this season” in his article citing 2019 defensive all-stars. “Compare Hedges’ numbers with the Padres’ pitching staff to the Padres other two catchers, Francisco Mejia, and Austin Allen, and Hedges blows them away.”
And let’s not forget that stats don’t measure the intangible values a player brings, the values the Padres emphasized when the team signed Eric Hosmer. But the relationship between catcher and pitcher goes far beyond clubhouse chemistry. Former Padre Randy Jones speaks glowingly of his relationship with catcher Fred Kendell, calling their connection almost surreal. On the television broadcast, Mark Sweeney frequently points out the level of trust the pitchers have in Hedges, and the importance of that relationship, especially with a young staff.
In Saturday’s game victory over the Colorado Rockies, Hedges virtually willed Lucchesi through six scoreless innings in which he worked around a career-high five walks. In the first game of that series, Austin Allen started behind the plate. Pitcher Dinelson Lamet struggled in the first two innings in part because of communication issues with Allen, who also gave up a passed ball (one of three in his limited playing time). By the third inning, pitcher and catcher got on the same page, and Lamet ended up going six innings in a 3-2 victory. Taking no chances in a close game, manager Andy Green inserted Hedges into the game as a defensive replacement to help secure the win.
But, let’s face it, Austin Hedges is not one of Preller’s guys. In fact, most of the pre-Preller Padres have been moved or moved on with only Travis Jankowski, Robbie Erlin and Hunter Renfroe remaining.
Under Preller, the team apparently values offense over defense. The results have been mixed at best, and it remains to be seen whether this strategy will pay off in 2020 when the team has promised competitive results.
To relegate a defensive force behind the plate to backup catcher would be inexcusable on the part of the Padres. Austin Hedges should be moved to a team with a plan that will utilize his extraordinary talents.