Austin Hedges and the Padres Need an Amicable Separation

Credit: CBS Sports

Credit: AP Photo

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.

Credit: Mighty 1090

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.

On December 2018, Michael Baumann wrote about “The Art of Austin Hedges” for The Ringer. He acknowledged that Hedges “isn’t the worst hitter in baseball, but he isn’t exactly Aaron Judge.”

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.

Mandatory Credit: Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

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.

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Diane Calkins
Baseball has been a part of Diane's life since her father played professionally (mostly at the minor league level). She has written for a number of publications and concentrated on companion animal welfare. She welcomes the opportunity to write about the sport she loves. Diane shares her home with her husband and a house full of rescued animals.
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Ryanp
Ryanp
2 years ago

And yes I’ve been saying that it’s like having two pitchers in our batting order! There’s no way you can win games with 2 automatic outs in the lineup. Another reason hedges gotta go

Ryan
Ryan
2 years ago

Tommy T your comment about winning % being higher with hedges starting is a little skewed.. hedges was starting the bulk of the games when tatis was healthy and playing everyday. It was around the time tatis went down they plugged in mejia so the team Just overall fell apart after tatis went down. I say get rid of hedges and do it soon that way mejia works on his craft and gets better. He has shown improvement this season anyway and is still young.

Diane Calkins
Diane Calkins
2 years ago
Reply to  Ryan

Hi there Ryan,
Losing Tatis left a huge void, but there are other variables, including some really sloppy defense. The difference between the two catchers in winning percent is pretty high after all.
Fine, “get rid of Hedges.” Just don’t make him a backup catcher. Trust me, there are other teams that will value his services.

Brian
Brian
2 years ago

If padres want to keep Losing, playing Hedges is the option. Let me ask you a question? What does his DRS or Pitch Framing matter if they keep losing? Baseball has changed over the past 5-7 yrs, more runs are being scored than ever, and when you have a player that is an Automatic out, on a team that relies on HR to score, or Win, he is the problem. You cannot be competing for a division against the Dodgers playing 8 batters to your 7. He couldn’t hit water if he fell out of a boat, and it’s clear… Read more »

Diane Calkins
Diane Calkins
2 years ago
Reply to  Brian

Hi Brian, Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment. I obviously disagree with you especially regarding defensive runs saved and pitch framing. Baseball has changed yes, but there are still teams that consider catcher to be a crucial defensive position because of the unique responsibilities of a backstop. It’s the most complex defensive position by far. The Indians (86-61, 3.5 games out in the Central and 0.5 games out in the Wild Card by the way) did not consider Mejia to be a decent enough catcher to keep him. Their two primary catchers have batting averages of .229… Read more »

Eric Estey
Eric Estey
2 years ago
Reply to  Brian

And thats why the best teams in baseball are amongst the top teams in categories like DRS. Defense behind the plate is critical. Theres a reason the team era is over a run higher when Mejia catches. Ive coached high school catchers with better defense. Not over stating that btw. Mejia can hit a bit, bit has not shown hes an elite hitter yet. And he will have to be exactly that to overcome his awful defense. As for him being Prellers guy? What has Preller proven? On the job 5+ years as the GM and the team is -120… Read more »

Diane Calkins
Diane Calkins
2 years ago
Reply to  Eric Estey

Hello Eric, Thanks for your comment, especially since you coached high school catchers. I don’t have the credentials you have to judge, but I get a feeling of chaos when Mejia catches. He’s certainly better than Hedges with a bat, but he swings at just about everything and shows little patience at the plate. I think Preller has until next year at least to prove that his “process” works. Next year the front office has guaranteed a contending or at least competitive team. Getting Tatis back will help as will MacKenzie Gore if he is called up. However, the second… Read more »

Mike Patton
2 years ago

In that mix Allen is 2 wins and 11 loses as a starter.

Tanned Tom
Tanned Tom
2 years ago

The best defender at his position in a generation, and all Preller can think of doing is replacing him. Typical from a GM that has no respect for defense.
Hedges has the 5th highest WAR on the team among position players. We should find a way to live with that.
Start respecting defense.

Diane Calkins
Diane Calkins
2 years ago
Reply to  Tanned Tom

Hi Tom,
Start respecting defense. You nailed it. The fact that Austin Hedges with his defensive prowess at the most crucial position is in trouble, tells you all need to know about the team’s priorities.
This off season will be very, very interesting.
Thanks for reading,
Diane

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