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.

28 thoughts on “Austin Hedges and the Padres Need an Amicable Separation

  1. 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

  2. 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.

    1. 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.

  3. 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 as day he is unwilling to make adjustments. Him and Myers both. Defensive First catchers are a thing of the past. His overall catching record in 3 yrs is Horrific. He has hit his Ceiling and you know what your going to get. Time to move on from him gladly and give Mejia a chance. His defense can improve to Avg, his Ceiling is higher and his bat is Needed for this team to improve. He also has caught Paddocks best games. If you think DRS or Pitch Framimg Matter, see what kind of salary he gets through Arbitration. I for one am over watching this guy Swing for Air. He’s not improving, he is at best a back up Catcher.

    1. 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 and .218 by the way.
      The Padres management tends to lean toward offense over defense (Josh Naylor in right field, Wil Myers in center). Fine, trade Hedges. But don’t make him a backup catcher.

    2. 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 under .500 during that time. Meanwhile 6 other teams have rebuilt into playoff teams.

      1. 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 half of this season has been very disappointing and points to the usual problems still occurring.
        Diane

  4. 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.

    1. 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

  5. We’re it up to me, Austin Hedges would be our starter for the next three years. Find the offense everywhere else, and hope against hope that one of our one year term hitting coaches helps him figure it out soon. He brings enough to the table if we have enough offense elsewhere in the lineup.

    1. Hello Mark,
      As long as he performs as well defensively, he should be the starting catcher. Plus, he’s improved his defense just about every year thanks to experience.
      If the rest of the team could get on base, move runners, hit with runners in scoring position, it wouldn’t be an issue.
      If the Padres fire another hitting coach my head might explode… But that seems to be a yearly tradition with obviously dubious results.
      Diane

  6. Well done Diane! How can anyone who has been around baseball a while NOT want to have that wonderful, young man (Austin Hedges) mentoring and catching our pitchers? This was simply another one of her outstanding Padres stories. Can Diane please be the GM? Geeeeez. Ever since Preller arrived, Hedges has been screwed over! So too was Travis Jankowski. Like Nick Martini was really needed? OMG! So YES, I agree with Diane on just about everything except for the brown uni’s for next season. Personally, I am hoping and praying that Seidler and Fowler show AJ Preller the door as soon as the season is done. Perhaps Nick Canepa and a couple of other well known SD columnists can jump on that wagon? Tell Preller his bad trades, long term contract with Wil Myers and his terrible team and roster mis-management are too much. Tell him that NO manager should ever be micro managed the way Andy Green has been PLUS Preller’s extreme bias and favoritism towards players he selected are too much to overcome. Who else but Preller uses the second half of this season like it’s still spring training? It’s terrible to watch! And the truth is, we’re looking bad for 2020! Please Mr. Seidler and Fowler; fire Preller and go get someone’s #1 GM and stop fooling around with a #2 – which Preller still acts like. This has gone on far too long.

    1. Hi Gary,
      I always appreciate your comments, to say nothing of your vaunted opinion of my capabilities! There’s about zero chance that Preller will be fired after this season. However, I would imagine that Ron Fowler has just about had it. Seidler is younger and probably more patient. I think they’ll wait to make any changes until after 2020, the year the team has promised to be competitive and in contention. With the way the team has played in the second half, that’s a stretch.
      About spring training in the big leagues, I’ve already jotted down ideas for just such an article. Brilliant minds…
      Diane

    1. Yep, Ryan,
      I suggested as much in my last article about Myers’ tenure with the Padres. The contract will balloon after this month, so the Padres will probably have to eat a bunch. Natural and logical consequences, as I’ve always told me kids…
      Thanks for reading,
      Diane

  7. Every contending team needs a defensive first catcher in their roster. In 2020 the Padres open their window. Hedges needs to be on the roster. Besides, he is a team first player.

    1. Hello Jose,
      Thanks for commenting. I agree completely that a contending team needs a defensive first catcher. The Padres obviously don’t see it that way. If the team keeps Hedges he’ll be on the bench most of the time instead of where he belongs behind the plate. I think that would be a travesty, and it would be better for Hedges to be traded.
      Diane

  8. I do not know the exact numbers, but another article here recently listed the team’s winning percentage when Hedges starts and when Mejia starts. It was stunning. [e.g. well over .500 for Hedges and well below .500 for Mejia] Yes, people can argue “small sample size” but it is not, really. It is over the whole season, and it is regarding the only stat that really matters (winning or losing).

    I can’t explain why there is such a huge difference, but I do know that I would not want Mejia behind the plate.

    And (you know I can’t ignore a Hosmer reference):

    “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.”

    Well, they completely whiffed on both! For this we CAN look at a larger sample-size, and the team’s attitude, lethargic effort, and overall outcome absolutely stinks, as does Hosmer’s performance (well below average and largely negative, especially on defense and when hitting against lefties).

    1. Hi there Tommy T,
      The stats you refer to indeed matter and should influence the team’s decisions. But, obviously Preller is not a Hedges fan. If he were, he wouldn’t have traded for Mejia and given him so many starts behind the plate, nor would he be looking for a catcher in the offseason.
      I agree about the attitude at times. Plus, there’s a sloppiness that belies the fact these guys have been playing this game since they were little boys. They should bloody well know how to hit the cutoff man, etc. etc. etc.
      Diane

    2. Agree on Hosmer. Although better this yr, still not an All Star performance for which he is getting paid. Same goes for Myers even worse.

      However hedges numbers might be above .500 this yr, if you add up his Record over the past 3 yrs it is below .500. It’s not all on his shoulders, but it’ been clear for 3 yrs he is not adjusting his swing or effort to get better. If he even batted .240 he’d be an All Star. And the team might win more games.

      When constructing an over all Team and players on the Roster, it is clear they are too Right handed, as he is, and they swing and miss too much. That’s why Mejia fits the construction of the team better, he can switch hit, has stronger arm, and makes contact. If given 500 ABs and say 162-200 games, im Sure Mejia would Out produce him and the team will win more games. Clearly w Hedges behind dish last 200-250 games they are below .500 and mediocre.

  9. If I were managing this team I would use my catchers differently. Start Mejia large majority of the time, but switch to Hedges in late innings in games that we are leading. By doing this you maximize the defense when Ideally the offense has done it’s job. End result losing less games in the late innings. This would be a benfit to our relievers and Mejia could concentrate on starters, learning to catch each one.

    1. It’s not a bad idea.

      The main issue for me is this would require carrying 3 catchers on the active roster. Which would be challenging for any manager if the 3rd catcher can’t do more than catch.

      Also, Mejia’s catchers ERA is not very good. So, we would be giving up more runs while he is catching the starters (that doesn’t even account for the defensive difference between Mejia and Hedges……which is monumental).

      And the math (no mater if you graduated from an Ivy League school or just a High School Diploma) just isn’t there for him to out hit the catcher ERA difference and defensive value Hedges brings. And its not even close folks.

      It would require Mejia to hit like Mike Trout….to break even…..seriously.

      What the FO is thinking with the Padres is truly baffling. This shouldn’t even be thought about….let alone a off season priority.

    2. Hello Mike,
      That’s what has already happened when Mejia was healthy. Obviously, Green knows he’s a defensive liability and wants to tighten it up at the end of games.
      But my entire point is that a catcher with Hedges’ defensive skills should not be a backup catcher period. It’s totally unfair to a guy who’s worked his ass off to be such a skilled catcher in all facets of the game.
      It’s time for the Padres to trade Hedges to a team that will appreciate him, as much for his sake as the team’s.

    3. Hi Mike,
      While I appreciate your comment, I have to disagree. For Hedges to be relegated to back up catcher would be a total waste of his talent. He’s not Preller’s guy and needs to be traded. There will most definitely be teams that value his defensive skills at the crucial position of catcher much more than the Padres do.
      Diane

  10. Why in the world would you trade away Hedges??
    The problem with the Padres offense is not Hedges.
    Sure, he swings for the fences on seemingly every pitch he gets…..which is, really, really, not good (then again, so does Myers and Renfroe).
    However, The Padres offense is pathetic and inconsistent as a whole.
    The team does not get on base nearly enough (even with Tatis at the top) and situational hitting is completely lost on everyone. Has been for over a decade now.
    Would we even be talking about Hedges poor offense if the Padres actually were better at scoring runs in the 1 – 7 positions of the lineup?
    I can think of plenty of playoff teams, with offensively challenged catchers, that were defensive maestros.

    Time for the Padres front office to start thinking about legitimate solutions to the offense on the MLB roster.

    Removing a guy with great defense and a good catchers ERA (given the present circumstances) makes ZERO sense.
    How would another catcher (Mejia) ever hit enough to compensate for the void between the two of them?
    We’ve already sacrificed an All Star closer and a good middle reliever for a catcher we didn’t need.
    The decision making seems poorly planned and fly by the seat of the pants / emotional, more than logical.

    My opinion, plug Hedges in the 8 hole. Tell him to hit where the pitch is pitched….stop the power swings on every count. What ever offense we get……great. Keep doing what he is doing catching.

    Have the rest of the team pick up the offensive slack…..team needs at least one (likely 2) offensive minded OF’s, and of course 1 – 2 starting pitchers at the top of the rotation to contend……NOT another catcher who can’t catch and poor Catcher ERA.

    Lastly……The Bullpen may be salvageable with the parts we have at the MLB level and minors.

    1. Hi Rob,
      I couldn’t agree with you more. But, and this is a huge but, the powers that be obviously do not value his superior defensive skills. If they did, they wouldn’t have traded for Francisco Mejia nor would they be looking for catchers in the offseason (which is their reported intent). If Mejia were healthy he’d be getting most of the work behind the plate, and Austin Hedges would be his backup.
      The Padres have jerked Hedges around from the beginning (Derek Norris), and it will just get worse. Hedges deserves a better fate.

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