Petco Park- San Diego, California
The San Diego Padres have a lot of faith in Austin Hedges. Rightfully so, as the homegrown Padre has all the intangibles to be a very solid contributor for a long time in the game of baseball. Power-hitting, defensive catchers are at a premium and usually players with that skill set have very long major league careers.
Hedges defensive abilities are on par with many of the best catchers in the league. His ability to control a game and call pitches behind the dish are invaluable for a team. Austin Hedges has always had advanced abilities with the glove, but his bat has failed to progress like most hoped it would.
I sat down with Austin on Friday, as the team returned to Petco for a quick three-game homestand. We spoke in the dugout about several topics, from the recent play of the team to his mechanics with his evolving swing.
I first asked Austin about the mentality of the group after such a long road trip. “It is positive. We spend more time with each other on the road. In the plane, in the bus, in the rooms. We didn’t get as many wins as we would have liked on the road trip, but at the same time we made strides to move forward.” It makes sense that the time on the road can help bond these players. Spending the month of June on the road has helped unify this team to some degree.
The young catcher went down earlier this year with a sore elbow. I asked his about the arm and if he felt better. “No issues with the arm.” Not much to talk about in this regard as he tells me he has no problem currently, either throwing or swinging the bat. Speaking of his swing, I wanted to know if the elbow pain was as a result of the two-handed follow through which the team tried to get him to use this spring. “Yeah. A little bit. I think it (elbow) was getting a little over extended. When I finish with one hand, it puts a lot less pressure on my elbow. It was the swing I used my whole life, so it wasn’t hard to get back to it.” The swing did indeed cause discomfort in his throwing arm, but has felt better with his usual mechanics on his follow through.
I asked Austin about his approach at the plate and what he is trying to do while in the box. “I’m looking for a ball down the middle of the plate. Elevate it and hit it back through the middle of the field.” A very simple approach, but he has had trouble implementing it so far in 2018. The 25-year-old is still very young and it could click for him eventually with the bat. The Padres are more than willing to let him grow.
Our conversation drifted into the Latino talent that is currently on the team and in the system. I asked about the energy these players bring to the team, and how it has effected the club. “They do bring a lot of energy. This team is full of young and talented guys that are ready and hungry to win a ball game. Having a leader like Freddy Galvis everyday at shortstop is huge. He brings so much fire and competitiveness to the field and in the clubhouse every single day. It’s hard to find a guy that shows up on a daily basis with that kind of energy, and I think that spreads through the clubhouse.” We also spoke about the fact Galvis assists in communication with the group. With a bi-lingual player, teammates learn more about each other as individuals and also develop as ballplayers.
There are several leaders in the clubhouse, but I asked Austin about A.J. Ellis specifically. “He has been really helpful. He has gone out of his way to help me with the game-plan aspect. He does a really good job of preparing for the games and watching video. Seeing hitters swings and their approaches. He sees the game in slow motion and I try to pick his brain as much as I can. He is a very hard worker and a great leader.” Ellis is no stranger to working hard, and that is something I have seen first hand. In the spring when I was in Peoria, Ellis was out working on his defensive drills long after most players went home. That kind of work ethic rubs off on young players.
I wanted to get an idea about the prep work Austin does before a start. This is what he communicated to me about his routine. “The first part of my day starts with watching video. Preparing for the opposing hitters and formulating a game plan. I try to get on the same page as our pitcher for the day as well as Darren Balsley. Communication is a big part of my day. I do some eye training drills for my receiving, and then hit the weight room for a bit. I also might work on some blocking drills and transfer drills.” He prepares himself each and every day like it is his last. Austin Hedges will never be accuses of one who takes his job for granted.
We spoke more about Ellis and this is what Hedges told me in closing about the veteran backstop. “A.J. Ellis reminded me of something. He told me that you never want anything to happen for the first time in a game. We prepare for everything and anything in the game that can happen. Preparation is a key.” The job of a major league catcher goes far beyond the nine innings of work you put in behind the dish.
We transitioned our talk into the young catchers in the franchise. I wanted to know if he worked with any of them and what his thoughts were about the youngsters. “I know Blake Hunt a little bit because he is from Orange County. I got a chance to work with Austin Allen quite a bit in the spring since he was in big league camp. Great kid, works really hard. A lot of power in his bat. His catching is really coming along. I think he is going to be a really good player.” It is certainly gratifying that he takes the time to work with these young players. Hedges is not a selfish person and he believes very much in the philosophy of paying it forward.
Austin Hedges is one of the few major league catchers who calls the whole game. The pitches that are called are directly from him, and I asked him about this fact. “It’s huge. It is one of the most important parts of the game. It is why we put so much time and preparation into watching the videos. We are trying to be as prepared as possible. Knowing our pitchers strengths and weaknesses.” He has an idea of how to attack the opposing hitters and he does well to communicate that with the day’s starter. That is why he allowed to call the whole game.
Eric Lauer and Joey Lucchesi have been solid since their promotions from the minors. I asked Austin about them and what he sees in the young duo. “Both are extremely impressive. They are confident in their abilities. They know themselves and they know how to pitch. They are proving that on a daily basis.”
Lastly we spoke briefly about goals for 2018 and beyond. Austin told me that he is more into the here and now, and does not typically set goals. “I’m just trying to get better each and every day and win a ball game.” That about sums up this young catcher. All he wants to do is take care of his job and the rest will fall into place.