The 2016 season has been yet another disappointing season for the city of San Diego. As a team the Padres have been underwhelming for much of the season. The team has performed as more of cohesive unit than at any point in 2015, but the results have still not been there, especially on offense. June has obviously been a great step forward for the team, as the Padres have been 6th in team offensive fWAR, 4th in wRC+, and 5th in runs scored. It’s hard to imagine the team keeping that up in the long term, but it has been a pretty positive sign for the team.
One position that has really benefited from the calendar flipping from May to June is the catcher position. Despite early season struggles for Derek Norris, he has greatly turned it around in June, slashing a respectable .274/.321/.507 for the month with a wRC+ of 119 in 20 games played. Given the state of the Padres, and their likely position as deadline seller, Norris represents an important potential trade piece. Especially so given the injuries to the likes of Tyson Ross, Andrew Cashner, and Jon Jay, who were all considered as the Padres most interesting trade pieces going into the season.
As our Editor-In-Chief James Clark wrote in this piece last week, a Derek Norris trade is a real possibility, perhaps even a necessity. Over the last week or so, the possibility of a Norris trade has grown exponentially. While Norris’ June performance has helped his trade value, his future is being driven by outside forces entirely. Or at least one outside force in particular.
Since returning from his rehab following surgery to provide his hamate bone, Austin Hedges has been good. Actually he’s been more than good. He’s been great. Since returning from injury on June 9th, Hedges has slashed .420/.467/.914 with 12 home runs and 32 RBIs over 81 at bats. Even more surprising is the fact that Hedges has done most of his damage over the last 10 days, slashing .525/.556/1.225 with eight home runs, including seven home runs over the last week of games, 20 RBIs, and an OPS of 1.781 during that time. There’s obviously some caveat given the small sample size and fact that Hedges plays in one of the best hitter’s park in all of baseball in El Paso, but that performance still cannot be overlooked.
With his stellar performance at the plate, Austin Hedges is forcing the Padres hand. The Padres may not feel completely inclined to trade Derek Norris, but it seems Austin Hedges is giving them no real choice in the matter. Hedges has shown how good his glove can be in both minors and majors, but his newfound offensive success is showing the organization the sort of asset he can potentially be at the big league level long term. Norris has been known as the better offensive catcher, but with Hedges improved development at the plate in 2016, it’s hard to see Norris as the better long-term option.
It’s pretty clear that Hedges has made quite a few adjustments over the last year or so, turning himself into the dangerous hitter he is now. After an uninspiring debut in 2015, in which he only slashed .168/.215/.248 over 152 plate appearances scattered throughout the season, Hedges has seemed to figure it all out at the plate, all while maintaining his top flight defense behind the dish. For Hedges, the adjustments have been little ones, but ones that have made a rather significant impact.
It’s pretty clear from that first video, which is from 2013, where the problems for Hedges were. His batting stance was too wide, which didn’t allow for enough extension or power coming from his legs. Up top, the hands often flailed at pitches outside the zone, all while Hedges struggled keeping his body aligned all the way through his swing.
Based on the 2015 video, the results were rather similar in terms of look, although that particular video shows Hedges hitting a long ball. The pitch was elevated and Hedges was able to stay back and keep his head and body in the zone enough to drive the ball out of the park.
While Hedges made some small adjustments over the first several years of his minor league career, his adjustments from 2015 to 2016 were much more substantial, and are bearing more fruit. The most obvious difference in that home run from the end of March is the more substantial leg kick Hedges used prior to his swing. The most recent video, Hedges grand slam from last week, shows an even more substantial leg kick, with a more compact stance as well a stronger follow through.
The leg kick has obviously worked wonders for Hedges and his timing at the plate, as it has done with other players who have made big offensive jumps, including the likes of Josh Donaldson and several Cubs, including Dexter Fowler, Anthony Rizzo, Addison Russell, and really most of the Cubs starting lineup, as discussed in this Fangraphs article from late in the 2015 season. All of those players have benefited greatly from a similar adjustment in load that Hedges has benefited from.
On top of the change in how the bottom of Hedges body operates at the plate, his hands have also seen a distinct adjustment as well. Earlier in his career kept his hands and arms higher up in his stance. As is seen in both videos from this year, Hedges arms and hands now sit much lower and closer in towards his chest prior to his swing. Along with the leg kick, this has seemingly greatly increased Hedges timing at the plate and has allowed him to drive the ball with not only more frequency but with more authority than at any time in the past.
From a feeble hitter in 2015 to a dangerous hitter in 2016, Austin Hedges has greatly improved his long-term stock for the San Diego Padres. With his recent performance in Triple-A since returning from his surgery, Hedges is once again making his case to play a more prominent role in the Padres long-term plans. With the way he’s now hitting, and with his proven defense behind the plate, it’s hard to see him staying in the minor leagues much longer this season. While it’s still hard to predict a Derek Norris trade, it’s pretty clear that the performance of Austin Hedges is at least somewhat driving the conversation.
Small sample size or not, Austin Hedges has proven his worth in the Padres organization in both the short and long-term. Now all that is left to do is free a spot for him on the big league roster. A second chance for Hedges at the big league level could bear significant fruit for the San Diego Padres.