When I hear the name Austin Hedges, that’s the first thing that comes into my mind. I mean look at that face. Who doesn’t love that face?
Anyway, I am already getting off topic here. So Austin Hedges, baseball player. It’s his first full season in the bigs and he’s still developing. He’s had his share of ups and downs early this season, but the key is that he is getting reps and, seemingly, improving every day.
Coming up through the minor leagues, Hedges was always known as a glove-first catcher. As he climbed through the levels of the Padres’ minor league system, it was clear that Hedges was, if not the best defensive catcher in the entire minor leagues, one of the better catchers in the minor leagues. In 2015, the Padres decided that they were better off with Hedges on the major league roster.
That obviously didn’t work out, but in the long run it appears Hedges was better for it. After a disastrous 137 at bats in 2015, in which Hedges slashed .168/.215/.248 with a 25 wRC+, it was clear the young catcher needed further minor league development before he could become a viable big leaguer. The defense was there, as it always has been, but the offense was nearly nonexistent.
Then 2016 happened. Although a broken hamate bone took a good chunk out of Hedges’ season, he ended it with a .326/.353/.597 with 21 home runs. It appeared that our swoon-worthy hero had finally learned how to hit. Going into 2017, expectations were high for the catcher of the Padres’ future becoming the catcher of the Padres’ present. After not collecting a hit in any of his first eight games this season, Hedges exploded for six home runs in his next eleven games. Hedges has slowed a bit, with only one home run in the twelve games since that home run explosion, but he has already improved on his past offensive profile, even while slashing only .184/.243/.429 over his 98 at bats.
It remains to be seen whether Hedges has truly “learned” how to hit, so let’s leave that conversation for another day. With so much focus on whether or not Hedges can be a viable major leaguer at the plate, his true strength has gone overlooked early in the season: his defense. At the end of the day, Hedges is always going to be known for his strong defense. He will likely never be the hitter that catchers such as Buster Posey and Yadier Molina are, but he very well could top both of those guys defensively. And so far, he has done just that.
Let’s start by looking at how Hedges has fared with baserunners. To this point, Hedges has allowed 19 stolen bases on 25 attempts, which calculates to a caught-stealing percentage of only 24 percent early on in the season. To this point, only Francisco Cervelli has allowed more stolen bases with 24 stolen bases allowed. Now to be fair to Hedges, a lot goes into stolen bases. Pitchers take just as much, if not more, responsibility for stolen bases, as a pitcher who is slow to home can really limit a catcher’s ability to catch a baserunner trying to steal. Hedges has been known to have one of the best throwing arms among catchers, so it’s likely that his pitching staff isn’t really helping him out, especially considering the Padres’ pitching staff is filled with both slower throwers and pitchers who are not quick to home plate.
Moving on from controlling baserunners, you cannot properly evaluate a catcher’s defensive value without looking at pitch framing. For that, look no further than StatCorner’s Catcher Report which sums up the defensive performance of all major league catchers. To this point, Hedges has been the second-best catcher in baseball with a RAA (Runs Above Average) of 5.2, meaning Hedges has saved nearly five runs through his defense, mainly pitch framing.
Hedges is also tied for second in baseball with 39 plus calls, which are balls out of a strike zone that a catcher frames for a strike. In terms of pitch framing value, Hedges trails only Yasmani Grandal, who has a RAA of 8.0 with 60 plus calls to this point in the season. So Hedges, as expected, has so far been among the best in baseball at stealing strikes and framing pitches.
There’s never going to be any surprises with Austin Hedges’ defense, as he is always going to be among the best in baseball behind the plate. The questions still remain about whether Hedges can maintain a sustainable offensive performance, but the defense should be enough of a skill to carry him regardless of his offensive ability. Austin Hedges truly could be the best defensive catcher in baseball. With so many interesting young pitchers in the Padres’ system, a strong defensive catcher is exactly what the Padres need. Austin Hedges is that guy, for better or for worse at the plate.