The San Diego Padres have had almost two seasons to figure out the catching situation, and it is no closer to being solved.
When the Padres acquired Francisco Mejia via trade on July 19, 2018, it was assumed he would eventually succeed Austin Hedges as the starting catcher, given his advanced hitting skills. Hedges staved him off with his elite defensive prowess despite his immense shortcomings at the plate.
Now, over two years removed from that trade, the Padres do not seem any closer to solving their issues behind the plate.
First, Austin Hedges has been more or less the starting catcher for San Diego for the better part of four seasons, initially breaking into the big leagues in 2015, catching 318 of the possible 492 games since 2017.
His defensive value is well documented, with his framing skills and ability to handle pitchers getting praised by many in the organization. Statcast had Hedges’ framing in 2019 in the 100th percentile, the best in baseball. Since 2017, no other catcher in the entire league has more Defensive Runs Saved than Hedges’ 52. In other words, the former second-round pick in 2011 plays Gold Glove-caliber defense. However, he is a walking conundrum. His hitting is just as bad or worse than his defense is good.
Since 2017, 238 hitters have collected at least 1,000 plate appearances, including Hedges, and he ranks 233rd in OPS, 234th in wRC+, and 236th in batting average among those hitters.
His bat is bad at historical levels- since the year 2000, 980 hitters have racked up at least 1,000 plate appearances, and his .199 batting average is next-to-last at 979th overall. After almost 1,300 career plate appearances, it’s clear what Austin Hedges is and is not at the plate.
No matter how good Hedges is defensively, he is not only a liability at the plate but a deterrent to San Diego’s team success. It’s no longer worth it to keep him around for his defense when his offense is among the poorest in baseball in the last 20 years. The Padres have outgrown Austin Hedges.
On the flip side, Francisco Mejia was assumed to be a happy medium. While his defense lacks Hedges’ flair, with precisely 0 Defensive Runs Saved in his 583 innings behind the plate, his bat was projected to be head-and-shoulders better. After the trade, Mejia played 31 games at Triple-A El Paso in 2018 and hit .328 with a .946 OPS. Being a switch hitter was a nice perk as well.
However, after 310 plate appearances thus far in a Padres major league uniform, fans have only seen flashes and snippets of that potential at the plate. Overall, he is batting .245 with a 91 OPS+ during his time in the big leagues in San Diego.
While some argue he has not been given consistent enough at-bats, and that may be true, he has not exactly wowed with his plate discipline. He swings outside of the strike zone, 46.5 percent of the time, which is worse than Hedges’ 37.4 percent career mark. Among the 14 hitters for the Padres who amassed at least 200 plate appearances last year, he produced the third-most soft contact rate and second-lowest walk rate.
Now, in the six games that have been completed ahead of Thursday’s series finale in San Francisco for the 2020 season, Hedges and Mejia are a combined 0-for-19, reaching base just twice on Mejia’s walk and hit by pitch.
It may be unwise to completely pull the plug on Mejia as it would be for Hedges, if the Padres are serious about contending for one of the eight playoff spots available to National League teams in 2020, they may need to look outside of the organization for a solution, even if it’s temporary, at the catcher position. Hedges and Mejia simply are not cutting it right now, and it may cost San Diego their first playoff berth since 2006.