Austin Hedges is an important member of the San Diego Padres. Despite how well Francisco Mejia is playing, fans should not forget what Hedges brings to the team.
The Padres acquisition of highly ranked prospect Francisco Mejia from the Cleveland Indians last summer seemed to spell the end of Austin Hedges’ tenure as the go-to guy behind the plate. A product of the pre-Preller era, Hedges name came up frequently in trade rumors into the offseason. At the very least, most observers assumed the pair would split time behind the plate.
After all, Hedges may be one of the best defensive catchers in the entire sport, but his hitting leaves much to be desired. Although he can hit for power, his .231/.282/.429/.711 batting line does not inspire confidence. His on-base percentage of .272 is especially concerning. However, to put that into perspective, the cumulative OBP for the team’s hitters in 2018 was sub .300 despite the fact that the Padres specifically targeted that area for improvement.
Since he was drafted in the second round in 2011, Hedges has always been a glove-first catcher. Last year in July he did catch fire at the plate. In 19 games he batted .308/.366/.538/.905 but otherwise maintained that reputation.
In the meantime, Mejia has a reputation as a slick-hitting catcher, who had a 50-game hitting streak in the minor leagues. He has a quick bat and sneaky power for a guy with a 5’10” frame. He showed off the power early in his Padre career, belting a walk-off grand slam against the Texas Rangers in mid-September. However, since coming to San Diego he’s batted .179/.258/.375/.633. This spring in Arizona however, Mejia can boast a .385 batting average and 1.275 OPS.
In the meantime, the rumors about trading Hedges have disappeared. “Mejia is an elite prospect if he can catch,” John Sickels of minorleagueball.com wrote shortly after the trade. The Indians obviously decided he wouldn’t be dependable behind the plate. The Padres may not agree with that assessment, but this spring training the talk surrounding the catcher position has been Hedges’ value especially in working with the young pitchers in camp.
A catcher has the most physically difficult and intellectually challenging job on the baseball field. He has to be game aware, intimately familiar with each pitchers’ repertoire and predilections and each opposing batters’ tendencies. The father of the legendary Molina brothers (Bengie, Jose, and Yadier), turned his sons into catchers because he knew they’d always find a job thanks to the value teams place on the position.
Former Padres’ pitcher Randy Jones speaks almost reverently of the symbiotic relationship between himself and Fred Kendall. Greg Maddux preferred to pitch to Charlie O’Brien and later Eddie Perez instead of Javier Lopez, the Braves starting catcher in the mid-90s.
Hedges works closely with pitching coach Darren Balsley as he tries to lap up every piece of information he can about the pitchers with whom he’ll be working. Thanks to the new faces in camp this year, gathering that information has become an especially formidable task. Before a game early in spring training, Chris Paddack, who missed 2017 with elbow surgery, shared a ride with Hedges before the game. During the game, he shook off Hedges only once, the result being a double off the bat of Mike Moustakas.
“To hear Chris Paddack talk about Hedges…is to know what reverence is,” Kevin Acee of the San Diego Union-Tribune wrote recently. “The difference between how Hedges interacts with pitchers during a bullpen session and Mejia does it is the difference between a church revival and a business meeting.”
Although Hedges could view Mejia as a rival, he has instead passed on his knowledge and admired his rocket of an arm. During a recent game against Cincinnati, even the Reds’ announcers spoke admiringly of Hedges helping Mejia as much as anyone in the Padres’ organization. When he came up, the Padres may have expected Derek Norris to mentor Hedges. However, Norris, later identified by his teammates as a clubhouse cancer, actually targeted Hedges.
Hedges’ attitude toward Mejia speaks volumes for his character as well as his dedication to the Padres. During his eight in the organization, Hedges has to have wondered if the major league team would ever win, but now he can envision a better future. He may only be 25, but he has become a vocal, passionate leader. The Padres obviously made the right choice in hanging on to Austin Hedges.