Using Austin Hedges as a “defensive” closer

(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

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Credit: USA Today Sports

Using Austin Hedges late in games might be an excellent thing for the San Diego Padres in 2020. 

There is talk that the San Diego Padres should explore upgrading at the catcher’s position.

Austin Hedges is a defensive-minded catcher who has problems swinging an adequate bat. Francisco Mejia is an offensive force but has concerning issues receiving the baseball. The two are practically polar-opposites, and there seems to be an internal debate on which direction to go for the future.

Should the Padres stay with a catcher who is struggling to hit .200 but is a dominant force behind the plate saving a league-high 22 runs while playing part-time? Or should they start a switch-hitting catcher who can drive the ball to all fields, but is raw behind the dish defensively?

Francisco Mejia has improved his defense in the last 12 months, that is for sure. His framing skills are on the upswing as the Dominican youngster has worked hard to improve. For that reason, he was given the majority of the starts behind the plate late in the 2019 season. Mejia has the upper hand on the starting job, but he is no guarantee to secure the position moving forward.

Austin Hedges has not improved his offense since his rookie season. He has gotten worse. His home run totals have declined for three years, and his strikeout numbers are on the rise. The right-handed hitter produced a .563 OPS in 312 at-bats for San Diego last season. He struck out 109 times and looked lost at the plate for long stretches. With over 1,100 at-bats at the Major League level under his belt, the offensive numbers he has produced so far are a strong indicator of what he is worth offensively. A .201 batting average and a .617 career OPS are horrendous. But his value is working with pitchers and producing highlight-reel plays behind the plate.

Austin Hedges made just a little bit over two million dollars last year, and that is expensive for a backup catcher. The Padres are at a point where they will need to make a choice. Which catcher will the team roll with for the future? Do they want offensive firepower, or do they continue to value defensive skills?

There is no clear answer, but a creative way to utilize both men is by using Austin Hedges as a closer.

No, I don’t mean the Padres should send the rocket-armed catcher out to the mound in the 9th. I am proposing that the Padres utilize him late in games as a way to neutralize the other team’s offense. In doing this, Hedges would also have an opportunity to work with many of the young pitchers. There are several young hurlers who will be throwing out of the bullpen for the Padres in 2020. Andres Munoz, Adrian Morejon, Michel Baez, Trey Wingenter, Jose Castillo, and others would love a defensive force like Hedges catching them.

Think about this. Mejia can start the game and bat in the middle of the lineup. He will get three at-bats on most nights. After his third at-bat (most likely around the 6th or 7th inning), the Padres can sub in Austin Hedges and vastly improve the defense. If the team is winning, there is even more reason to do this. Mejia will lose roughly one at-bat per start if this is indeed implemented, but the good outweighs the bad in the scenario.

Check this video out. Hedges got a favorable call for his pitcher 65 times last year resulting in a third strike. That, by far, led the majors as did his 22 runs saved on defense. There is tremendous value in Hedges on the defensive side and that cannot be ignored.

With Major League rosters to be set at 26-men next year, the Padres could choose to keep a third catcher. Especially since Mejia has shown the ability to play the outfield when the team needs him out there. Having three catchers could entice the Padres to utilize Austin Hedges uniquely. Knowing that he will be in the majority of the game late, the backstop will still be a factor for pitchers daily as they prepare to pitch. Hedges excels at doing homework and being prepared. Having him in this capacity would utilize him in the most productive way. Major League Baseball is an ever-evolving entity, and it is time for defensive wizards to be recognized and used correctly. The Padres are starting to think outside the box. This is an idea worth exploring if both men are on the roster in 2020.

3 thoughts on “Using Austin Hedges as a “defensive” closer

  1. Don’t even see what the issue is. With a young staff you go with the better game-caller/defender.
    Hedges posted 2.0 WAR/500 Plate appearances, Mejia posted 1.0 WAR/500 Plate appearances. By this simple math, Hedges was clearly more valuable. Watching the video, you see a catcher who is great at his job. He sets up well, is very quiet with his body, and snaps the glove back into the strike zone. Mejia will never be this good.
    Hedges’ WARs for 2017-2019 are 1.8, 2.3, 1.4. There’s nothing wrong with these numbers. He was 5th among position players for WAR on the team.
    Plus, 2019 was a career low for him. There is a fairly good chance he hits a lot better than a .176 BA in 2020.
    The problem is this organization does not value defense. A club that trades for Matt Kemp, is willing to play Wil Myers in CF and 3B, signs Eric Hosmer, and plays Josh Naylor in the OF is clearly a club that does not give a damn about defense.
    Hire a full time batting instructor for Hedges to turn him back into the .231 BA, 90 wRC+ hitter he was in 2018.
    If Preller would do his job and bring in some OFs who could hit, and undo the Hosmer blunder, we wouldn’t even be talking about this.

  2. James, in reading articles last year when Hedges was on the bench and Mejia was getting a majority of the starts it seemed apparent that Hedges was not happy sitting and was pretty clear he felt he should be out there starting even if his bat was a hole in the line-up. Not sure that management was crazy with his voicing that to the media or not and wonder if it will be an issue going forward in the clubhouse.

  3. This can work. This idea will also makes Mejia continue to try to improve his catching skills because from what I’ve heard is that he wants to catch. If he didn’t care whether he caught or played left you just put him in left, end of story.

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