It’s kind of hard to believe that the 2017 baseball season is already at the halfway point. I have to admit, this one feels like it’s gone by pretty fast. That may not be such a bad thing seeing as the team is nowhere near contention, which perfectly aligns with expectations. I’m sure that every San Diego Padres fan would love to possess a remote control that would allow them to fast forward in time to the 2019 or 2020 seasons, dropping them smack dab in the middle of a pennant race. If you’re “trusting the process,” I think that this is a reasonable enough fantasy to entertain. On the other hand, if you do “trust the process,” you knew all along that this current season was going to be about growth and development. So maybe from that standpoint, you’re enjoying the ride?
The notion that the Padres’ 2017 season has been enjoyable to watch is defensible. This young, rebuilding team has had its ups and its downs but it’s never been one to roll over. It’s a team that doesn’t get swept often and losing streaks never seem to pick up much momentum before being broken up by a string of wins. The player development is without a doubt the most intriguing part of Padres baseball right now and there are several young guys at the big league level who have taken huge strides so far this season. Austin Hedges, in particular, has been on everybody’s radar for quite some time now, but with the first half of his first full-time season in the books, it’s time to take a look at how he’s done and where he’s headed.
Hedges was drafted by the Padres in the second round of the 2011 Major League Baseball Draft out of high school. He was marked by his outstanding defensive ability as a catcher and quickly rose through the prospect ranks of the Padres system and eventually through the entire minor leagues. He was recognized as one of the premier catching prospects in baseball and a jewel in the Padres’ crown. The expectation was for Hedges to be a defensive prodigy behind the dish, with anything on the other side of the ball to be an added bonus.
Hedges got his first opportunity to join the Padres during the 2015 season, playing backup to the then starting catcher, Derek Norris. As expected, Hedges showed defensive skill, especially for a rookie, but batted an unimpressive .168. He spent the 2016 season back in El Paso where not only was he a defensive wizard, as always, but he slashed .326/.353/.597 with a wRC+ of 146 and 21 home runs. He looked like a legitimate hitter; at least in triple-A.
After Norris was traded in the 2016 off-season, it was clear that Hedges would become the Padres’ starting catcher, which this season he has been.
Let’s begin by evaluating Hedges’ greatest known strength; his defense. The first thing that people love to analyze when looking at a catcher is his ability to throw out runners, so let’s start there. In 42 attempts, Hedges has thrown out 14 base runners so far this season. That’s a caught stealing percentage of 33. For some context, his numbers by this metric are almost identical to those of the 2017 National League All-Star Team’s starting catcher, Buster Posey, who has thrown out 14 base runners in 41 attempts for a caught stealing percentage of 34. While it may be painful to admit that Yasmani Grandal has a 41 percent clip this season, it helps to note that defensive standouts like Salvador Perez trail Hedges at 30 percent, as does Tyler Flowers at 18 percent. Yes, it’s true that throwing out base runners isn’t a great way to gauge a catcher’s ability (primarily because the pitcher plays a large role in the success of that activity) but it’s just nice to see that Hedges is in great company when it comes to this marker.
Speaking of pitchers, one of the more exciting elements of Hedges’ game seems to be his influence on the staff. First for some intangibles: let’s face it, Hedges seems to be a player’s player. He’s often seen with that famous smile on his face and looks like he has a lot of fun in the dugout. On the field he carries himself with passion, and by the eye test, it appears that he’s great at encouraging his pitchers when he visits them on the mound. I recently heard that a catcher is oftentimes a very empathetic individual as a necessity to motivate his pitchers on a case by case basis. In these early looks at Hedges it seems that may well be a quality that he does possess. With several very young members on the staff, Hedges has the opportunity to relate to them, as he is a rookie as well. It’s an opportunity for them to grow up together, so to speak. With veteran pitchers, it would seem that Hedges has the baseball I.Q. to be a quick learner, capable of calling games at a maturity level often only found in experienced catchers.
There are some numbers that should back up my hypothesis of Hedges’ good influence on the staff from a more technical angle. Thanks to the data on Statcorner, it would appear that Hedges is one of the best pitch framers in MLB. With 78 plus calls (strikes called that were outside of the zone) so far this season, he trails only Flowers, who has a ridiculous 145 plus calls and yes, Grandal with 85. The next player down on the list, Roberto Perez, trails pretty heavily with only 37 plus calls this season. In a correlating metric, Hedges has a runs above average (RAA) of 10.4, again only trailing Flowers with 19.3 and Grandal with 11.3. An elite defensive catcher should end up somewhere between a 15 and 25 RAA by the end of the season and it appears that Hedges should land somewhere in that realm if he keeps his production at the same level. The takeaway from all of this is that Hedges helps his staff manufacture strikes. The staff was not supposed to be too hot this season, but somehow they have produced somewhat above expectation. Looking at the numbers, one wonders just how responsible Hedges is for the staff’s elevation in quality production this season.
It’s safe to say that Austin Hedges has been one of MLB’s best play callers and defenders behind the dish so far this season. That hasn’t come as a huge surprise though. The real question has always been centered around what he will be able to bring to the table offensively. After coming off of a tremendous year at the plate in triple-A last season, Hedges seemed more likely to exceed original expectations for his potential as a hitter. So far, 2017 has been an ongoing test in the batter’s box for the young backstop, but one that he’s been battling through on a daily basis.
Things didn’t start out so hot for Hedges at the plate. He started the season going 0 for 24 before getting his first hit, an infield single on April 12, against the Colorado Rockies. After finally breaking the seal, Hedges began to raise some eyebrows with an unexpected power surge. In the months of March and April combined, Hedges hit six home runs and accrued a slugging percentage of .468 and an ISO of .266. The panic that some fans exhibited over his lack of production in the first few games turned into cheers that the Padres had found the next Posey. The reality, of course, is that Hedges is not a perfect hitter and does have some things to work out. On the other hand, the power is exciting and has exceeded expectation early in the season.
Hedges slash line at the half is .218/.259/.418 with a wRC+ of 75 and 13 home runs. The power is nice and his defense makes these numbers passable, but that average is not going to cut it long-term. Every month so far this season, Hedges ISO, wRC+, slugging percentage, and walk rate have progressively gone down while his K rate has gone up. Those numbers are not trending in the right direction. His average has climbed over the months and that’s encouraging. He has a 29 percent K rate on the season and a 5 percent walk rate. If he can work on his plate discipline and balance those two numbers out in the second half of the season and continue with his power output, he could conceivably finish with an average around the.250’s and 25 to 30 home runs. If his potential is to become an average hitter with power while becoming an elite defender, he will add immense value to the future of this team. With even more luck, he could become an above average hitter with power, that’s not necessarily probable, but it’s possible.
Looking forward to the second half of the season, Hedges has the opportunity to take his place as one of the elite catchers in MLB. He is already objectively within the top five defensively, and with an increased offensive output, he could put himself in the top rankings from an overall standpoint. Posey and Grandal are still the big dogs of the N.L. West, but they’re also no spring chickens. Hedges is young, talented, and controllable. He is one of the cornerstones of the revamped Padres heading into the future. Even if his bat never really does exceed expectations, he should become a strong team leader and defensive juggernaut whose bat will certainly not hurt the team coming from the catcher’s slot in the lineup. Padres fan will have to stay tuned to find out just how high this former top-prospect will rise.