While Austin Hedges’ bat is still a work in progress, his defense has been elite since his arrival in the major leagues. When looking at various defensive metrics, Hedges is very much in the conversation as the best defensive catcher in baseball. What’s amazing is that he’s stepping up his defense to an even higher level this season.
Say what you want about Austin Hedges‘ hitting, but the 26-year-old has been a wizard defensively for the Padres since making his debut in 2015.
The fact that he’s been San Diego’s primary catcher despite putting up a career wRC+ of 66, speaks to how special his defensive abilities are. Now there’s a good argument to be made that J.T. Realmuto is the most valuable defensive catcher in baseball, as Fangraphs rates him as being 0.3 runs more valuable than Hedges.
However when looking at each catcher’s defensive work across multiple metrics, two things become clear:
- Austin Hedges is an elite defensive catcher
- His defense is still getting better this season!
To begin, looking at the standard statistics of each catcher gives us a good baseline of knowledge about each catcher and their defensive performance before getting into more specific statistics and metrics. Here are each player’s 2019 counting Statistics:
So Realmuto has a better fielding percentage, but Hedges has thrown out 57.4% of baserunners compared to the Phillies’ catcher only throwing out 50%. The two catchers rate out roughly the same based on the counting statistics above, so a deeper analysis is needed to better compare them.
Furthermore, it’s important to examine the defensive metrics of Hedges and Realmuto. There are two sites with various defensive metrics and data that’ll be used to evaluate the two players: Baseball Prospectus and Baseball Savant. Here are a few essential metrics used by Baseball Prospectus, and how the aforementioned players have rated out thus far in 2019:
|Player||Framing Chances||Framing Runs||Throwing Runs||FRAA_ADJ||FRAA|
By these metrics, Hedges rates out better than Realmuto in every category aside from throwing. His adjusted and standard fielding runs above average metrics on the far right are higher than those of Realmuto, despite the fact that he’s had roughly 700 less chances than the Phillies’ star catcher.
Moving on to the Statcast data from Baseball Savant, there are two different aspects of catching that have been measured — Framing and throwing. First off are the framing percentages for each player, which measures the percentages of strikes each catcher produces:
|Player||Pitches||Runs Extra Strikes||Strike Rate|
The other metric included is called ‘Runs Extra Strikes’ and measures the number of runs each catcher is adding in value to their team through framing that results in more strikes being called by umpires. Both Realmuto and Hedges are the only two catchers in the Major Leagues to have five runs in this metric. Realmuto just edges Hedges out here in Strike Rate, though it’s a largely marginal difference between the two players in the statistic.
Finally, the last metric measured by Statcast in tracking catchers’ defensive work is pop time. Hedges and Realmuto have the two fastest average pop times in the league, with Realmuto being slightly better than Hedges at throwing:
All the statistics shown above illustrate that Hedges is up there with the best defensive catcher in baseball, and arguably the best catcher in the major leagues defensively by some measurements. As mentioned earlier, he’s somehow managing to improve defensively. Let’s take a look at some of the statistics above, and how Hedges has developed over time.
So Hedges has caught 2,052 pitches this season, producing 7.5 FRAA according to Baseball Prospectus. If we assume that he catches as many pitches as he did last season, he’ll be worth 19.1 FRAA in 2019. More likely is that he plays in even more games this season, and produces more value defensively. Regardless, he’ll almost certainly surpass the 11.8 FRAA he produced last season. There’s also other data that illustrates his growth defensively over time, discussed below.
The Statcast data on his framing shows steady improvement over the last few years:
|Year||Pitches||Runs Extra Strikes||Strike Rate|
He’s improved his framing drastically this season compared to the last two years, with a higher strike rate. Additionally, Hedges is on pace to be worth many more Runs Extra Strikes in 2019 than in any previous year. Even if we pessimistically assume that he’ll only receive 2490 pitches as he did last season, he’d still be worth thirteen Runs Extra Strikes in 2019. By the way, the highest total a catcher had in the statistic last season was eleven.
Over the years we’ve gotten used to Hedges being a phenomenal defender behind the dish. This season has been no exception, and he’s actually improving on his defense despite the high level it’s already at. As the Padres’ young pitchers continue to arrive in the major leagues it will only help to have Hedges behind the plate to guide and foster their development. The data above shows us that Padres pitchers can’t really get much better than Austin Hedges as their catcher.
All data in this article is courtesy of Fangraphs, Baseball Prospectus, and Baseball Savant.