Austin Hedges has struggled to hit at the major league level, but his defensive numbers are off the charts. Francisco Mejia can crush the baseball from both sides of the plate but has defensive shortcomings. Which catcher gives the San Diego Padres the best chance to win on an everyday basis?
Coming into the 2019 season, the San Diego Padres trusted Austin Hedges as the team’s everyday catcher. He put up a .905 OPS in July last season and followed that by recording a .765 OPS in August. Hedges seemed to find his offensive stride at some point during the 2018 season.
The Padres had all the confidence in the world in the 27-year-old catcher heading into the season, but he began 2019 hitting .175 in March/April with a .616 OPS. He still made fantastic plays behind the dish, and the pitching staff raved of his efforts, but Hedges needed to stop being an easy out. Things did not improve for Hedges even though the Padres game him plenty of playing time. He put up a .612 OPS in May and bottomed out with a dreadful .443 OPS in June which left the Padres looking for answers.
Enter. Francisco Mejia. Once considered the top catching prospect in the game of baseball.
Francisco Mejia, the man who once had a 50-game hitting streak in the minors, and is 23 with a tremendous ceiling. There are some defensive problems, but Mejia has all the tools to succeed. He is nimble behind the dish and has arguably one of the strongest throwing arms in the league. The concerns are in his pitch-framing abilities and the way he calls a game. Preparation and just becoming more comfortable should help Mejia in this regard. He just needs time.
Hedges is well-known to get into sync with his pitchers. He could be the best defender in the game currently. And that may be the biggest thing that is holding Mejia back. Often, his defense is compared to Hedges, and that might not entirely be too fair. The young backstop from the Dominican Republic is a work in progress, but there is no indication that he cannot improve. “He is getting better. There is a lot to like,” Eric Lauer said early in the year about Mejia. Other pitches have also commented recently that they are beginning to trust Mejia behind the plate.
If you look at the Padres record when each man is behind the dish, you will be surprised. The Padres are 38-31 (.551) when Hedges starts the game. They are 18-23 (.439) when Francisco Mejia begins the contest behind the dish. When Austin Allen starts, the Padres went 0-10 (.000) unfortunately for the rookie. That is a massive split between Hedges and Mejia. Seven games above .500 would put the Padres in the thick of the playoff hunt. Mejia might bring offensive firepower, but for some strange reason, it is not transitioning into wins for the franchise. This seems to be the heartbeat of Hedges’ defense for playing time.
Why are the Padres winning when Austin Hedges is starting? Is his defensive value (25 runs saved this season) that much of a difference over Mejia? Is this just a statistical anomaly? The difference is pretty significant, and that is why this debate rages on for the fans and the team. Which catcher gives the team a better shot to win? There is no clear answer though Mejia is beginning to make a serious case for himself.
Defense is undoubtedly underrated when discussing baseball, as Hedges is buried continuously on social media for his inability to hit without any regard to the intangibles he brings to a team. He has had over 1,000 major league at-bats and has put up a .204/.256/.366 slash line with a .621 OPS. Those numbers are horrid. There really is no way to sugarcoat that. Measuring defensive worth is complicated. Defensive metrics are not very reliable as they often contradict themselves as well.
Hedges will continue to have value in this league as a defender. Catchers that control a pitching staff and receive as he does are useful. Whether or not he will ever be a starting catcher is up for debate. The bat is, and always will be, the key to his future. Mejia is still very young and has shown promise with the glove. He should be allowed to flourish or given the opportunity to do so for the Padres.
The Padres have plenty of options beyond these two as well. There are excellent prospects at four different levels in the minors. Austin Allen (Triple-A), Luis Torrens (Double-A), Luis Campusano (High Single-A), and Blake Hunt (Single-A) are all capable of being major league catchers. A.J. Preller has hoarded young catching talent and one way or another, the Padres will have a decent option in 2020 and beyond.
Hedges might have the winning record of the team on his side, but he cannot play every day with his current offensive issues. Even he would tell you that. This duo will likely split time over the next weeks of the season. The Padres will be evaluating both as Hedges’ offensive strides, and Mejia’s defensive growth are significant factors for each man’s future. Who gives the San Diego Padres the best chance to win? There is no easy answer to that.