Quick Observations on Austin Hedges’ Defense

Austin Hedges‘ rookie season has been frustrating at times, as he’s made just 15 starts since his May 4th call-up. And when he has been given a shot, he’s hit like a poor man’s Mario Mendoza. The 22-year-old currently owns a .154/.164/.288 major league slash line, which isn’t all that surprisingly given the sporadic playing time, the sample size (it’s only 57 plate appearances worth of work), and the fact that the bat was Hedges’ main question mark coming into the season. He probably should be in Triple-A El Paso getting everyday work, but A.J. Preller and Co. decided his services were better suited as a big league backup.

The good news: the defense has been as advertised. Heck — and this is hard to fathom — it might actually be better than advertised. Either way, it’s good. Really good. Per Baseball Prospectus’ pitch framing statistics, Hedges has already garnered more extra strikes than all but 14 other catchers, despite playing sparingly. In fact, on a per-pitch basis, Hedges ranks second in all of baseball in framing, behind only Buster Posey.

And the arm — sheesh, the arm. I believe the correct hashtag here is #swoon. If you haven’t already watched Hedges’ latest jaw-dropper a couple hundred times, check it out — it clocked in at around 1.85 seconds from his glove to second base. In the world of pop times, where anything under 2.00 is generally viewed as acceptable and fractions of a second are ever-valuable, Hedges is already in the Yadier Molina class of catchers. Like the Molinas of the world, Hedges features not only a cannon for an arm, but also superb mechanics and an ultra quick release. He’s thrown out 53 percent of would-be base thieves so far this season — the league average is 28 percent and Derek Norris, who has had an excellent comeback season behind the dish, sits at 36 percent.

What makes Hedges’ caught stealing prowess even more improbable? He’s caught Tyson Ross, Greek God of Stolen Bases Allowed, five different times this year. Check out this table, which shows how much each catcher has worked with Ross:

Catcher Innings SB/CS
Derek Norris  66 21/7
Austin Hedges 34.1 1/3
Wil Nieves 16.2 3/0

With Norris behind the plate and Ross pitching, base runners attempted to steal nearly four times every nine innings. With Hedges behind the dish that number has shrunk to just over one per nine, and more impressive than that, Hedges has thrown out three out of four helpless victims who must have forgot to check the lineup card before they took off for second. It should be noted that some credit probably belongs to Ross and Norris (and maybe a coach or two), as well. Since June 5th, Ross has only allowed four stolen bases (against five caught stealings) in nine starts, and four of those starts have come with Norris catching. In the month of May alone (six starts), Ross allowed 14 steals and just three caught stealings.

Hedges debut season hasn’t been all pleasant. He still needs plenty of work at the plate, and he’s lost valuable developmental time wasting away on the Padres’ bench. At the same time, the aggressive promotion has allowed the Padres — and the rest of baseball — to get an up-close view of Hedges’ defense. It’s at least as good as anyone thought, and that should help the Padres decide what path they want to take with their young catcher going forward.

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  • ballybunion

    I could see Bud Black not giving Hedges playing time, but I have to wonder what Pat Murphy is thinking. Norris is looking worn out now. He’s played 92 of 99 games as of Sunday, the 26th, and his average and production with the bat are dropping.

    He was hitting .313/.329/.463 at the end of April, .283/.320/.451 at the end of May, .244/.292/.441 at the end of June, and .229/.275/.393 as of July 26th. His July numbers are 10 for 62 with no homers and no RBI, a .161 clip in 17 games.

    Hedges’ .148 isn’t much of a drop off, and in 7 games in July he has a homer and three RBI, and he’s 4 for 16. He finished 9 games (18 ABs) in May at .111/.105/.111 then in 8 games (20 ABs) in June hit .105/.102/.211, and in 7 games (16 ABs) raised his slash line to .148/.172/.278, so he’s improving.

    What I’m getting at is, can it be time for Hedges and Norris to switch places? Or will we see Norris slowly die until Fed-Ex gets here, and Hedges returns to El Paso? I fear the latter, but now understand why the Padres can’t develop position players, and it’s not just Bud Black treating the kids like utility players.

    • Yeah, I still don’t get bringing Hedges up if he was going to play so infrequently. While Preller and the front office don’t make the lineups necessarily, you’d think they would have a pretty big influence on who plays, especially now with Murphy as the manager. It’s a strange situation all around — running Norris out there like he’s an iron man catcher when he hasn’t played more than 127 games in a season as his bat sinks from an asset to a burden. Meanwhile Hedges, a capable backup, sits on the bench when he should, at the very least, be playing every day in Triple-A.