This two-run dinger came at a clutch time for Hedges pic.twitter.com/Cadg2v4Hvt
— San Diego Padres (@Padres) April 18, 2017
That’s a big-league dinger, an opposite field shot off a 98 mile-per-hour outside fastball.
The thing about Hedges’ game is that because it’s so defense-oriented, home runs like the one above are just gravy. Hedges is already considered one of the best defensive catchers in baseball, a reputation he earned in the minor leagues as a sort of generational backstop, proficient in all areas of his craft, from receiving to blocking to controlling the running game to game calling.
Of the things a catcher does we can measure accurately, pitch framing (or receiving) has clearly won the battle of importance. Blocking pitches is nice and all, but there’s just not that much separation between the best and worst catchers to make it vital. The same is true for controlling the running game, an aspect of the catcher-pitcher relationship that generally falls more toward the hurler. The catcher can, however, turn a called ball into a strike (or vice versa) on every pitch not swung at, in theory, so there are literally thousands of opportunities to change the game over the course of a season. Pitch framing is super important.
Here’s the strike zone plots from last night (focus on the triangles, which are Padres pitches):
I’ve got him at something like three strikes added and two strikes lost, with some additional fringe pitches that could have went either way—and generally didn’t go Hedges’ way. A ho-hum night, as Hedges didn’t really expand the zone much for Jered Weaver and Co.
So what? It’s one game, of course, and in the big scheme of things it hardly matters. But could it be a sign of something more?
Take a look at Hedges’ framing numbers from Baseball Prospectus over the course of his career.:
Through 2015, Hedges had great framing numbers. Those CSAAs of .022 and .027, those are the kind you’ll find for guys like Posey and Grandal. Look what happened in 2016, though. At Triple-A, Hedges’ CSAA dipped to a more mediocre .005. Over the last two years in the majors, in just 892 pitches (through Sunday), he’s actually been a slightly below average framer.
You’re thinking small sample size, and you’re certainly right. But pitch framing numbers stabilize quickly; we simply don’t need that many pitches to determine whether a guy is a good framer or not. And, come to think of it, 892 pitches is quite a few pitches.
Here are the top five pitch framers from last season with their CSAAs both last year and so far this year (a couple were omitted due to lack of data this year):
|Catcher||2016 CSAA||2017 CSAA|
With a couple of exceptions—notably Wolters and old friend Rivera—all of these guys are basically right where they were last year. Posey and Grandal—generally viewed as the best two framers in the majors—are again right near the top, third and fifth in the league so far in 2017 (min. 300 pitches). The point here is that good framing generally shows up in a hurry. You don’t necessarily need a full season, or even half a season, to tell how a catcher is performing in the area.
This isn’t like A Thing yet; it’s just something to watch. It’s possible it’s just a blip in the numbers. Maybe Hedges is focusing a bunch more on hitting and/or handling the pitching staff, and he’s going to get back to worrying about catching the ball better soon. Maybe he just needs some additional time to iron out his technique in the majors. Although most great framers seem to enter the majors pre-packaged as such, some, like Posey, developed over a couple of years. (The counterpoint here is that Hedges was great, in the majors, back in 2015.)
It’s also possible the league has simply caught up, and Hedges—great a few years ago—is closer to average now. With the increased emphasis on framing, every team seemingly has a good receiving catcher or two. And there are no more Ryan Doumits. That still doesn’t explain why Hedges, in particular, dropped off, whereas other guys (*cough*Posey and Grandal*cough*) haven’t.
I still believe Hedges can revert back into a great framer. Those scouting reports over the years certainly weren’t all BS, and neither is all that data that says he was a top level framer from 2013 to 2015. Visually, I haven’t really noticed anything, though it’s often tough to evaluate framing in real-time.
Don’t start selling off your Austin Hedges bobblehead collection just yet. Just something to keep an eye on.