The Hangover: Is Austin Hedges Still A Great Pitch Framer?

The Padres lost to the Freddie Freemans 5–4 yesterday, but Austin Hedges went 2-for-3 with a walk, a double, and a two-run go-ahead home run in the eighth inning.

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.

Austin Hedges has generally been viewed as a top flight pitch framer, a potential Buster Posey or Yasmani Grandal in that department.

Here’s the strike zone plots from last night (focus on the triangles, which are Padres pitches):

hedges1 hedges2

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.:

2017-04-18-2
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
Yasmani Grandal 0.027 0.026
Buster Posey 0.025 0.020
Jeff Mathis 0.023 0.011
Tony Wolters 0.017 0.00
Jason Castro 0.017 0.011
Kevin Plawecki 0.017 0.015
Roberto Perez 0.017 0.020
Tyler Flowers 0.017 0.009
Rene Rivera 0.017 -0.010
Christian Vazquez 0.015 0.011

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.

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  • Billy Lybarger

    Is it more difficult to successfully frame a Jered Weaver pitch? If the pitch is coming in so slow, all the framing in the world might not sell the umpire on what he saw for 15 seconds or so as the pitch approached home plate.

    • Important to note here that BP’s model apparently liked Hedges game last night, as his CSAA improved. Anyway, pretty sure any effect that Weaver would have on framing pitches would be captured by BP’s model. But good point.

    • ballybunion

      If Weaver is tough to frame, so was most of the pitching in El Paso, and unfortunately, most of the Padres staff this year. Posey and Grandal are good? Who are THEY catching? There’s a big difference between Kershaw/Bumgarner and Cahill/Cosart. It may well be the pitchers have nearly as much of a hand in pitch framing as they do in preventing runners from stealing.

      • I don’t think so. That should be captured in BP’s model. Plus, just for an example, Grandal came into the league with the Padres with basically the same framing numbers he’s had over the last couple of seasons with the Dodgers.

      • GT500KR

        Catching the likes of Richard (first edition), Volquez, Bass, Marquis, Stults, Despaigne, Hahn, Kennedy, and Cashner.

      • ballybunion

        Grandal only caught 60 games in 2012, and only 28 in 2013. His first full year was his last in San Diego in 2014 when the Padres pitching was outstanding. That’s when Ross, Kennedy, and Cashner had their best years, and the bullpen of Benoit, Thayer, Quackenbush, and Street was one of the best.

        Did Grandal make them all look good, or the other way around? On that team, Grandal’s bat was more important than his glove – and Rene Rivera was just as productive, on a team with an historically bad offense.

      • GT500KR

        The 88 games in 2012-2013 is more than half a season, much more for a catcher. It’s a meaningful sample.

        Ross’ slider is not an easy pitch to frame. Grandal didn’t get any help from him, on the rare occasions when they worked together. Cashner, hell, his fastball is as straight as a pencil.

        If you’ve got a pitcher with great control and a great framer behind the plate, sure, that’s the best. But Posey and Grandal are good pitch-framers. Full stop. Doesn’t matter who throws to them. So was/is Rivera, for that matter. Hedges always has been, I’m not at all worried about him.

      • ballybunion

        I agree, it should be a decent sample, but he didn’t play that many innings at catcher. In 2013, he played 22 complete games as catcher before his season-ending knee injury. The next year, in 2014, one third of his games were at first base. Nick Hundley was the main starter.

        Pitch framing seems to be the be-all and end-all of catching, but Baseball-Reference gave him an over all -1 total zone fielding for both 2012 and 2013, and a -9 for 2014. There are other components to catching, like game-calling, caught stealing, and passed balls. I don’t know how you measure the first, but he was below league average in the other two, leading the league in passed balls in 2014, and again in 2016 with the Dodgers.

        That serious knee injury has another component for a catcher, an effect on longevity at the position. That may have figured into the Padres decision to trade him, With Hedges younger and undamaged, and Norris the transition catcher. In L.A., Grandal may well replace Adrian Gonzalez at first base, rendering his pitch framing skills moot. Posey is in a similar situation, playing first base to give him a respite, and a candidate for first base full time in the future.

        Regardless of pitch framing, Hedges is going to be a catcher far longer than Grandal or Posey.

      • I mean, sure, but Grandal’s been worth like 11 WAR over the last two seasons if you count framing, so he’s already been tremendously valuable.

        Anyway, to the main point, I’m with GT500KR. Back in 2010, Jonathan Lucroy had a great framing season with Randy Wolf, Yovani Gallardo, Dave Bush, Chris Narveson, and a so-so bullpen. I just don’t think the pitcher has much effect on the framing numbers because BP’s already got that covered.

        None of this is to say Hedges still isn’t a good/great framer. Just because he’s been mediocre for a season, by the numbers, doesn’t mean he can return to form, especially given his track record/scouting reports.