So … we’re back. Still mostly confused.
Last year when A.J. Preller took over as GM, he inherited a roster with a slight logjam at catcher. There was Rene Rivera and Yasmani Grandal at the major-league level, and Austin Hedges waiting on the farm. Then, like 17 trades later, the Padres had a more manageable logjam: Derek Norris as the main guy with Tim Federowicz as the (soon-to-be-injured) backup, and Hedges still on the farm. Rocky Gale‘s always around.
You wanna talk about logjams? Check out the current catcher situation. After a solid season, Norris is still the main guy. Hedges, who was called up last year, is also there and so is new guy Josmil Pinto. That’s a lot of catchers; certainly don’t need anymore, no no.
Oh, okay. Another catcher. That’s interesting.
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.
Last year Derek Norris didn’t look much like the kind of catcher who was going to stick at the position for a long time. In 2014, among catchers with at least 700 innings behind the dish, Norris’ caught stealing percentage of 16.7 ranked ahead of only Colorado’s Wilin Rosario.
It got so bad — apparently — that Norris ceded the A’s everyday catcher role to backup Geovany Soto late in the year, as Soto started six of the last eight regular season games (and the wild-card playoff game against the Royals) at catcher despite Norris’ .270/.361/.403 batting line. Soto can’t even be classified as a catch-and-throw specialist, having thrown out 27 percent of would-be base stealers in his career, and the then-31-year-old hadn’t seen regular playing time since 2012.
For Norris, things got even worse. After Soto left the wild-card game in the third inning with an injured thumb, the Royals ran wild on Norris (and A’s pitching), stealing seven bases and winning in dramatic fashion. To casual viewers — and, heck, even to the A’s, it appeared — Norris’ days behind the plate seemed numbered. Then again, in retrospect at least, there were reasons for optimism: