Person of Interest: Nick Hundley

When your favorite team stinks, you have to find other ways to keep yourself entertained. That doesn’t mean that you stop watching, or even that you watch less, necessarily. What you end up doing is finding interest in the individual performances.

Usually that just means cheering for stats. Last year, Chase Headley brought joy to another losing Padres season. He was appointment viewing. Every time he came to bat, anything was possible.  Could he hit 20 home runs? Then 25? 30? Yes, yes, yes. Could he win the mostly meaningless but still prestigious RBI title? Indeed he could. A gold glove. MVP votes. That’s the kind of stuff that keeps a fan going in the down time when mathematical elimination comes and goes without much notice, as one of the teams you hate the most marches through the playoffs towards another championship.

Sometimes though, the interest is found in the individuals themselves. Sometimes also, you lose most of your hope in avoiding another uneventful elimination before the season even begins. Sometimes even more, one of your favorite teams’ most promising young players gets popped 50 games for high-T, and the player he’d left for dead on the side of the road the previous year gets a chance at redemption.

Nick Hundley tore the meniscus in his right knee on the team’s first road trip last season. He never should have played another inning the rest of the season. Instead, he battled through the injury, and in doing so he posted the kind of offensive numbers a lowly blogger might have been able to accomplish.

He was demoted to AAA. He spent time on the DL, both with the major and minor league clubs. He watched on as Yasmani Grandal took his place and his job. Eventually, a publicly announced right knee contusion turned into a torn meniscus, another trip to the 15 day DL turned into surgery and the 60 day DL, and Nick Hundley’s terrible, horrible, no good, very-bad season was finally, mercifully, ended in August.

In that diagnosis, a glimmer of hope was gleamed. Despite Hundley’s unwillingness to blame it, the meniscus tear explained all his problems. It had been said that Hundley’s problems were all in his head. He was pressing. He felt Grandal breathing down his neck. He felt the need to live up to the weight of the 3 year contract extension he’d received in the offseason.

Maybe a little bit of that had been true, but almost all of his trouble could be directly attributed to the fact that his right knee wasn’t working the way it had before. He was popping balls up. His infield fly ball percentage (IFFB%) almost doubled from 2011 to 2012. His home run to fly ball percentage (HR/FB%) dropped from 11.5% to 4.7%. His line drive percentage (LD%) dropped to its lowest level since his rookie year in 2008. His batting average on balls in play (BABIP) was just a ridiculous .196.

His power had been zapped. What once had been liners were now grounders. What had been doubles and home runs turned into cans of corn. In all, his average dropped 131 points, his wOBA dropped 151 points, and his wRC+ dropped from a well above average 132 to an absolutely pathetic 29. He might have been pressing, but if he was, it was because he was playing with a knee that was hurt pretty damn badly.

For most, the changing of the year means a new calendar with puppies on it and not much else. In Hundley’s case, a new year really does bring the clean slate so many hope for. Thanks to Josmany Springs, he’ll be the opening day starter at catcher for the Padres once again in 2013. He’s healthy again, his meniscus fully repaired. This spring, he’s hitting .429 with 3 home runs and 7 doubles in 42 at-bats for an OPS of 1.276. He has reason to hope again, and he’s hoping not just to be a capable fill-in for the prodigious cheat, but to take back the starting job and say he deserves the $7 million he has left on his contract over the next 2 seasons.

I’m not expecting or even hoping for that. Hundley has never been a full-time starting catcher, catching 120+ games a year. In fact, he’s never played in more than 85 games in a season. Grandal, despite his questionable ethics, is the present, and I don’t expect his production to fall off a cliff when not on the PEDs. Austin Hedges, god willing, is the glorious future Padres fans dream about.

Nick Hundley’s future is likely that of a very capable part-time back-stop, and he can have a long and prosperous career in that role. If that’s where his career takes him, he could be in the league until he’s 40. That’s something to strive for.

As another season gets started and most hope for the playoffs is already lost, for Padres fans, fans of redemption stories, and fans of the underdog, I suggest taking an interest in Nick Hundley to keep yourself entertained. Hopefully he won’t fall flat on his face.

If you want more of me, I’m on twitter @The_NV. I tweet a lot. The Vocal Minority posts on Mondays, and sometimes other days. Happy birthday Mom!

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