Nick Hundley is old in catcher years. He’s 28 and should be starting to see his numbers dip each season from years of punishment behind the plate. The knees should be giving out. The bat speed should be slowing down. It’s a sad truth about catchers. They don’t generally last very long. However, Hundley is 28 and improving. Perhaps this is because he didn’t break into the league until he was 24. Perhaps, with only four years service time behind the plate for the Padres, Hundley’s 28 is really more like 25. No matter the case, Nick Hundley has found a way to improve himself on a yearly basis while playing less than a full season each year courtesy of platoon duties.
Hundley was drafted out of the University of Arizona in the second round of the 2005 draft. He was originally drafted out of high school in 2002 by the Florida Marlins, but chose to go to college. He never showed much power in college, but he did have an aptitude for getting on base. In 2003, he posted a .481 OBP with the Wildcats. He struck out 21 times while walking 16 in 133 at-bats. By his junior season in 2005, Hundley would find himself as a finalist for the Johnny Bench Award (given to college baseball’s best catcher). The award would eventually go to Jeff Clement, but Hundley can take solace in knowing his own Major League career has overshadowed Clement’s by quite a bit.
Hundley made his Major League debut with the Padres in 2008. He played in 59 games and started 55 of them. His first year OPS was nothing extraordinary at .636. This was due in part to his uncharacteristically low OBP. Hundley’s slash-line in 2008 was .237/.238/.359. He struck out 24.1% of the time which of course kept him off the base baths. But he continued to focus and has improved every year. In 2009, Hundley’s OPS was .719, a respectable figure. By 2010, he was finally performing better than league average with an OPS of .726 and an OPS+ of 102. Last season, Hundley’s best to date, saw him increase his overall production to .288/.347/.477. Good enough for a .824 OPS and a 132 OPS+.
So how did he do it? First, he improved his line drive percentage. In 2010, Hundley hit 19.3% line drives. In 2011, that number increased to 21.2%. Second, he increased his GB% to the highest of his career at 41.3% and reduced his FB% to the lowest of his career at 37.5%. Decreasing flyballs while playing in San Diego is an important thing for batters to do. Even power hitters, to be successful, have to cut down on the number of balls they send to die in the outfielders’ gloves. Finally, Hundley hit the ball harder. In other words, his hits were more meaningful. He clubbed 16 doubles, 9 home runs, and 5 triples. The home runs and triples were career highs. This all led to a wOBA (weighted on-base average) of .354, the highest of his Major League career.
Hundley’s approach has been similar to another player we profiled, Chase Headley. Both have discovered a way to be successful in San Diego, and there’s something to be said for that. Not many players have the will or drive to change their habits and adapt to the park in which they play most of their games. In fact, not many players find themselves hitting better at Petco Park than other parks. In 2011, Hundley did just that. He hit .307/.373/.562 in 43 games at Petco Park. He hit .271/.323/.396 in 39 games on the road.
Hundley is one of those rare players in which his value is not strictly based on his season stat totals. Part of his value is in his desire to find ways to improve rather than complain about the situation in which he finds himself. Hundley should be high on San Diego’s priority list of contract extensions.