San Diego Padres catcher Austin Hedges is beginning to find his grove on the field and his swagger off it, making him a fan favorite already.
In the otherwise dispiriting game against the New York Mets Tuesday night, San Diego Padres catcher Austin Hedges came out of his crouch, sprinted after a foul, dove and skidded across the ground in foul territory to catch the ball. Undeterred by the score (8-2 in the 5th), he “made one of the best defensive plays you will see this season,” ESPN’s Buster Olney proclaimed on Twitter. San Diego’s East Village Times tweeted “that kind of effort, in a game seemingly out of reach, is why you build your team around Austin Hedges.”
Since being drafted out of high school in 2011, no one has questioned Hedges’ abilities behind the plate. His hitting lagged behind but is catching up. Even more important, he possesses what Drew Kidd of ABPA Baseball calls “the ‘hidden’ quality or intangible’” that no statistical analysis will never be able to reduce to a number.
That play demonstrated those intangibles, as does Hedges’ relationship with Padres pitchers, his resilience in the face of playing backup in 2015 to an inferior catcher like Derek Norris, his perseverance when demoted to the minor leagues the following year.
“That was a tough step for him coming through the major leagues for a full year, then have to be in Triple-A for another whole year after that,” Hunter Renfroe told Dennis Lin of the San Diego Union Tribune. “The character he showed by maintaining himself and doing what he needed to do to get back up here is very awesome.”
Going from the big leagues to the bus leagues, where everything from the travel to the meal money to the clubhouse spread is a world apart would leave most young players angry, dispirited or resentful. Instead, after breaking his hamate bone and having surgery, he returned to record his best performance in the minors offensively, batting .326 and blasting 21 home runs.
And he forged relationships with the Chihuahuas’ pitchers. Padres great Randy Jones will tell you how vital that relationship between the man on the mound and the catcher can be, citing his “almost surreal” partnership with Fred Kendall in an article in the Times-Advocate by Jim Tal Evans. Jones just threw whatever pitch Kendall called for, having learned that when he didn’t the result often left the yard.
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This season for the Padres, Hedges went hitless the first eight games but has since shown signs of life especially in terms of power. He ranks second to only the Royals’ Salvador Perez in home runs with 8. In multiple interviews, manager Andy Green has said he’s not surprised that he’s starting to hit and showing power. But he also emphasizes that the team values the defense, character, and leadership above the hitting.
Perhaps the highest praise of all has come from pitching coach Darren Balsley. Accustomed to running the meetings with the pitching staff before each game to go over scouting reports on opponents, Balsley has stepped aside this year. The 24-year-old catcher runs those meetings now.
In the meantime, many local fans on Twitter have assigned Hedges #swoon. This has absolutely nothing to do with baseball and everything to do with his persona. Also, as has been noted by more than a few fans, he is easy on the eyes.