Hedges puts Bucs' young staff at forefront

March 26th, 2023

BRADENTON, Fla. -- , in his mind, is not an extrovert.

That’s not apparent from how he conducts himself around his teammates, from the conversations he orchestrates with his pitchers, from the jokes he cracks or the barbs he throws. In Hedges’ mind, however, he is “an extreme introvert who has adapted into what is necessary to be the best at my job at the baseball field.” Regardless of the accuracy of his self-assessment, Hedges, extrovert or not, has exhibited his intangible value to this team and this pitching staff through communication.

“I love sharing,” Hedges said. “I have these thoughts that I can’t get out of my head when I go home, and I just want to share the thoughts and pick other people’s brains.”

Hedges’ teammates didn’t need much time to discovery his affinity for communication. After catching  for the first time, Hedges talked with Brubaker for nearly 10 minutes. In all, the chat lasted longer than the bullpen session itself.

“I want to almost over-communicate to show them how much I want to learn from them, how much I care,” Hedges said. “First impressions go a long way. If I catch a bullpen and I’m having a bad day and I don’t communicate, that guy doesn’t necessarily think I don’t care, but he wonders if I care, and that’s a failure in itself. I want every single one of these guys to know I’m with them for this whole year.”

Added Brubaker, “The investment that he came into camp and put into each and every one of us. I’ll go back to my first bullpen I threw to him; it was unbelievable.”

Hedges has done plenty of communicating with plenty of pitchers over the years, and recently, those pitchers have been on the younger side. Last season, Hedges caught 105 games for the Guardians, the youngest pitching staff in the Majors (averaging 26.3 years old). The Pirates won’t have a shortage of young starters on their team this season. Mitch Keller (26) and Roansy Contreras (23) will fill two of Pittsburgh’s rotation spots, and Johan Oviedo (25) is fighting for an Opening Day roster spot. Prospects Luis Ortiz (24), Mike Burrows (23) and Quinn Priester (22) are waiting in the wings.

Hedges experienced his share of successes and failures with Cleveland, and in Pittsburgh, the backstop is excited to apply the lessons he learned.

“When I’m calling a game, we want to win the game, but my focus at the forefront of my mind is my guy’s career,” Hedges said. “I want him to go out and dominate, and I want him to get paid a lot of money, and I want him to have great success. If I keep that [at the forefront] and he knows that, then he trusts me and it makes him a better version of himself.”

“The ability to listen -- which I think is really important for people who lead -- is really elite with him. I think it’s really stood out early in Spring Training in terms of his conversations,” said manager Derek Shelton.

Hedges’ value isn’t entirely intangible. Since 2017, his first year as a full-time catcher, Hedges leads all backstops with 71 defensive runs saved. Additionally, Hedges was worth plus-10 blocks above average, a Statcast metric that shows how adept catchers are at preventing wild pitches and passed balls.

Hedges, who had a .489 OPS last season, may not provide much on the offensive end, but his defense could get him the lion’s share of starts to begin the season. By the summer, however, Hedges’ playing time could dwindle.

Endy Rodriguez and Henry Davis, the Pirates’ No. 2 and No. 3 prospects per MLB Pipeline, will begin the season in the Minors -- Rodriguez in Triple-A, Davis in Double-A -- but they could both make their Major League debuts this season. Hedges, though, harbors not an ounce of animosity.

“I had high expectations from hearing about them, but they both absolutely surpassed all of my expectations,” Hedges said of the prospects. “Not just as players -- they’re both absolutely incredible and they’re going to be amazing, long-time big leaguers. But they’re good dudes. They care and they work hard. That was the thing I loved the most about each of them, is they care; that’s something you can’t really teach.”