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Hedges showcasing elite defense at catcher

Backstop excelling in pitch framing, defensive runs saved
September 23, 2018

LOS ANGELES -- There's a Gold Glove Award in Austin Hedges' future -- the Padres' pitching staff is sure of it."He's the best defensive catcher in the game," said closer Kirby Yates. "There's nothing he doesn't do extremely well, from blocking to calling games to receiving to throwing.""He's as good

LOS ANGELES -- There's a Gold Glove Award in Austin Hedges' future -- the Padres' pitching staff is sure of it.
"He's the best defensive catcher in the game," said closer Kirby Yates. "There's nothing he doesn't do extremely well, from blocking to calling games to receiving to throwing."
"He's as good as I've seen," added setup man Craig Stammen.
"Austin's elte," said pitching coach Darren Balsley. "If he's not the best right now, then he's at least tied for first."
In all likelihood, that Gold Glove Award will have to wait. Hedges missed 50 games in May and June with an elbow injury, and his caught stealing numbers simply haven't been good enough this year.
Still, Hedges ranks third in the National League in defensive runs saved, and his pitch framing numbers are once again excellent. There's a case to be made that Hedges should be among the three finalists for the award anyway.
"There's a lot of room to get better," Hedges said. "But I think my biggest strides have been from the preparation, pitch-calling, leadership role, with a lot of these young pitchers."
On Saturday night, Hedges made two excellent catches in foul territory, including one where he smashed into the dugout railing and still made a ridiculous basket grab. That's flashier than what Hedges is used to.
His value is generally derived from the subtler aspects of the position. He's widely regarded as an excellent game-caller, and despite the time he missed, he ranks fifth in the NL in framing runs above average.
"At the catcher position, the good ones are at their best when they're going unnoticed," Hedges. "If your pitchers are getting all the credit, that's exactly what you want."
But Hedges' defense has let him down in one of the most critical areas for Gold Glove evaluation. He's thrown out just 10 of 43 baserunners this year. That 18.3 percent clip is precisely half his 36.6 mark from last year.

Privately, however, the Padres are mostly dismissive of that number. Hedges' performance slumped during a brief period in mid-July when he committed four errors in the span of a week. But otherwise, his pop time (1.93 seconds) is still elite and tied for second in the Majors. (It's negligibly down from his 1.89 mark last season.)
The reality is: Hedges is catching a pitching staff that currently features 10 rookies. They're still learning the intricacies of holding on baserunners in the big leagues. But Hedges has never been one to deflect blame.
"I've got to get better at it," Hedges said. "I haven't been throwing guys out like I know I can. ... Some's in my control, some's not, but I need to get better."
Next season, Hedges is going to be pushed for playing time by Francisco Mejia, the top-ranked catching prospect according to MLB Pipeline. As things stand, it seems likeliest Hedges gets the bulk of the reps behind the plate, with Mejia potentially shifting between backup catcher and outfielder.

The most noteworthy development with Hedges this season has been his bat. He's posted a .737 OPS -- 100 points better than his mark entering the season. As for that Gold Glove Award, Hedges makes it known he wants that, too.
"I want to be the best catcher in baseball," Hedges said. "If there's an award that goes to it, I want it. I want to be the best at whatever I'm doing. I love the catcher position, and I want to be the best, defensively, offensively, in every aspect."

AJ Cassavell covers the Padres for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @ajcassavell.