Padres' faith in Mejia paying off in a big way

June 26th, 2019

BALTIMORE -- When the Padres made part of their Opening Day roster in March, they envisioned big things from their switch-hitting rookie catcher.

Their opinion hadn't changed on June 1, when Mejia was optioned to Triple-A El Paso after missing three weeks with a left knee injury.

"We're a better team with Franky, and we knew that when we left him down in the Minor Leagues," said Padres manager Andy Green. "It's tough to do those things, but sometimes guys have to grow in certain areas so they can be a better version of themselves when they come back to the big leagues."

It's only been a week since his return, but this certainly seems like that better version of Mejia. Entering Wednesday's game, he was hitting .368/.429/.737 in six games since his recall. Mejia has hit his first two home runs of the season, including a missile into the left-center-field seats at Camden Yards on Tuesday night.

Behind the dish, San Diego has seen steady improvement as well. The Padres have always liked Mejia's game-calling abilities. His pitch-framing needs work, but they feel it's noticeably better than a season ago. And, perhaps most importantly, Mejia has developed a rapport with the pitching staff that wasn't there following his July 2018 trade from Cleveland -- and perhaps even early in the '19 season.

"It's probably the hardest position to go through a trade midseason," said bench coach Rod Barajas, who works with the team's catchers. "To get comfortable, that process takes a lot longer than it would anywhere else. You've got to get to know a lot of people and gain the trust of a lot of people."

So when did Mejia feel truly comfortable working with the current group of Padres pitchers?

"I don't really know how to answer that," said Mejia through a team interpreter. "But I know I'm comfortable now. I'm comfortable with everyone on this staff."

Mejia, it seems, is beginning to wrest playing time from starter . In eight games since he was recalled, Mejia has started six, including Wednesday's nod as the designated hitter.

Hedges is a defensive wiz behind the plate, but his offense has lagged. Mejia projects as a much better bat, but with sparse playing time, he was hitting just .167 with a .466 OPS when he headed to the Minors last month.

Ideally, San Diego envisions a timeshare between the two, based on matchups, hot streaks and other day-to-day factors.

"We started this year expecting to have one of the better catching tandems in the league," Green said. "Maybe other people's faith has wavered. We haven't wavered."

The Padres didn’t get that in April and May. Because Mejia, frankly, hadn't earned his share of playing time. It started a vicious cycle.

With Mejia slumping, he wasn't in the lineup. And with Mejia out of the lineup, he couldn't work on the aspects of his defensive game that the organization wanted him working on.

"You can do your reps in the bullpen, but the best reps you can ever get are on the field, with live pitching and guys throwing max effort," Barajas said. "When you're out there once or twice per week, it's hard to get that feel for what you're trying to do, what you're trying to accomplish.

"When he went down to the Minor Leagues, the message was: Go down there and work. We're not worried about the results. If you're doing things the way you're supposed to be doing them, you'll be right back up here."

Didn't take long. Mejia's back, and he's thriving. And it's not just his offensive numbers -- though they are certainly gaudy.

Rookie left-hander Logan Allen raves about throwing to Mejia. He's done so in six straight starts, including the Minor Leagues. The subtle things matter, too. Like when Allen misses his spot with a pitch, and Mejia, wasting no time, transfers the ball and fires a rocket back to Allen. The unspoken message: Let's get right back after 'em.

"I've seen more demonstrative body language," Green said. "He's always been invested in calling a good game. But he's invested in giving them the energy that helps them excel on the mound. That's not necessarily his natural gift, but he's growing in that way."

Added Barajas: "You see this kid. He's athletic, he's quick, he's got all the tools you'd want from a guy as a frontline catcher. It was a matter of building him back up. ... The more we've asked of him, the more his confidence has grown. He's taken to it. It's still a work in progress, but he's trending up, in the right direction in every category."