Hedges catching on quickly
Rookie putting in work to improve behind and at the plate
SAN DIEGO -- Padres pitcher Tyson Ross has a confession to make.
"I'm not the easiest guy to catch," he said.
Not with a hard slider that darts hard down and away from right-handed batters, giving the catcher a second to shift from his stance to get a glove on the ball.
Ross' two-seam fastball is no joy to corral, either. This worm-burner might produce the third-highest ground-ball rate (63.5 percent) in the big leagues, but his sinker moves so much the catcher can't predict what it will do.
"My ball is going every which way … and sometimes I'm not even in control of it," Ross said.
Luckily for Ross and the other pitchers on San Diego's staff, they have two more than able catchers to help guide them through starts -- Derek Norris and rookie Austin Hedges, who on Tuesday turned 23.
Hedges, who was recalled from Triple-A El Paso on May 4, has quickly earned the trust of the pitchers on the staff for his game-calling, his ability to neutralize the running game and overall baseball acumen that belies his age.
"He's a bright kid," Ross said. "I think he's a lot more mature than his age would indicate."
And in terms of corralling Ross' pitches?
"It's almost like he's got Velcro stuck to his glove," Ross said.
None of this comes as much of a surprise to anyone who has watched Hedges -- going back as far as when Padres scouts carpooled up I-5 to watch him play at Junipero Serra High in San Juan Capistrano, where he emerged as San Diego's second-round pick in 2011.
Defense was Hedges' game, and his work in the Padres' system with Brad Ausmus and A.J. Hinch, who formerly worked in the team's front office and now manage the Tigers and the Astros, respectively, helped advance Hedges' game and hastened his arrival to the big leagues this season.
The learning continues as this level every day, Hedges said. So does the appreciation of where he is and what lies ahead of him. Hedges has taken none of this for granted.
"I think the biggest challenge has been looking at what's always been a dream and now treating it as reality," Hedges said. "In the Minor Leagues, any time you talk about the big leagues, you're talking about it as if it's a dream. Once you get there, it still [is] for a little bit.
"You're going to these big ballpark, these new cities -- the way we get treated -- and it seems too good to be true. So for me, the biggest adjustment has been to treat all of that the way I've treated baseball every day. I'm trying to show up getting better every day."
That's shown. Despite making just 25 starts, Hedges ranks 17th in the big leagues in getting extra strikes (24), according to Baseball Prospectus. He's thrown out 11 would-be basestealers. Hedges is also catching more, getting seven starts in July and eight this month, as Norris has seen more time at first base.
"I think this kid is ready to play," said Padres interim manager Pat Murphy, who also was with Hedges in El Paso. "I don't want to jump the guy, our starting catcher is Derek Norris, but I really think this kid has come on a lot.
"He's coming into his own. This is a guy who is very bright and very open. I'm very excited about his future."
Hedges is hitting .188 with two home runs and nine RBIs in 88 at-bats with San Diego, but as he's played more, his plate appearances have generally gotten better. He has 11 hits in his past 40 at-bats, and on Wednesday, he delivered a critical RBI double that gave the Padres a 3-1 lead in the seventh inning of a 3-2 victory over the Braves.
"I'm very pleased with the work [hitting coach Mark Kotsay and assistant hitting coach Alonzo Powell] and I have put in," Hedges said. "Now every time I step in the box, I feel I can do some damage.
"I feel like I'm sticking with the approach I've been working on. It's sticking with a disciplined approach to my work, and that's allowed me to have success."