NEW YORK -- If you watch the Padres regularly, you’ve seen some version of this before: In the first inning of Tuesday night's 5-4 win, Eric Lauer spotted his curveball two inches off the outside corner. Ever so gently, the catcher’s mitt drifted toward the plate. Yankees slugger Gary Sanchez stood confounded as he was rung up. The culprit was already halfway to the visiting dugout.
Nobody does it better. Nobody steals strikes quite like Austin Hedges.
Though Hedges is off to a slow start offensively this season, defensively, he's been arguably one of the most valuable players in baseball. He is up to 12 defensive runs saved, easily the best mark for catchers, and third among all defenders.
"The sexy ones are the called strike threes," Hedges said. "But it's more about switching counts. It's that 0-0 pitch or that 1-1 pitch. ... The more often we can flip a count to 0-1 or 1-2, it directly results in outs."
Hedges' presentation has been so flawless, he's fooling his own pitchers.
"He makes it look so good to me that I'll get upset on the mound, or I'll say something because I think it was a strike," said starter Matt Strahm. "Then he'll come in the dugout, and he'll be like, 'Strahmy, that was [outside].' And I think, 'Damn, bro, you made that look really good.'"
Hedges' defensive repertoire is hardly limited to his framing abilities. His arm qualifies as elite, and his 1.93 average pop time is third in the Majors. He's brilliant on pitches in the dirt, and to a man, the Padres' pitching staff raves about his game-calling and preparation.
"You know he's working for you back there," Lauer said. "You see him back there working his [butt] off, making sure you get every strike possible."
"He's second to none, what he can do behind the plate," said closer Kirby Yates. "Calling the game, blocking balls, throwing, he's elite at everything he does."
Tuesday's game was a clinic in Hedges' unseen value. He nicked strikes left and right, frustrating Yankees hitters all night. He also served as something of a security blanket for pitchers who needed to make difficult high-leverage pitches.
In the seventh inning, Craig Stammen bounced an 0-1 slider to Sanchez with the potential tying run on third base. Stammen didn't even think about the risk involved until he watched it on video later that night.
"That pitch was not close," Stammen said. "He blocks it like it was nothing. You don't think about not throwing it. If you have a catcher that's not as great as he is, you've got to think twice about those pitches."
Hedges has always been excellent defensively, but this year he's better than ever. By defensive runs saved, he's already put together the eighth-best season for a catcher in the last five years.
It's not even June.
Hedges, as he generally does, deflects the credit. In his eyes, he's not "stealing strikes." His pitchers are merely hitting their spots, and he’s doing his best to make sure the umps notice the quality of the pitches.
"If it's a blatant ball, I can't do anything with it,” Hedges said. “But when our pitchers are throwing a pitch that's on the corner to just off the corner -- when you've thrown pitches that are on the corner all night, I can make that pitch that's just off look like a strike."
Hedges is hitting only .202 with a .272 on-base percentage, but there's a reason he's in the lineup nearly every night, even as Francisco Mejia approaches a return from his knee ailment. If Hedges' offense continues to trend slightly upward, he'll almost certainly continue to get the bulk of the reps.
And yet, Hedges has yet to win a Gold Glove Award. Somehow, he's never even been a finalist.
So what would it take to put him on the map?
"If we win," Yates said. "If you look up two months from now and we're still in it, people are going to notice. He's a huge reason we're winning games."
Indeed, the Padres have trotted out the youngest rotation in baseball -- one loaded with question marks before the season -- and they sit seventh in the Majors with a 3.82 starters ERA.
The constant is Hedges, even if sometimes his value isn't so easy to spot.