Austin Hedges is considered the third-best catching prospect in baseball behind the Mariners’ Mike Zunino and the Mets’ Travis D’Arnaud. Regarded as a fantastic defender, he surprised with the bat as a 19-year old in the Midwest League last season. With offensive numbers 19 percent above league average, Hedges effectively shed the draft label of defensive specialist. The top prospect in the San Diego Padres organization is now regarded as an all-around talent.
Asked last week if he considers himself more advanced with the bat or behind the plate, the confident youngster hedged his bets.
“I don’t think you can ask me that one,” responded Hedges. “I like to think they’re equal.”
Interview by David Laurila.
Scouting Observations by Mike Newman.
From a scouting perspective, I agree. With soft hands and a quick release, aspects of Hedges defensive game were as advertised. However, his arm strength was closer to average than plus. Hedges also has the frame to add size which may hinder his mobility.
It’s impossible to assess finer points of catching like game-calling in a one-game sample. This doesn’t mean Hedges isn’t working on becoming a field general.
“The game is a lot different than it was in high school,” explained Hedges, who received a $3 million signing bonus as a second-round pick in 2011. “Here, I’m around a lot of good catching coaches and pitching coaches. They’ve helped me with calling pitches and how to work with pitchers. That’s one of the biggest adjustments I’ve had to make. I’ve been developing that relationship with pitchers, getting them to trust me behind the plate. More than the physical things, like blocking, receiving and throwing guys out, it’s been about how to call a game and read hitters.”
“When you don’t know the hitters very well, you kind of play it by ear,” continued Hedges. “You can make adjustments in the middle of the game. You go with your pitcher’s best stuff, then after you see an at bat or two you can make an adjustment based on the hitter.”
In batting practice, Hedges was visibly frustrated as he struggled to barrel pitches. A shoulder-heavy swing caused his hands to drag through the strike zone. Heading to the back fields for the Double-A game, I wanted to see Hedges keep his hands inside the baseball.
His right-handed stroke flashes above average power for a catcher — he had 10 homes runs in 337 at bats last year — but his approach is gap-to-gap.
“I’m obviously not a speed guy, so I need to drive the ball,” described Hedges. “I try to stay to the big part of the field and look for balls I can be aggressive on and hit for doubles into the gaps. I try to look for the ball in the middle of the plate and stay in the big part of the field.”
Hedges didn’t use the big part of the field, but a double down the left field line put my concerns about his swing to rest. In his load, He stayed tall, kept his elbow in, and dropped the barrel on the ball beautifully.
His next plate appearance ended in a weak popup to the right side, and a repeat of the mechanical flaws from batting practice. This is par for the course for most young hitters. Consistency is developed over time, through repetition. Game experience will also help Hedges identify pitches to drive.
Asked if he thinks like a catcher when hitting, Hedges admitted he does.
“I’ll think about what I’d call in a certain situation,” said Hedges. “Sometimes that can backfire, but it can also be advantageous for me. I try to use the count to my advantage.”
Hedges heads into his second full professional season with a simple goal. He said he wants to get better in every aspect of the game, and be more consistent. If development goes as planned — and D’Arnaud and Zunino graduate from prospects to major leaguers — Hedges is in line to assume the title of “best catching prospect in baseball.”