Austin Hedges Won’t Hit
When baseball writers started watching Austin Hedges in preparation for the 2011 MLB Draft, pants began to tighten everywhere. If his elite defense and his 6-1 frame weren’t enough to send prospect analysts and pro scouts into full swoon mode, his makeup, work ethic and intelligence surely did. In fact, people got so carried away with all that was (and still is) right with Hedges, they thought, “well there’s no way he won’t figure out how to hit, he’s just so dreamy.”
After consistently underwhelming with the bat outside of a solid season in the Midwest League (full season single-A ball) in 2012, his face has appeared on the cover of Prospect Geek Tiger Beat less and less frequently.
People who are still bullish on Hedges often cite Yadier Molina as the example of a great defensive catcher who learned how to hit in the Major Leagues. I am here today to take exception with that stance and to explain why that will not happen with Hedges and how even if he improves at the same rate as Yadier Molina, that doesn’t mean he will become Yadier Molina.
The most important thing to consider when projecting the possibility that Austin Hedges will improve enough to be serviceable for the Padres, is the fundamental difference between his skill set and someone like Yadier Molina’s. The difference is simple but enormous.
Yadier Molina has the ability to hit the ball extraordinarily often and Austin Hedges does not.
In 2004, at age 21, Yadier Molina had 150 PA at AAA Memphis. He struck out less than 10% of the time. In his whole minor league career Yadi struck out in only 10.27% of his plate appearances. He always had the ability to make contact. He later translated that ability into the skill of making more meaningful contact, while playing at the Big League level.
This natural ability was the foundation of his progress. Hedges lacks that ability, that foundation.
Last year, at age 21, Austin Hedges struck out 19.5% of the time, twice as often as Molina at the same age, and at a lower level of the minors. This K rate pushed his career minor league mark to 17.6%. He is hitting the ball less often as he faces better pitching.
Molina slashed .281/.338/.373 in minor league ball. Hedges has managed .251/.311/.382. Once Yadi got to the big leagues his offense took a few years to improve to the level we hope, in our wildest dreams, that Hedges might attain.
Molina’s career line in the MLB is, however… awfully similar to his career minor league numbers.
Molina has slashed .284/.339/.402 for the Cardinals. Compared to his MiLB numbers, he’s essentially been flat in terms of BA and OBP, with a 7.8% improvement in slugging. Every player is different, but I think most analysts now agree that Hedges’ bat won’t progress significantly from where it is now. However, many think he has the ability to add power. So let’s be extremely generous for the purpose of this exercise and envision a situation where Hedges miraculously maintains his minor league AVG and OBP while also adding the same SLG boost that Molina achieved.
That puts Hedges at .251/.340/.412. If he gets there, his .742 OPS puts him at about the level of Wilin Rosario’s 2014 season at the plate. Combined with elite defense, we’re talking about him landing around 2 WAR.
Again, that is based on the most optimistic assessment of what is reasonably possible for Hedges.
But if you stray from the Molina comparison as I tend to, due to the fact that he is extremely unique, and you think more carefully about why catchers tend to develop more slowly at the plate, you run into another reason why Hedges probably won’t get better.
A lot of catchers do develop more slowly on offense, but why? It’s because they are busy learning to catch and throw and call a game. Now, I’m sure Hedges has had to come along in calling a game, but defensively he was touted as being near Major League ready on draft day. He simply didn’t have as much to learn as other prep backstops.
This means, that for much of his career, the emphasis with Hedges has been on progressing at the dish, rather than behind it. And he hasn’t, which is the next hole in the “he’ll hit” argument. As he has climbed the ladder, his production has gotten worse. He was 20% above average in 2012, 2% above average in 2013 before a short stint in AA. Then in his first meaningful sample at AA, he was 33% below average. For almost every hitter, entering the Major Leagues means another big divot in their numbers. Expecting Hedges to maintain that slash line I quoted earlier is at the precise edge of what is reasonable, but it is incredibly unlikely. He hasn’t even shown he can approach it at AA.
Now, it warrants mentioning that Hedges was 3.1 years younger than the weighted average of that league (per Baseball Reference). But time is about the only thing on Hedges’ side and people around baseball are steadily trickling off the bandwagon as they realize that.
In Kiley McDaniels’ recent article on Padres prospects over at Fangraphs, he included two troubling quotes from people outside of the Padres organization.
“(The bat) could be really light…I started to get nervous about the bat and wondered if he was even a big league backup”
“He’s more like Drew Butera than people want to admit.”
So I skated on over to Butera’s fangraphs page and noticed that in a taste of AA in 2008 very similar to Hedges’ own in 2014, Butera actually produced a season just 20% below average by wRC+, as compared with Hedges’ 33% below. Granted, Butera was 24 at the time, but the substance of the comparison is apt: Austin Hedges is probably not going to be a Major League regular.
While his defense is eye popping, having followed Hedges closely and having seen him flail at the plate in person several times over the last couple years has me thinking one thing: I don’t see it. It sounds like other people are realizing they don’t see it either. If you still think there is a chance, I’m sorry in advance for how disappointed you will almost asuredly be.
But let’s not fret too much. Let us instead adjust our gaze in the direction of Hunter Renfroe. It’s where all the loud sounds are coming from.