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.
So far I’ve covered the Dodgers and Padres with this series. This week the Diamondbacks are up. Given the fact that this club employs the ever-deficient Kevin Towers and a manager who talks about make-up like he’s a goddam Avon lady (ba-zing), I expect a wider margin of error for the Snakes than the other teams in the division. It’s hard to predict what irrational men will do.
The 2013 Arizona Diamondbacks
C – Miguel Montero
1B – Paul Goldschmidt
2B – Aaron Hill
3B – Martin Prado
SS – Didi Gregorius
LF – Cody Ross
CF – Adam Eaton
RF – Gerardo Parra
My placement of Gregorius at short is heavily influenced by the fact that Cliff Pennington and Willie Bloomquist, while their names also sound like characters from a British mystery novel, stink at hitting. Gregorius will likely be below average offensively, but I think he’ll still be better than the other two candidates. Many may suggest Didi will get the job because Kevin Towers gave up a top prospect to acquire him. But I am not convinced Towers operates that way, and I am not sure Kirk Gibson will be able to understand that just because his other two candidates for short are scrappy veterans, doesn’t mean they are better.
I spent some quality time, thinking about whether Parra or Kubel will get more time this season. I think Kubel will get his ABs, but the Ross signing makes me think they are not particularly high on Kubel. He had a pretty rough finish to 2012 and is inferior defensively to Ross and Parra. Currently it seems the Diamonbacks have an interest in defense, so Parra gets the edge in a platoon.
Note: Adam Eaton will get his first full season in the big leagues. For some reason I envision him as a sort of bizarro Chris Young. Young had the great tools, but was frustrating due to his inconsistency and huge strikeout totals. Meanwhile, Eaton has four quality tools, power being the one left out, but can really play the game, and makes a lot more contact than Young.
1 – Ian Kennedy
2 – Brandon McCarthy
3 – Trevor Cahill
4 – Wade Miley
5 – Tyler Skaggs
Top four are pretty well set, but that last spot is tricky. Patrick Corbin would seem to have the edge based on service time, but Skaggs is the best talent of the group and he seems ready so I’m penciling him in. Randall Delgado, although he is a nice ground ball pitcher with sharp stuff, is not going to be able to show the command that Skaggs possesses.
Daniel Hudson comes back from surgery mid-season and they’ll be able to allow him to take his time given Corbin, Skaggs and Delgado are all in the mix.
CL – JJ Putz
SU – Heath Bell
SU – David Hernandez
RP – Brad Ziegler
RP – Tony Sipp
RP – Josh Collmenter
Newcomers Heath Bell and Tony Sipp fill important roles, and Collmenter is the long man. Delgado and Corbin are left off to get regular starts at AAA Reno.
C – Wil Nieves
UT – Eric Hinske
IF – Cliff Pennington
IF – Willie Bloomquist
OF – Jason Kubel
IF – Eric Chavez
John McDonald has not been a major leaguer for a few years now, and the greatest triumph of the Diamondbacks offseason is that they have finally assembled enough pieces that they can release him.
On to the next disposable piece of this bench. Having both Eric Hinske and Eric Chavez is just plain stupid. They play the same positions and both hit left-handed. So that’s $4MM and two roster spots for what amounts to one player that can’t defend, run or play everyday if someone gets hurt…KT is a genius! Hinske is easier to get rid of given he is owed just over $1MM. Chavez’s $3MM contract makes him tougher to release or trade, and there will be few takers.
Unfortunately, the most logical guy to put on the roster, if they do ditch an Eric, is A.J. Pollock. I say unfortunately because I think it would be better for him to see at bats every day in AAA, and then get the call if an outfielder goes down.
A ton of depth in the rotation and the outfield, as well as a quality defense, give this team a high floor. With Prado and Hill signed up long term, youngsters Paul Goldschmidt, Didi Gregorius and Adam Eaton, plus a host of young arms, the team is built around a pretty stable core. But that core is without high ceiling guys on offense (outside of Goldschmidt). As such it’s hard to see the Diamondbacks doing anything other than burrowing into an age of respectable mediocrity that sees a playoff birth or two when things break right.
Next week it will be the Colorado Rockies, even though they are pointless.
As I did with the Padres last week, I have selected the players I think will get the most playing time in their respective capacity for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2013. Many choices are obvious. I will spend time on the more interesting ones. So if you came to read about how bomb-ass dank-ass the Dodgers are going to be this year, I would advise you check CBS. They will happily indulge your hunger for things you could have written yourself.
The 2013 Los Angeles Dodgers
C – AJ Ellis
1B – Adrian Gonzalez
2B – Mark Ellis
3B – Luis Cruz
SS – Hanley Ramirez
LF – Carl Crawford
CF – Matt Kemp
RF – Andre Ethier
It’s obvious who is going to play all eight of the starting positions for the Dodgers in 2012. The most interesting situation, and perhaps the name penciled in most precariously, is Luis Cruz at third. While a lack of walks prevents him from being much more than average offensively, he was defensively marvelous at the hot corner (a crazy UZR/150 of 22), and has played his share of short, should Hanley prove inadequate there as the season goes on. If Cruz proves inadequate at third, Jerry Hairston will see time there.
You may notice that Dee Gordon has been left out of the picture here. In fact, you won’t count him among my bench selections either. 2013 will be spent in Reno, his latest chance to learn to play baseball.
Here is your reality check on Dee Gordon. He created runs at 58% the rate of an average offensive player last year, despite stealing 30 bases in half a season. If he had continued playing defense as poorly as he did in 2013, for the entire season, he would have cost the Dodgers nearly 10 more runs (-26) than the worst qualified player in the game (Curtis Granderson -17.6). If you are hoping he will be the Dodgers’ shortstop one day, knock it off. It’s depressing, and you deserve to dream better dreams than that.
1 – Clayton Kershaw
2 – Zack Greinke
3 – Chad Billingsly
4 – Hyun-Jin Ryu
5 – Josh Beckett
A potentially very top-heavy rotation. Reports on Billingsly are that he is healthy, but he’s always been inconsistent; fine enough for a number three starter. Ryu is totally unproven, coming from the KBO. It should be noted that Josh Beckett’s performance and numbers took a sharp, positive turn when he made the move to the NL West. But this was largely due to a spike in his ground ball rate. Either when he got to L.A. he made a conscious effort to induce more ground balls, or he had a flukey stretch. We’ll find out soon.
The Dodgers may opt to have Ryu open the year in the minors, to get a feel for his role, should Spring Training prove inconclusive. But they paid him like a starter, and one would think they’ll make a serious run at justifying that judgement.
Chris Capuano, Aaron Harang, and Ted Lilly are all rostered, should Ryu fall short, but once they figure out how Ryu fits in, a move is likely. Capuano seems the most plausible trade candidate, as his value is the highest of the three. Ted Lilly is healthy, and as with Capuano, there would seem to be matches all around the league. Harang was mister lucky last year, outperforming his xFIP by nearly a run and a half, and his value probably won’t go much lower unless he gets injured. It wouldn’t shock me if he were released before the Dodgers finish up in Glendale this spring.
CL – Brandon League
SU – Kenley Jansen
SU – Matt Guerrier
RP – J.P. Howell
RP – Javy Guerra
RP – Ronald Belisario
This is one of the best bullpens in baseball, one through six. The fact that the Dodgers have installed League as their closer means they actually understand the value in having your best reliever work as the setup guy. League is dependable, but Jansen is dominant.
Health issues for Jansen, Guerrier and Guerra all seem resolved. Scott Elbert (left hander, not on the above list) has been effective, but the underlying numbers are ominous and it seems the Dodgers are aware of that, given the J.P. Howell signing. Meanwhile the young and effective Paco Rodriguez, though ready for the majors, will start the year on the farm. But given Ronald Belisario’s constant behavior and visa issues, I feel the least confident in selecting him for a larger share of innings than Rodriguez, as compared with the others listed above.
C – Tim Fedorowicz
UT – Jerry Hairston
UT – Skip Schumaker
UT – Elian Herrera
UT – Nick Punto
IF – Juan Uribe
The Dodgers are sure to lead the league in utility men. Hairston and Punto have played all but catcher and pitcher in the majors. Herrera is right behind, playing all but catcher, pitcher and first base just last year. Schumaker pitched an inning in 2011, and has played 2B, LF, CF, and RF outside of that. This, along with Carl Crawford’s ability to cover center field, gives the Dodgers extreme flexibility when somebody needs a day off, or in the case that an injury wipes out a star.
Tim Fedorowicz (25) is the backup catcher now, but most certainly won’t be in 2014. He has essentially the same skill set as A.J. Ellis (32), and the Dodgers won’t bring him up to rot. He’ll get a decent share of the playing time, so the organization can see what they really have.
Unfortunately, Juan Uribe.
The Dodgers have spent a lot of money, and not all of it wisely, but with one of the thinnest systems in the league, it was really the only way to build a winner in the near term. They’ll get back into the playoffs, but I don’t think they have what it takes to top the Nationals, Braves or Reds for the Pennant in 2013. Those clubs are built better for the future as well, and I think this version of the Dodgers will come up empty in terms of World Series trophies. If I were a Dodgers fan, I would enjoy watching the much improved team in place now, but I would be far more interested in what the club does to continue to strengthen their farm system. The greatest era of Dodger baseball will be the next one.
Recently Corey Brock wrote what was somehow deemed an “in-depth” piece on Padres third-baseman Chase Headley. He really just cooked up a pancake about Chase as a person. He sounds like a delightful guy, but the piece could have appeared in Us Weekly if people cared as much about ballplayers as they do about whores and douche-bags, or whatever.
Many claimed Brock offered answers to the question of how Chase Headley was able to make the sudden leap from solid big leaguer to silver slugger. Brock absolutely did not do this. (Nor did he claim to, for the record.)
Brock is the brand of baseball writer that functions as the fertilizer, which the nothing farm that is MLB.com uses to maximize the amount of nothing it can pull from the otherwise fertile soil of Major League Baseball. So, true to form, the following quote is used as a stand-in for actual analysis in Brock’s piece:
“[He] dedicated himself to being more of a run producer.”
Gee, that seems a little thin, don’t you think? I’m fairly certain every third baseman has dedicated himself to being good at baseball.
Open your mouth and open your mind, Corey, for this sweet, frosty “perhaps-icle” I’ve prepared. Perhaps, just perhaps, it has something to do with actual baseball stuff. You’ll see what I mean.
The Flippy Swing
I’ve been watching Chase Headley his entire career. Chase has always had an excellent eye and elite discipline, and has always been able to sting off-speed stuff over the plate. He rarely gets fooled, and his contact skills have never been in question. But prior to 2012, Chase Headley had a problem squaring up the mistake fastball. Why?
In order to make consistent contact and to prevent Petco from swallowing high fly balls, Chase developed a swing that was low risk and low reward. My father and I have taken to calling it the “flippy” swing. Sean Burroughs invented it. The scared-to-drive-the-ball approach may have been drilled into Chase as he entered the big leagues, or perhaps like so many other Padre hitters, he just psyched himself into adopting it.
Either way, pre-2012, Headley’s hands lagged behind his hips at the beginning of his swing, which meant he was always a tic behind the heater, and wasn’t getting as much out of his lower half as he could have.
Here is a gif of 2011 Chase Headley. Notice how the hips fire and the hands drag.
You’ll still see Headley using this swing to keep his hands back on off-speed pitches, but he uses another swing when he gets a fastball he can drive. His hands fire instantly with the hips. He also added a leg kick to help crank more leverage out of his core. The added juice from the lower half adds the pop that was always present, but never utilized in his cut.
Behold: 2012 Chase Headley.
That’s how you hit a bomb 20 rows back off a 90mph heater at the letters. Later in the same game he hit a second tater from the left side on a 93mph two-seamer, out over the plate. Same quick hands. This is Chase Headley dialed up to 11. This is what he is capable of.
Proof in Numbers
We can watch and watch, but the problem is that sometimes we see what we want to see. In this case, the pitch/FX data backs me up.
Since 2009 Chase Headley’s runs above average against fastballs has been below average, and actually got worse each year until 2012. At -1.7 in 2009, it bottomed out in 2011 at -4.6. In 2012 that number leapt to +24. No other pitch saw a spike near that magnitude. The change-up came closest, going from -1.1 in 2011 to +14.1 in 2012. The league noticed, as they threw him the lowest percentage of both fastballs and change-ups of his career. All the while, he was able to maintain near his career norms in runs above average against all other pitch types.
The New Headley
José Bautista is another hitter who we have seen make minor adjustments to become a major threat. Chase Headley didn’t just want it more last season, he actually changed something about his swing mechanics, which allowed him to add another tool to his game. To say that he just tried harder is to discount both Chase’s work ethic, and the talent of the Padre hitting coaches (Phil Plantier and Alonzo Powell). But most dangerously, it provides the impression that last season was a fluke. It was not.
Even with this season’s weak free agent class, there were deals to be found for the rotation in need of an excellent arm. Brandon McCarthy, Dan Haren and Shawn Marcum were probably the best high-upside bargains. While Marcum is still out there, Washington was able to snag Haren on a one-year “prove-it” deal worth $13MM, and McCarthy signed a back-loaded two year pact worth $15.5MM, heading to Arizona. With options dwindling it seems increasingly likely that teams looking to improve for less dough will have to part with more than money by exploring upgrades via trade.
One of the worst players on the block market is Ubaldo Jimenez. Many fans may remember him from his electric first half in 2010. But he is no longer that pitcher. Though just 28 years old, the right-hander’s skills are fading rapidly. In 2012 he was one of just three starters to throw 175 innings or more, and still produce less than .5 WAR.
Heater in Trouble
Ubaldo Jimenez’s average fastaball velocity was the highest among starting pitchers from 2008-2010, peaking at 96 mph. That was in 2009. Last season, his heater clocked a tic below Jeremy Guthrie’s at 92.5 mph. The Major League average was 91.8 mph. In terms of pitch values, Ubaldo’s fastball was 18 runs worse than average last year. What happens when a fireballer loses his fireball?
For Jimenez, it has meant doubling the use of his change-up (18% of the time), and adding a splitter in 2010. He has also relied more heavily on a two seam fastball (its slower avg velocity does not count against that of the four seamers). But the effort to shift away from his most troubled offering has not paid off.
The Deeper Problem
Felix Hernandez was tops with an average fastball velocity of 96 mph in 2007. Last season, his heater averaged 92.4 mph. But Felix hasn’t struggled through his velocity dip. What is different about Jimenez?
Hernandez has great control and terrific secondary stuff. Over time, Ubaldo’s slider has lost depth, and hitters have become more selective against him, while he has become more erratic. In 2008, Jimenez’ slowest pitch was 20 mph behind his fastball. That differential shrunk to 15 mph in 2012. The real setback has been an inability to keep the ball on the ground.
To have your splitter produce groundballs just 35.6% of the time, which Ubaldo accomplished last season, is a special feat on its own. But his fastball and slider each produced ground balls at a rate below 30%, something none of his pitches had done before 2012. The collapse of his GB%, and rising BB/9, along with the fact that hitters no longer have to worry about the steep differential between his pitch velocities, have combined to destroy a pitcher who seemed headed for stardom.
If your team trades for Ubaldo, hope the Indians pay that salary and that you only have to give up a fringe prospect or a spare part to get him. While certainly not disastrous (because of the low projected cost of completing a swap), any deal for Jimenez will be a waste of time.
The Bright Side
Maybe time travel will become commercially available at some point during the 2013 season, and a lucky GM can go grab 25-year old Ubaldo Jimenez, passing him off as the late model for long enough to make a push for the post season. Personally, I’ll be going back for a 19 year old Satchel Paige, but I’m a little old fashioned.
*All amazing stats by amazing Fangraphs