Humor me here…
Austin Hedges’ first 31 plate appearances of 2017 – .037/.133/.037 with a 9/2 strikeout to walk ratio.
Alex Bregman’s first 32 plate appearances of 2016 – .031/.088/.031 with a 10/2 strikeout to walk ratio.
Since then, Hedges has a slash line of .278/.289/.833 as he entered Monday night’s bout with the Diamondbacks. The most important driver in his .833 slugging percentage is the five home runs he has smacked since a rough start to the season. Well, make that six, as Hedges took everybody’s favorite former Colorado Rockies ace Jorge De La Rosa deep in Chase last night (bring on the humidor!). In case you forgot about Bregman’s stretch after his rough start last year, the immensely touted prospect slashed .297/.372/.432 in his 42 plate appearances after the drought and finished with a 1.0 WAR after only 49 games. After this run by Hedges, I’m seriously considering a reworking of this column’s title.
Cheap home runs from the catcher wasteland? Sign me up.
Hedges is just around 20% owned in ESPN leagues, which jumped about a 15% in what seems like a matter of minutes. The Padres’ backstop found some love this offseason from crazy analysts who actually dig into the catcher position. That hype was well deserved too, I included Hedges in my own batch of sleepers, because he had some power upside at a position that is perpetually morbid to deal with. I noted in that column inflated PCL numbers at AAA, and while I completely understood the skepticism stemming from that environment, I kept in the back of my mind that Hedges struggled to find his home run stroke at AAA in his brief stint during 2015. That changed when he hit 21 home runs over 82 games at AAA during 2016. Should we attribute this to the PCL? Of course, but not as much as many who tossed aside Hedges did. It’s not like the PCL woke up and decided to start carrying more Hedges’ homers out of the park. I felt it was necessary to attribute some of the power improvement to Hedges’ maturation and ability to adjust.
Speaking of adjustments, Hedges made one last week in Atlanta that is likely the reason for his quick turn around. In the video below, keep a close eye on the erratic movement of Hedges’ hands as he loads up his swing. It’s a twitching motion that doesn’t really follow a pattern or rhythm that would scream ‘timing mechanism’ as many other quick-muscle movements before a swing might.
Now let’s watch a home run from Hedges the other day. Again, keep an eye on the load just before the ball is released from Dan Straily’s hand. Notice this time, there isn’t an erratic twitching motion we saw in the video above. There is similar hand placement and follow through, but Hedges ironed out the weird twitch he came into this season with.
I’ll admit, I was tipped off to this point after seeing a 20 second clip of Padres’ hitting coach Alan Zinter mentioning Hedges’ adjustments and recent success. It’s important to see actual adjustments from players this young, as opposed to attributing success to a few grooved pitches. I wish I had keen enough vision to notice this without the hitting coach pointing it out, but I have to give credit where credit it due. I also wish I had keen enough vision to notice the Padres actually had a hitting coach before this video. See what I did there?!
Owners who cut bait on Hedges probably did so for a catcher that hasn’t produced as much as Hedges has through this point in the season. Now leading the catcher position with six homers, Hedges is starting to edge himself into the discussion with names like James McCann and Jett Bandy. Wait, those names don’t impress you? Well they should as the McCann/Bandy tandem (name a more iconic duo) are your surprise top five catchers in terms of rotisserie production through the early stages of 2017. If this is any evidence, the catcher position is really a wasteland.
The likelihood of all three finishing inside the top five come October is unlikely, but why I’m not giving up on Hedges entirely comes from another reason I liked him as one of my sleepers preseason.
San Diego Union-Tribune and manager Andy Green reported that Hedges ‘sweet spot’ for Hedges’ starts this year would be in the 120-135 game range. This is in part because Hedges is actually an above average defensive catcher and handles the staff well. 130 starts is going to give him about 450-500 plate appearances. There were 14 catchers in 2016 with 450+ plate appearances. 13 of those catchers finished inside the top 14 catchers of the season for roto leagues, the new entrant being El Kraken himself, Gary Sanchez.
At the catcher position, playing time is gold.
Here at Razzball, we’re giving Hedges pretty mediocre projections on the stats front for the rest of the season, due mainly to the belief he only plays 74 more games. This is a prediction that Hedges only plays 92 games total this season, 38 off from Andy Green’s want of ~130. It probably also doesn’t account for the change in Hedges’ spot in the batting order either. After batting sixth or above only twice in his first ten games, Hedges has batted sixth or above seven times in his last eight games (And fifth two starts in a row). On top of the playing time, a catcher batting near the top half of any team’s order is only a positive for his counting stat potential. I’m hoping we see this fifth or sixth slot in the order as the spot Hedges dominates when looking back at Andy Green’s lineup combinations come midseason.
That’s a 20 home run catcher sitting on waivers in 80% of ESPN leagues. More importantly, that gerrymandered line is better than what we at Razzball have projected for Dodgers’ stud Yasmani Grandal over his next 91 games (.234AVG/43R/15HR/46RBI). It may be comparing apples to oranges to place side by side the scaled Razzball Hedges projection with the standard Razzball Grandal projection, and I acknowledge that. Razzball isn’t projecting any catcher to catch more than 102 games rest of season and my scaled line is implying Hedges catches another 114 to get to 130.
Take the concept with a grain of salt, but looking at what Hedges is capable of doing places him in the 12 team ownership conversation very quickly. It’s not insane to envision a universe where at the end of the season, Hedges and Grandal are a lot closer in production than the 140 spots of ADP implied on draft day.
Feel free to follow me on Twitter, I’m always responsive in answering questions and do my best to entertain and inform throughout the season! @LanceBrozdow