As documentarian Ken Burns noted, baseball is the one game in which the defense -- not the offense -- possesses the ball. With this in mind, MiLB.com begins its "Defensive Gems" series. Starting now and continuing over the next eight weeks, we will feature a top prospect at each position who also happens to be an elite defender. In deciding which players to focus on, this reporter polled six scouting directors and relied on his own research. At catcher, the Mets' Travis d'Arnaud and the Braves' Christian Bethancourt were narrowly edged by...
Padres prospect Austin Hedges is learning how to breathe, and his weekly hour-long drive on southern California's Interstate 5 offers him plenty of practice. If there's no traffic to test his patience, no one would believe him.
Of course, Hedges is really working on his relaxation techniques behind home plate, not the steering wheel.
"Sometimes with runners on base, I'll drop to a knee and push the ball out of the zone where I am anticipating the ball being in the dirt and trying to block it," he says, over the phone and, yes, while in the car. "I am trying to be a little more relaxed behind the plate so that I can receive and block successfully. I'm working on my breathing and being quieter back there."
Already an accomplished defender -- seen as such since the Pads gave their second-round Draft pick a $3 million signing bonus to forgo his commitment to UCLA in 2011 -- he is the fourth-ranked catching prospect in baseball less than two years later. What sticks out among the 20-year-old's many skills? His "plus" arm and mobility, sure, but that drive, too.
"He lives an hour from [Petco Park], but since New Year's he drives down once a week to do some work down here, even though he has his own training regimen near home" in San Juan Capistrano, says former big league catcher Brad Ausmus. "He makes that trip here, that trip back, and we meet."
It's hard to imagine Hedges having a better teacher. Ausmus, a veteran of 18 Major League seasons (his first four in San Diego) and the owner of three National League Gold Glove awards, actually helped scout Hedges after taking his first front-office position in November 2010.
"He was the first amateur I had seen in 25 years, so I was comparing him to Major Leaguers, but he stood out on the field head and shoulders above his peers and the players he was going against. Now that I've gotten to know him, the most remarkable thing about Austin is his aptitude for the game. For a catcher out of high school, he has a much better grasp of what's going on around him than I did at his age," says Ausmus, himself a prep-to-pro catcher as a 48th-round draftee in 1987. "So I think he's well ahead of the curve. That being said, he has a thirst for learning more about the game and a work ethic that is going to make him much better quickly."
Right now, Ausmus is instructing Hedges on how to behave physically as a backstop, how the smallest movements can affect his play. Hence Hedges' focus on the air entering and exiting his lungs.
"Every time I'm with him, I try to pick his brain about how to go about myself when I am catching because he obviously did such a good job throughout his career," Hedges says. "We're [always] working on something new. I'm so lucky to have Brad in the organization. His pitch-calling ability and the way that he handled his pitching staff is one of the biggest things that I can model myself after."
This may be where the catching position differs most from other spots on the diamond. Perhaps the two greatest shares of superlative play behind the dish involve mental -- not physical -- tasks: calling pitches and handling a staff of starters and relievers. It makes sense then, that during his debut season -- and he didn't turn 20 until August -- this is where Hedges grew the most. His Class A Fort Wayne coaches and teammates can attest.
"My first impression was he was very young and had a ton of ability and a lot of tools, but he wasn't refined yet," says 2012 TinCaps pitching coach Willie Blair, now the Padres' bullpen coach. "Early on, he had such high expectations. Coming out of high school as a top draft pick, you've been the stud, so to speak. You think you're doing everything right. You get into pro ball and, all of a sudden, you go from catching guys who are throwing 85 [mph] to guys throwing 95 and may not have the best control. He learned that. As the season went on, the pitchers loved throwing to him."
"The biggest thing was paying more attention to the hitters in the box," Hedges says now. "I never really had to pay attention to that part of the game [in high school] -- I had someone else doing it for me. Now I have to be so much more aware of a lot more: where the hitter is in the box, what kind of swing he took on a certain pitch."
Before season's end -- Hedges led the Midwest League in games caught (94) and putouts (763) -- experience started to pay off. Ask starting pitcher Matt Wisler, who made 16 of his 23 starts with Hedges serving as his battery mate.
"It got better as the season went on. After the first couple of outings, we got on the same page and we could just attack hitters and not have to stop and worry about what pitches to throw," says Wisler, a fellow '11 draftee who compiled a 2.53 ERA in 24 appearances overall. "It made the game a lot easier to have someone who knew what I was thinking all the time."
This winter, with no young hurlers in need of his fingered signs or mound-side manner, Hedges is working on what he can with the right man.
"They're similar in size, both [have] great arms, both great athletes, both can run," Blair says of the Ausmus-Hedges mold. "When I say that, I'm not saying by any means that he is refined or as good a catcher as Brad is, or was in his career. But the potential to be that good is there."
So the question comes again: Can you imagine a better teacher for Hedges as he continues his climb toward the Majors?
"The more game situations that he's put into, the better he'll respond to them, and that includes knowing what pitch to call. I can talk him through it, but he needs to experience it," Ausmus says. "I hope the learning process is sped enough that, while his physical tools are peaking, he has the experience and knowledge of game management to make him an All-Star-caliber, well-rounded player. The cruel joke with most catchers is just when they figure out the importance of pitch selection and game management and how to deal with it, that's usually about the same time that their physical skills are eroding."