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Austin Hedges fits the Indians’ catcher mold

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His bat may be useless but his glove certainly is not

MLB: San Diego Padres at San Francisco Giants Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

You’re probably wondering why the Indians traded for catcher Austin Hedges.

This much is clear: It was definitely not for his bat. At the plate, Hedges finished above the Mendoza Line only twice in five seasons with the Padres. His best season in terms of offensive production was in 2018, when he slashed .231/.282/.429 and posted a 90 wRC+. He then cratered the following season, cutting his wRC+ nearly in half (47).

But behind the plate is a different story.

No metric makes this clearer than the stark contrast between FanGraphs’ total runs above or below average based on Hedges’ offensive contributions (both batting and baserunning) and defensive contributions (fielding and position):

Austin Hedges’ FanGraphs Offense vs. Defense

Year Offense Defense
Year Offense Defense
2015 -12.4 12.6
2016 -3.9 0.3
2017 -17.5 21.7
2018 -5.7 17.7
2019 -24 27.3
2020 -4 2.6

According to Baseball Savant, Hedges has been a master of the art of pitch framing since 2017, when he finished the season ranked third in runs from extra strikes (10) and first in strike rate (51.8%) among all qualified catchers. Strike rate is the percent of non-swing pitches in the region that borders the strike zone that a catcher is able to convert into called strikes.

Hedges dropped about 10 spots in both categories in 2018, but he rebounded for a first place finish in both metrics in 2019, with 15 runs from extra strikes and a 53.8% strike rate. For comparison, Roberto Pérez finished third in runs from extra strikes (12) and ninth in strike rate (51.7%) last season. So the Indians would now seem to have two of the top three pitch framers in the league from a year ago, according to Baseball Savant.

Baseball Savant even breaks down the “Shadow Zone” — the border around the strike zone — into eight different sections to show how effectively each catcher is at converting into called strikes pitches thrown into each area. Hedges was especially good last season at the bottom of the strike zone, ranking in the top four in strike rate in all three zones. That would seem to bode well for a pitcher like Shane Bieber, who lives in the bottom half of the strike zone.

FanGraphs is also a big fan of Hedges’ glove work. The site updated their metrics to include catcher framing (FRM) in the spring of last year and Hedges proceeded to claim his crown, leading all big league catchers with 17 FRM for the 2019 season.

Clearly, the Indians’ front office values defense over offense at catcher. I mean, even the offseason trade for Sandy León made sense, considering he ranked 18th in runs from extra strikes and 11th in strike rate last season. But the addition of Hedges, who avoided arbitration in the offseason by signing a one-year contract worth $3 million, raises questions about the future at catcher.

León is a free agent at the end of this season. Hedges is arbitration-eligible in 2021 and 2022, before becoming a free agent. And Pérez has a club option for next season worth $5.5 million. Is the trade for Hedges a precursor to declining Perez’s option? Terry Pluto is already telling Tribe fans to brace for a brutal cost-cutting offseason that could see the team trade Francisco Lindor and decline club options for Carlos Santana and Brad Hand. Could Pérez get the axe too?

For now, Pérez is the starting catcher and it will be interesting — and perhaps telling — to see how the Indians deploy Hedges and León the rest of the way.