Chad Harbach’s novel The Art of Fielding follows the life of a college baseball player named Henry Skrimshander through three stages of his life: first, as a South Dakota teenager who’s developed, more or less on his own and without anyone noticing, into a world-class defensive shortstop. Second, after years of training, as an all-around Division III college star bound for the first round of the MLB draft. And third, as a broken wreck of a man after he gets the yips and loses the ability to throw.
That last stage of Skrimshander’s life is something we see in baseball from time to time, but the other two exist only in fiction. (Also only in fiction do you get characters named Adam Starblind and Guert Affenlight.) The Division III first-round position player prospect doesn’t exist in real life, nor does the mysterious world-class defender with no other baseball skills.
The closest thing in contemporary baseball is Padres catcher Austin Hedges, who isn’t the worst hitter in baseball, but he isn’t exactly Aaron Judge, either: Last year Hedges posted a wRC+ of 71 in 417 plate appearances, 271st out of the 287 players who batted at least 300 times. For his career, Hedges has a wRC+ of 54, which is 292nd out of the 304 players currently on active rosters with at least 400 career PAs. Nine of those 304 players are pitchers, and while none of them has better career batting numbers than Hedges, Arizona’s Zack Greinke is only one spot behind him on the career wRC+ leaderboard.
When Hedges makes contact, he hits for power — his ISO last year, .183, was 137th out of 287 players with 300 PA, one spot behind Corey Seager, and 15th out of 33 catchers. Hedges is 2-for-24 this year, but both of his hits have gone for extra bases. The problem is that last year he had the 29th-highest strikeout rate, 41st-lowest walk rate, and 26th-lowest BABIP out of those 287 players. It’s an extra-bases-or-bust hitting profile.
That isn’t unique, even among everyday players. You’ll find a lot of familiar names below Hedges on that 2017 wRC+ leaderboard: Alcides Escobar, Rougned Odor, Ian Desmond, Alex Gordon, Dansby Swanson, Billy Hamilton, Matt Wieters. One difference between Hedges and most of the players below him is that those other players aren’t expected to be there. They’re either guys who have performed much better in the past, young players who are expected to improve, or in Odor’s case, an uncomfortable mixture of the two. But in general, hitters in the same neighborhood as Hedges aren’t very good overall players in the present.
Hedges, on the other hand, is a good player. Certainly both Hedges and the Padres would rather he not roll out one of the five worst OBPs in baseball, but he is an above-average regular even if he does.
Hedges is a stupendous defensive catcher, probably the best in baseball. Last year, he racked up 31.8 fielding runs above average (FRAA) in just 120 games. Nobody else was over 30, and only six other players were over 20.
Not only does Hedges have the game’s best defensive stats, he plays the toughest defensive position. The harder a defensive position is to play, the harder it is to find a player who can survive there defensively while also producing a given level of offense. All models of WAR build the scarcity of offense at tougher positions into their value model; FanGraphs rates the difference between catcher and DH, the two extremes of the spectrum, at 30 runs a year, or roughly the difference between Carlos Correa and a league-average hitter last season. (Hedges was at minus-15.2 weighted runs above average last season.)
The value effect of the defensive spectrum is quite pronounced for glove-first up-the-middle players like Byron Buxton and Andrelton Simmons, and it’s even more pronounced for catchers, who can pad their defensive value through pitch framing. Last year, Baseball Prospectus credited Hedges with 25.9 framing runs, trailing only Atlanta Braves backstop (and Ben Lindbergh man crush) Tyler Flowers. But Hedges excels at all aspects of catcher defense; among 73 catchers with at least 1,000 framing chances last year, Hedges was 14th in blocking runs and eighth in throwing runs. The arm, in fact, has been Hedges’s calling card since his days as a minor leaguer, when his aggressive pickoff attempts made him a must-see attraction on the back fields. Here, he shows off his arm by throwing out Billy Hamilton on a breaking ball in the dirt.
The total effect is that last year, when Hedges hit .214/.262/.398 and was one of the 20 worst hitters in baseball, BP’s WARP had him as one of the 50 most valuable position players overall, and seventh-most valuable catcher. Those are jarring numbers for a player who doesn’t really hit.
But catchers get some extra slack because their job is unlike any other in baseball. Squatting 200 times a game, five days a week, turns a person’s knees and thighs to dust. Catchers have little use for top-end straight-line speed, and because they’re not scaling walls or stealing bases, we don’t think of them as great athletes. In baseball movies, catchers tend to be aching, jaded veterans like Bull Durham’s Crash Davis and Major League’s Jake Taylor or mouthy fat kids like Ham Porter from The Sandlot. The truth is, if a pitch does anything but hit its intended target, catchers need immense fast-twitch athleticism to drop and block a ball in the dirt, pop up to throw to the bases, or burst out of the dirt to chase down a batted ball.
Catchers also control play during the time between pitches, which is treated like a rest period but is in fact live-ball action. The most daring catchers turn into ambush predators, reaching out to snare sloppy base runners like an eel bursting out of a crevice in a reef. Throwing behind the runner, the back pick, is the most indelible image of a great defensive catcher. Yadier Molina, who isn’t within 10 miles of the Hall of Fame’s normal statistical markers, is going to make a serious challenge for Cooperstown on the back of that image. Molina turned into a good hitter only in his late 20s. In 2006, the World Series–winning Cardinals gave the 23-year-old Molina 461 plate appearances, even though he hit just .216/.274/.321. It turns out that the best defensive catchers don’t need to hit very much at all.