Position Battle: Catcher
There are two major league caliber catchers on the Padres 40 man roster, Austin Hedges and Francisco Mejia. Both players could be starters on a majority of big league teams. Even in the era of time-sharing behind the plate it will be a challenge to get enough at bats for both players. It will be a hard fought battle at catcher the entirety of the 2019.
Austin Hedges vs. Francisco Mejia
Austin Hedges was a long time Padres farmhand until making his debut in 2015 backing up Derek Norris. Always an advanced defender behind the dish, Austin’s bat has always lagged behind his elite defensive skills. He has been lauded not only for his defensive prowess but also the way he manages a pitching staff, which may prove invaluable as our young pitching prospects make their way to the majors. Austin has some power potential but his swing can get a little long leading to too many strikeouts.
Francisco Mejia, acquired last season for Brad Hand and Adam Cimber, is a nearly perfect foil for Austin Hedges. Where Hedges has been carried by his defensive acumen Mejia has been propelled to the majors by hit advanced bat. Despite his small frame he generates excellent bat speed and makes a lot of loud contact. Defensively Mejia is still very much a work in progress as a below average defender and receiver. He does bring a cannon of an arm to his arsenal but ultimately his long-term value will be decided by his ability to stick behind the plate.
2019 Offensive Projection
Hedges .225/.277/.401, 11 home runs, 6.1 BB%, 26.5 K%
Mejia .248/.294/.394, 9 homeruns, 5.4 BB%, 19.8K%
In parts of four seasons Austin Hedges has been an important player to the future of the club. He made significant strides at the plate last season raising his wRC+ from 69 (31% below league average) in 2017 to a much more tolerable 90 (10% below league average) in 2018. This season he projects to regress a little to an 82 wRC+. Mejia conversely has not received enough playing time to exceed his rookie eligibility but in 62 plate appearances last season put up a 73 wRC+. Francisco has exhibited elite bat control in the minors and even had a 50 game hitting streak in 2016. He is now projected to have an 87wRC+. Mejia certainly has shown a higher ceiling with the bat but this season Steamer projects relatively similar offensive output to Hedges in 2019.
Hedges .986 Fielding %, 12 DRS, 4 PB in 725 innings
Mejia 1.000 Fielding %, -1 DRS, 4PB in 92.2 innings
Catcher is a notoriously difficult position to evaluate on defense. There are a lot of soft skills that can vary catcher to catcher that are not going to be seen in a stat line of box score. Handling a pitching staff, preventing stolen bases, and pitch framing are skills that have not been incorporated in a lot of metrics. Hedges is one of the top defensive catchers in the league and was second in the NL in DRS. He was fifth in the league in framing runs by Baseball Prospectus, which has included pitch framing in their WARP calculations. Hedges had a 2.1 WARP last season versus a 1.0 fWAR explaining his value to the club is much higher than fWAR and bWAR stats would lead the casual fan to believe. Mejia conversely has shown difficulty in blocking pitches seen in his number of passed balls in a limited number of innings. Stock in any other defensive metrics from last season are going to be impractical due to small sample size. The ever dubious eye test also demonstrates that Hedges is a far superior defender behind the dish.
Austin Hedges is the current starter and Francisco Mejia has a ways to go before he earns the starting gig. Hedges is projected for a .9 fWAR and Mejia is projected for 1.0 fWAR which should put the Padres in a good position to get at least league average production from behind the plate. It has been insinuated that Mejia may start the year in AAA but his spring training performance supports breaking camp with the big league club. If so, Francisco Mejia should be earning league minimum and Austin Hedges will receive 2.06 million in his first of four years of arbitration. To start this season starting catcher is Austin Hedges’ to lose but long term Francisco Mejia looks to be heir apparent unless his defense prevents him from earning the lion’s share of the starts in the coming seasons.
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