Catcher is a demanding gig. Backstops have to handle the toughest defensive position, manage pitching staffs, take abuse from baserunners and their own hurlers, and on top of all that, are expected to be able to effectively wield a bat on the other side of the plate. It's no wonder it takes a long time for some catchers to settle in to a full-time gig in the majors - there's just so much to do and learn and refine.
Former big-league backstop and Padres' bench coach Ted Simmons has said it takes 500 games caught or 1,500 at-bats before you know whether a catcher is worthy of starting or more fitting as a backup. This theory might turn out to be true for one of Simmons' former protégés, Nick Hundley. The currently maligned Padres backstop is sitting at 341 games caught and 1,212 at-bats in the majors, putting him roughly one season away from the decisive Simmons threshold. While it seemed clear just who he was going to be heading into 2011, and even more so after a strong showing that year, an awful 2012 season threw a wrench into the whole process and brought Hundley and the Padres back to square one.
The emergence of Yasmani Grandal behind the plate softened the blow a bit, but now, with Grandal out for the first 50 games of the season due to a PED suspension, the revival of Hundley is once again an item of great import. Whether he comes back fully resurrected and revitalized, or as a shambling*, zombified shell of his former self, is something we'll just have to wait to see. But we can pinpoint the problem areas to see how good his chances at a return to form are.
*None of this fast-paced, ninja-zombie stuff in my articles. Their ankles would snap, and Nick Hundley already has enough health problems to contend with, zombie or no.
To understand what went wrong with Hundley, it's important to know just what made him productive in the first place. Hundley was a patient hitter who didn't draw tons of walks, but saw plenty of pitches. This allowed Hundley to wait for a pitch he could do something with, and also had the side benefit of helping to wear down the opposing pitcher. Hundley drew walks 10, eight, and seven percent of the time in 2009, 2010, and 2011 respectively, and posted consecutive .168 Isolated Power seasons, as well as a .189 campaign, in the process. Some walks, some power, all positives for a catcher playing in a park that deflates offense.
He wasn't without his weaknesses, though. Hundley had a reverse split going, and was weaker against left-handed pitchers than a right-hander should be. Pull power was his forte, and he was solid going up the middle, but he had little production going the other way. Of course, at Petco Park, there's little reason for a right-handed batter to want to go the other way, as right field was a place where baseballs went to die.
Defensively, Hundley was a project, but extensive work on that front brought him to where he needed to be by 2010. All told, the Padres had an above-average bat who was capable of handling himself behind the plate heading into 2011, and by the time that season ended, and Hundley had hit .288/.347/.477 by essentially putting all of his positives into overdrive, it seemed like he could be even more than that.
That might have been asking too much, given his batting average on balls in play was .362 despite a home park that severely reduces BABIP. But even accounting for regression to the fullest extent of mathematical law, Hundley still looked good, and easily worth the three-year, $9 million extension the Padres signed him to after the season. Things fell apart, though.
Hundley started in a slump, failing to pick up his first hit of the year until his eighth game, putting him at .043/.290/.043 through 31 plate appearances. Slumps happen, but manager Bud Black has said that Hundley lets failure get to him, and can start to press and ruin his approach because of it. The need for a reset is why the Padres demoted Hundley to the minors to begin with, to give him a chance to find his swing and approach in a no-pressure environment. While that didn't work, it's not as if Hundley played much - just 11 games in the minors - and he also had his season cut short by knee surgery.
Of course, anyone can say that Hundley cares too much or forces the issue, therefore giving him an easy excuse at a second chance later on. But you can see through his season's poor results that there's something here. The 2012 season featured Hundley's fewest pitches seen per plate appearance ever, 0.3 P/PA behind 2011's rate, and 0.2 behind his career mark. That might not seem like much, but over 300 plate appearances, that's a loss of 90 pitches. That's a lot of potential offerings that could have been right for Hundley to swing at that just never were thrown due to over-aggressiveness. It also made him beatable with something as simple as fastballs, a pitch that he's belted around the park with much success in the past.
According to PITCHf/x, Hundley swung out of the zone more often, and with fewer successes, than in his past. He swung more overall in general, and made less contact, too, a fact that likely contributed to the drop in P/PA, walk rate, and a BABIP that was roughly 100 points lower than regression would have suggested it to be. Swinging at pitches he can't do much with leads to less production, and that can be seen in even more detail by checking out his batted ball splits. Whereas in 2011, Hundley was well above-average on balls he pulled, and basically a beast on batted balls to center, he was about 70 percent worse than average to all fields in 2012. The samples are small, but it's hard to ignore that his slugging percentage on pulled balls in 2012 was lower than his batting average on the same type the year prior, especially when put up next to the change in approach.
If Black is right, and Hundley just needs to hit reset and get back to what worked for him, then 2013 should be a rebound campaign for the catcher. Nothing in his messy approach is broken forever. He's shown success with a patient approach before, as recently as 2011, and even if he never reaches that season's heights again, he still has plenty of value as the player he was in his career as a whole before 2012. The focus for Hundley should be to once again wait out the pitcher and force him to throw something that can be driven to center or left. If Hundley can do that from the start, channeling his pre-2012 self, then the Padres aren't going to have to worry too much about missing their suspended backstop in the season's first third.