The Padres pitching staff was widely considered the backbone of the team heading into the season - even before it was bolstered by the game's best reliever. Through the first 26 games of the season the talented group has under-performed to the tune of a 4.03 ERA How does the addition of backstop extraordinaire Austin Hedges affect the pitching output?
The extent of a catcher's impact on a pitching performance is hotly debated and definitely dubious statistical territory. Even in the age of pitch framing statistics there is little data to tie a catcher's performance to traditional pitching stats like ERA, FIP and the like. Perhaps this is one of the traditional aspects of the game where advanced metrics still lag behind old school, subjective game management.
Derek Norris is in the midst of a star season at catcher for the Padres. His all-world offense is flanked by solid defense, outspoken leadership, surprising tenacity in the running game, and undoubtedly a musky but masculine aroma. Norris has done a fine job this year, but has caught far too many games so far this season. If health is a finite quantity, then the Padres shallow catching depth should be a reason to rest Norris more rather than less. Unfortunately Wil Nieves has been completely unproductive in the backup catcher role. Cue Austin Hedges.
You know him, you love him. So does virtually every scout that has seen him strap on the gear. The jury may be out on his still-promising bat, but his defense has a better Rotten Tomatoes score than Toy Story 2. While Norris has been a competent defender, his pitch framing has been just south of average the last few years. Though minor league pitch framing stats are in their infancy, Hedges is said to grade out as a plus framer. Scouts seem to think that Hedges knows about his reputation as a star receiver and willingly plays into it - taking an assertive role with his pitching staff and calling an aggressive game - knowing that he can hold runners and prevent stray pitches. This is a dimension that Norris - who famously struggled defensively in last year's ALCS - simply does not bring to the table.
The most obvious potential beneficiary of fresh meat behind the dish is 2014 All-Star Tyson Ross. Ross' slider is filthier than an 8th grader's mind and more unpredictable than Christian Bale on amphetamines. As an out-pitch it is less of a weapon and more of a force of nature. Al Martin swung and missed at it 11 times last year despite officially retiring in 2003.
Despite being one of the game's top-10 out-pitches in 2013 and 2014, Ross' slider has been worth negative value in 2015. Ross has struggled by his own standards this season due partially to a lack of confidence in his bread and butter pitch. It appears he just isn't comfortable throwing it low in the zone when there is a good chance Norris can't get a handle on it. Padres fans have seen this story before - Ross struggled mightily last April when Bud Black repeatedly tried to pair him with Yasmani Grandal (for those who don't remember, Grandal's defensive chops are comparable to Norris'). When Bud Black re-shuffled the deck and permanently paired Ross with ace defender and pitch framer Rene Rivera, his season really took off. No doubt the hard-to-quantify chemistry that they shared also contributed to Ross' all-star body of work.
Ross' situation may serve as a microcosm of the Padres' struggling pitching staff as a whole. Strong bullpens have been a local tradition in San Diego along with strong IPAs, fish tacos, and jbox making everyone uncomfortable. San Diego's three most talented relievers this season (Kimbrel, Benoit, and Vincent) have all failed to truly find their groove this season and the traditionally dominant bullpen has been among the worst in the league. The bullpen's three-headed monster has almost always relied on trademark offspeed and breaking pitches to compliment live fastballs and this year is no different. Will the addition of a truly plus defender behind the dish help encourage a more aggressive approach from the team's power arms?
In fairness to Hedges, because we haven't scouted him with a veteran MLB staff and reliable MLB-level analytics, its hard to say what kinds of effects we can expect from him. This discussion serves almost as a thought experiment as to what kind of impact a strong defensive catcher (or dare i suggest, a catcher with great "intangibles") can have on a pitching staff. However, it does provide yet another interesting narrative to watch for in the always exciting "contending club calls up top prospect" story.