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Don’t look now—Francisco Mejia is running with his chance

Young catcher showing signs of putting it all together

MLB: JUL 05 Padres at Dodgers Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

For the 2019 Padres, the Brad Hand trade of last July was a hindsight mistake. Hand, along with Adam Cimber, has flourished in Cleveland since his arrival. As the Indians mount an intrepid charge up the standings with a 14-4 July record, Hand continues to prove himself to be one of the game’s elite closers. On the season, the lefty owns a:

  • 2.55 ERA in 42.1 innings
  • 14.24 K/9 rate
  • 2.13 BB/9 rate

With Hand and Cimber gone, the San Diego bullpen has struggled, beyond the legendary performance of one Kirby Yates. Their collective ERA is 4.62, which, minus Yates, is much closer to 5.00. It’s easy to imagine how two high-leverage relievers might have brought a few more wins to this team.

And in return for those potential wins, the Padres received rookie backstop Francisco Mejia. Yeah, you know the story by now. The talking points around town have been consistent. They include:

  • Questions about his defense
  • He needs to be traded
  • “Not sure about this kid”-type hemming and hawing

To this point, Mejia has given the team 0.1 WAR on the year with a 75wRC+, and he missed about a month with an injury. Most of those talking points have had some justification, and it’s fair to say that last year’s trade of Brad Hand looks like a hindsight loss for the 2019 Padres. But, for the reasons I’ll demonstrate below, the move is starting to look like a huge win for the 2020 Padres and beyond.

What we expected

Most scouting reports on Mejia indicated that he was an offense-first catcher who, if everything clicked, could be one of the best hitters in a good team’s lineup. The Padres aren’t a good team right now, but Mejia has quietly been one of our best hitters since his recall on June 17th.

His batting line in 77 post-callup PAs is .275/.351/.478—good for a 117 wRC+. A 117 wRC+, meaning that he’s been about 17% percent than an average offensive player at any position, is really good—like, getting towards “top 5” catcher good. He’s shown the ability to hit for power, bunt, and, as was the case in a pinch hit appearance in New York yesterday, fight off tough pitches inside. In a game increasingly predicated on velocity, his ability to handle 96+ fastballs is a coveted asset. Oh, and by the way, he is only striking out in 16.9% of his appearances—minuscule by today’s standards.

It is also worth noting—to those that will cry “small sample size!”—that Mejia was felled by a knee injury early in the season. Personally, I think the kid tried to grind through a lingering injury in April, because he wanted to make his first Opening Day roster. I accredit part of his early-going offensive struggles to his concealment and endurance of that injury.

The Defensive Narrative

Let’s be real—next to Austin Hedges, Francisco Mejia is an absolute jokeshow while manning his position. But do you know of who else that is true? Almost every catcher in baseball.

No, Mejia will never have Hedges’ preternatural ability to block baseballs; few human beings have the kind of fast twitch core muscle response that Austin does when his eyes see a breaking ball diving down into the dirt. It can’t be taught, and Hedges has been able to block pretty much everything since he was a high school (IIRC, the word on him as a draftee was that he was a major league ready defender as a teenager). His pitch framing is god-mode. His game-calling is universally lauded. Simply put, if you’re being compared to a defender like Hedgey, you are in a tough spot.

Now, does that mean Mejia is a bad catcher? According to the defensive metrics, not at all. He’s allowed 1 passed ball in 31 starts this year. Fangraphs likes him for a +1.4 Defensive WAR rating. He’s only thrown out 2 out of 16 steal attempts in 2019—which is bad any way you slice it—but in the minors he’s used his 80-grade arm to typically throw out 20-30% of attempts in a given season. He may not be Hedges, but, in general, there’s really not much cause to believe Mejia is a true liability behind the dish. And besides, as evidenced in the photo above, dude has a sneaky-great smile. That counts for something, right?

Learning from the past

In the early part of this decade, the Padres had two regular catchers. One was a veteran of the team, a homegrown player who was often praised for qualities like “grit”, “leadership”, and his rapport with the pitching staff. The other catcher was acquired via trade, a highly regarded, bat-first catcher who reached the highest level of another organization’s system before they “cast him off” for one of our pitchers.

These two players alternated playing time for a few years, and the second guy, though he never amassed less than a 100 wRC+ in a given season, was never really given a chance to run with the position. Ultimately, the team used him as a toss-in as they jettisoned him from the team after an off-field issue.

The first catcher was Nick Hundley, who, I believe, is almost out of baseball. The second catcher has gone on to become a two-time All-Star who has played in the last two World Series, with a chance to play in a third this season—his name is Yasmani Grandal, and he should probably haunt this organization a bit more than he seems to.

Yes, I know, I know. Yasmani always seemed like a bit of a jerk. His PED use really cemented that feeling. There was some merit to subtracting a player of that background.

But the lesson here is that we may be well-served to overlook the warts of a player to focus on what they do that is truly special. For Francisco Mejia, that is hitting baseballs. And he is doing a lot more of that than he is currently being given credit for.