I don’t think Austin Hedges got a fair shot in Pittsburgh. I place the blame entirely on the Pirates front office for setting expectations too high.
This past offseason, the Pirates brought in veteran leaders for their various positions. Hedges was the addition behind the plate. He was added to help the pitching staff, and all through his time with a .467 OPS, the Pirates insisted there was hidden value in his game.
Hedges was an outstanding defender, which the stats display. You could also argue that he had an impact on the younger pitchers and players inside the clubhouse. This profile is similar to any elite backup defensive catcher who can also mentor players on the side. If you want to go a step further, you could say that he was a field general, holding things together from behind the plate — staring out at eight players staring back at him, waiting for the signal to the pitcher to begin.
The Pirates presented Hedges as a starter and a leader, with intangible qualities. They went heavy with this presentation during Spring Training, trying to qualify his abilities.
We need Austin Hedges mic'd up at all times. pic.twitter.com/2O8WDeKRwr
— Pittsburgh Pirates (@Pirates) February 27, 2023
Hedges displays an advanced knowledge of the game and his own movements and tendencies behind the plate. This is and always has been good. A player who knows that much detail about what he does is going to have success. There’s no question why Hedges is strong defensively, with his knowledge of the subject.
What always stood out to me about this video was him teaching Henry Davis how he moves comfortably behind the plate. Davis became conscious of what Hedges was talking about, but is still working on that same adjustment. The idea that Hedges would come in and improve the catchers was sold up with this video, and this did not happen with Davis.
This might not be on Hedges. It could be on Davis. And it might not even be on him. We can’t assume that Davis is an inevitable Major League catcher waiting for the right trainer, all because he caught in high school and college.
The work with the pitching staff is a huge intangible that the Pirates sold up. The pitching staff had a 4.49 ERA, ranking 20th in baseball. The best story was Mitch Keller, who had a 3.97 ERA prior to Hedges being traded. Keller had a 3.91 ERA last year, so his success can’t be fully attributed to Hedges.
Since the trade, the pitching staff has dropped to a 6.00 ERA. Keller has a 6.75 ERA in his three starts since the deal. It’s possible that Hedges elevated the pitching staff, but it would be really difficult to see, and the value might not match the hole in the lineup. And that’s where the boos come in to the picture.
That was my reaction to the Pirates Twitter reaction of signing Austin Hedges back in December. I actually thought about that and then sent it out. It was harsh messaging, and that link is a better description of what I was discussing. The fact is, Pirates fans were booing from the moment the Hedges signing was announced. As someone who is more optimistic than most in the Pittsburgh media, and who saw similar sentiments when Russell Martin and then Francisco Cervelli were added, I wanted to give Hedges a chance.
Hedges was not Martin, nor Cervelli. Both of those men had an advanced level of confidence.
In one of my earliest conversations with Martin, back before the 2013 season, I had spoken with an opposing scout who felt that Martin’s low average could be improved upon. The scout felt Martin could hit .280. I’ll never forget Martin’s response when I brought up the scout remark.
“Why not .300?” Martin asked back, in his relaxed, calm demeanor, subtly challenging that .280 was his upside. Or, maybe he just didn’t care about average.
Pittsburgh was complaining about his lack of offense at the signing, while slowly adjusting to the new defensive metrics that explained the signing of Martin. He was eventually a fan favorite, because he did enough on offense in 2013, while being an elite defender and a clear leader.
One year later, Martin split the difference and batted .290.
Martin at least had full confidence. He had confidence in his abilities. No one could define him. It was also impossible to knock him off his game. This probably made it easier for him to take on so many thing.
Hedges had confidence in his abilities, at least on defense. He did not display that confidence on offense. Hedges recently spoke with Chris Rose about the experience of being booed, and highlighted how fragile his confidence was at the plate. The interview below is cued up to him discussing his time being booed in Pittsburgh.
“As I’m going up there, I’m trying to get my plan in my head, and then [the booing] happens, and it gets me off my plan,” said Hedges on the Rose podcast. “I’m having a hard time getting present.”
The two went into a discussion about how the home crowd is supposed to provide a comfortable setting for the home team to perform. By mid-June, this wasn’t the case for Hedges. It impacted him for a few weeks, by his own admission.
The offense wasn’t much lower for Hedges than in previous years. He was still below the Mendoza line, with his .180 average being higher than previous years. His OPS continued a decline since 2018, fueled by a decline in power. I don’t think there’s an argument to be made that Hedges puts up offensive numbers that would avoid the eventual boos — even if the crowd was fully supportive.
Hedges went on to say on the Rose podcast a very common counter to fans booing a player.
“If you went there to boo, stay at home,” said Hedges.
There’s going to be a day in the future — and I think it will come under Ben Cherington — where Pirates fans in Pittsburgh will wake up the morning after screaming their lungs out at PNC Park, watching a playoff victory by the home team.
Their jobs will be a little easier to look forward to that week.
They’ll smile more, and breathe easier.
There will be a sense of community every time you see black and gold, triggering the happy memory of the event they just experienced.
I was at the 2013 Wild Card Game. I was also there in 2014 and 2015, but the crowd was shut down early in those by Madison Bumgarner and Jake Arrieta, respectively. That 2013 game was the loudest event I’ve ever experienced, concerts included. You could feel the impact of the crowd in your chest.
No one was able to think about the bills they had due.
No one was upset over a relationship.
A college kid jumped off the bridge in celebration after the game, but I don’t think anyone was depressed in that sea of black in the stands that night — unless they were Reds fans.
The impact of the crowd on that night — and in every sporting event where the crowd plays a role for the home team — is that everyone in the building goes live. There’s no past. There’s no future. It’s just the present.
Reality is honest, by definition. If everyone in the crowd is live, it might help boost the confidence of Hedges. The fact that he can be thrown off his plan at the plate so easily is a tacit sign that Hedges would have never been a good hitter in Pittsburgh.
Behind the plate, Hedges knows the intricacies of how the dirt slides beneath his shin guard, based on how he holds his knee. Yet, at the plate, he’s in his mind, concentrating on a plan, because he’s not nearly as inherently good at hitting as he is catching. His catching is instinctual. His hitting is not by a long shot.
It takes a lot of energy to do something that makes another human being cheer. That’s because it takes a lot of energy to celebrate something. You want to know it’s real before you celebrate. And you can’t exactly celebrate everywhere. If I were to walk into the middle of a church and just start screaming and celebrating a random happening, eventually someone would shut it down and refer me to a hospital for treatment.
We love sporting events, and other live gathering events, because we’re all animalistic in nature. We all need to roar.
These are the places where we congregate to roar together. It’s why Pittsburgh — through years and years and years and years and years of decline — has gravitated around their sports teams. It’s also why Pittsburgh borderline hates the Pirates.
The Steelers are going to give people a chance to roar this year. So will the Penguins.
If you go to a Pirates game right now, you might roar. But based on the record, and based on the disparity in runs scored vs allowed, you’re probably not going to be roaring that much.
This is the entire point.
Baseball, like religion, is spiritual. We follow these live events and we connect with the players and artists who we identify with on a personal level. We identify with the teams on the same type representative level. Through their success, we feel a transference of success within ourselves. And for the immediate future following the transference of that success, we get it inside our heads that we could have the same possibility for success.
That said, if you go to a concert, and the singer is off key the entire night, you’re going to hear boos from the crowd. Mostly because the performer didn’t allow the crowd the escape into the present that they paid for.
Austin Hedges allowed people to escape into the present in a bad way. He represented an expectation of a negative outcome. Inevitably, that gets fans into a negative mindset. Fans could either tune out from paying for their chance to be live, or they could be live, in disappointment. Neither is what fans pay money to experience.
The problem in Pittsburgh is this should have never been on Hedges. He even noted this in the Rose podcast, expressing surprise that he became the symbol of the team’s struggles.
Ultimately, this is on the Pirates, and specifically their General Manager who built the team, Ben Cherington.
People can only cheer for the good things they see. If Hedges were surrounded by a better team, fans might give him a pass on the lack of offense — just as they did in San Diego and just as they will probably do in Texas. When Hedges was traded, the Pirates ranked anywhere from 24th-26th in team average, OBP, and slugging. In that scenario, the fans will boo the biggest example of the particular failure. Which happened with Hedges.
The Pirates explained that Hedges had value that would keep him on the team. The fans didn’t want to hear this, because fans are ultimately looking for signs of hope from these bigger institutions.
They’re not paying for tickets to watch a player or team obtain individual success. Not when there are two other teams in town with their own players and a better track record of success.
Pirates fans pay for tickets to bask in the feeling of success, and soak in the comfort of confidence that life is conquerable. At the end of the night, they sneak a little bit of the feeling out of the stadium, take it home, place it on their night stand, wake up the next morning, put it on their bodies, and show it off throughout their lives until the memory of the event wears down enough to force another trip to PNC Park to get a refresh.
Cherington has not yet built that team. I think that he will get there. If this season showed anything, it’s that Pirates fans are overdue for tangible results that they can see and feel.
When that happens, they’ll have no choice but to cheer.+ posts
Tim is the owner, producer, editor, and lead writer of PiratesProspects.com. He has been running Pirates Prospects since 2009, becoming the first new media reporter and outlet covering the Pirates at the MLB level in 2011 and 2012. His work can also be found in Baseball America, where he has been a contributor since 2014 and the Pirates' correspondent since 2019.