The Pittsburgh Pirates added Austin Hedges for his defense, but he's historically good when it comes to fielding. He's one of the best ever to do it
The Pittsburgh Pirates signed Austin Hedges on a low-risk one-year deal. The contract is only for $5 million, and while he is not providing any offensive value, there are few, if any, catchers in the league who are better than him when it comes to defending. I'd even go so far as to argue he is their best defensive catcher since Russell Martin in 2013-2014.
Throughout his career, Hedges has racked up +75 Defensive Runs Saved, +64.7 framing runs, and has allowed just 18 passed balls throughout his entire career. Since making his debut in 2015, he has allowed the fewest passed balls of any backstop with at least 4000 innings behind the plate.
Hedges has been that good defensively but in just 4677.1 innings. The all-time catcher DRS leader, Yadier Molina, has +184 in 18294.2 innings. If Hedges caught the same amount of innings with his defensive skill, he'd have +293 DRS. Hedges also has +6 defensive WAR. The all-time leader in that stat, Ivan Rodriguez, has +29.6 in 20348 innings. Again, if Hedges kept up his current pace for the same amount of innings, he'd come very close to Pudge at +26.1.
Hedges averages about +13 DRS and +11.1 framing runs in 800 innings. While Martin, as well as Jacob Stallings, averaged out with more DRS on an 800-pace scale, he outdoes both former Pirate defensive standouts in framing runs. Francisco Cervelli also falls far short of the average per 800 for framing runs compared to Hedges.
Since Hedges made his debut back in 2015, only eight players in total have more defensive runs saved than the backstop. None of them are catchers, and all have at least 1700 more innings played than Hedges and he also ranks third among catchers in framing runs since '15.
The veteran makes the pitching staff better. The Guardians had a 62.8% winning percentage this past season when Hedges was in the game. Sure, the Guardians were a good team last season, but they had just a 51.3% winning percentage when Luke Maile was in. In 2019, the San Diego Padres had a 47.1% WP and 28% WP with Francisco Mejia. Of course, winning a game is a team effort, and this is far from a perfect way of looking at it, but he's made winning easier, even for teams that are not great, like the 2019 Padres.
Austin Hedges is the Mark Belanger of backstops. He's also a lot like Jeff Mathis. Yes, he is a terrible hitter, but you're not going to find a guy who does a better job at his position. Watching defense might not be as exciting as watching offense, but Hedges is definitely going to be a player to keep an eye on to see how he handles the pitching staff and calls games next season.