I’ve had a chance to talk with some of the best defensive catchers in the game over the years.
That includes conversations with Russell Martin about the art of pitch framing, and countless other receiving techniques when receiving specific pitches.
I saw the value of an uplifting teammate who rallies his pitching staff when covering Francisco Cervelli.
I had a chance to witness every stage of the development of Jacob Stallings, getting the chance to see how many things a catcher has to memorize in a short-time span, while also having that information always on quick recall.
The best defensive catcher in the game over the last several years has been Austin Hedges, who the Pirates just signed to a one-year, $5 million deal.
Hedges was signed for his defensive work and his work with pitchers. The former will make him replacement-level, even with horrible offense. The latter will add value to the overall team by boosting a young pitching staff.
In his introductory press conference, Hedges discussed the role of mentoring younger pitchers, per Kevin Gorman of the Trib below. I’ll add that I love this entire comment, and I’ll break down why below.
With top prospects Endy Rodriguez and Henry Davis in the upper levels of the minors, Austin Hedges embraces the idea of mentoring as part of his role as Pirates catcher. pic.twitter.com/w3WCzVU9Tm
— Kevin Gorman (@KevinGormanPGH) December 20, 2022
The first thing we pick up here is that Hedges is that true “veteran leader”. He’s talking confidently about how to boost younger players, and how he can teach them the things he’s already learned the hard way in his career.
The biggest thing that stood out to me in the comment above was this:
“If I can help them be who they are and stay who they are from the get-go, I’m really looking forward to that being part of my job,” concluded Hedges.
The bolded part is my emphasis.
I have seen some of the game’s best prospects come through this farm system over the last decade. Gerrit Cole, Starling Marte, Jameson Taillon, and all of the other success stories shared a similarity: Unshakeable self-confidence.
Taillon is the epitome of that, bouncing back from multiple lifetimes worth of disastrous setbacks, only to keep pitching into his 30s — recently signing a four year, $68 million deal with the Chicago Cubs.
Every prospect is a person, and not every person is equipped with the same type of confidence. What I’ve learned covering this game is that it doesn’t matter if you think they should be confident.
They can be a top 100 prospect in the entire game.
They can have the best numbers in their entire league.
They can make the majors and make an All-Star game.
Yet, they can still lack self-confidence.
In a way, some players can have “accidental success”. They can be so talented that no matter the approach they take, they will have success in the minors.
Until they reach the Majors. There are no shortcuts in the Majors.
There’s really only one approach to have in the Majors: Be Yourself.
You either belong in the Majors or you don’t. That qualifier is strictly based on talent, and how you apply that talent in the game on a consistent basis. Once you learn to apply your skill consistently enough to generate a positive outcome, you’re ready for the Majors.
So long as you trust that the results will come if you keep plugging away with the same approach.
The difficult thing is that the results won’t come. And players are tempted to change.
Hedges talked about the bumpy process at the start of every player’s career. Some players only need a season before they can shift and make an adjustment. Some players need a few years, and trips to the minors. Some players don’t figure it out until their second MLB team, and that was an alarming case with the Pirates in the years leading up to Cherington.
The Pirates previously treated the Majors like a mythical dragon to slay. They didn’t have the secret, mostly because their development approach was geared toward always telling the players from day one that the players themselves do not know what’s best for themselves. The players were treated like kids, and only the ones who weren’t afraid to show they were adults made it through.
That’s a huge reason why the very first article drop we did this year was focused on John Baker’s implementation of an individualized development program. That’s the biggest and most important change I’ve seen in this organization.
From day one, players who enter this system are being treated like adults with careers. They are given any resources they need to advance their careers, with a growing development system that is modeling today’s best academic practices — lowering the “Student-to-Teacher” ratio with more specialized coaching around the system.
I wrote over the summer about the Major League Baseball Mindset, with a lot of stories that week from players on their experiences on the mental side of the game. Check out that article drop in the link below for more on this subject.
What I see with the addition of Hedges, Carlos Santana, and other recently added veterans is a boost in this approach.
In the case of Hedges, I see a key similarity to Martin, Cervelli, and Stallings: Tone.
Hedges is well-spoken, and very insightful in his comments. He delivers them from a positive and uplifting tone, with a lot of positive infliction. Martin had the same. Cervelli had it. Stallings had it.
The idea of a Crash Davis-type hardass catcher who is going to shape a wild, young pitcher by berating him into being a man? That approach is typically more detrimental when you realize the pitcher in real life is a person who might not respond well to such an approach. I can’t think of many people who don’t respond well to positive reinforcement.
The trend I’ve seen among these great defensive catchers is how uplifting they are to their teammates. When you listen to them talk, and listen to the tone of their voice, you can hear that this is a natural approach.
Having a roster with players like Hedges is going to be huge in a season where so many players are expected to make the jump from Indianapolis. The quickest way to get the Pirates to contending status is if they speed their prospects through those early-career bumps.
There’s no exact science on how to do this — just as there’s no exact science on how to build up a person’s self-confidence.
I have to think that this is a way toward better development, if not the way.
— Telling players from day one that they are in charge, and providing positive reinforcement for their every choices — good or bad.
— Providing as many resources as possible to allow each player to focus on the part of their game that they care to address.
— Adding a group of positive-minded, influential veterans who can serve as pillars for the young players to learn from in their hopefully seamless transition to the Majors.
The biggest thing that sunk the Pirates under Neal Huntington was that they weren’t developing their prospects to reach their upsides in Pittsburgh.
I made the argument for years that the scouting department had been fixed, and that was pretty much confirmed when the same scouting department remained for the last three highly-praised drafts.
I always heard good reviews from opposing scouts about the Pirates ability to develop their players from a skill standpoint.
Yet, the Pirates were missing something.
I think they’ve figured out the missing piece.
It’s as simple as just providing the players with the confidence that being themselves will yield a positive result.
Tim started Pirates Prospects in 2009 from his home in Virginia, which was 40 minutes from where Pedro Alvarez made his pro debut in Lynchburg. That year, the Lynchburg Hillcats won the Carolina League championship, and Pirates Prospects was born from Tim's reporting along the way. The site has grown over the years to include many more writers, and Tim has gone on to become a credentialed MLB reporter, producing Pirates Prospects each year, and will publish his 11th Prospect Guide this offseason. He has also served as the Pittsburgh Pirates correspondent for Baseball America since 2019. Behind the scenes, Tim is an avid music lover, and most of the money he gets paid to run this site goes to vinyl records.