Hedges' Arm Shines at PG National
See Also: 15 PG National Standouts
While many children fall in love with baseball at an early age, Austin Hedges was drawn to a specific part of the game. Beginning when he was only three years old, Hedges said he always loved catchers because the gear they wore looked cool.
Fourteen years after the game drew him in, Hedges was the one looking cool and was one of many standout players at the Perfect Game National Showcase June 17-20 at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla.
|ON THE LIGHTER SIDE. . .
|Favorite Music Group: Nine Inch
Movie: "V For Vendetta"
Favorite TV Show: "That 70's
Favorite Non-Sports Web Site:
Crush: Jessica Biel
Dream Car: Silver Audi
The rising senior at JSerra Catholic High in San Juan Capistrano, Calif. stands 6-foot-1 and 185 pounds. He's a good athlete that played point guard in basketball through middle school, but stopped when he got to high school to focus on baseball year-round. Hedges was just the second freshman to make the varsity team since JSerra became a school in 2003.
He was quickly thrown into the fire.
Austin Hedges (Photo by Alyson Boyer)
"The best pitcher I ever faced is, by far, Gerrit Cole," Hedges said with a chuckle. "It was my freshman year, at Orange Lutheran (High), facing a guy I knew was already going to UCLA and would probably be a first-round draft pick. I'm in there, hitting nine-hole and I'm watching him pump 96-98 (mph) and I'm just like, 'Oh my.' I go up there first pitch, knowing I'm going to take and I could barely even see it. I actually hit a missile right to the right fielder, but I faced him three other times and he struck me out all those other times. He's something special. I've faced a lot of good pitchers, but that guy's a freak."
As a sophomore, Hedges played second base to get into the starting lineup and ended up winning Trinity League MVP honors. Last year, he moved back behind the plate—his more natural position—and caught every inning for the Lions. Hedges was an early verbal commitment to UCLA.
Hedges said his favorite major league catcher of all-time is Ivan Rodriguez and he loves watching Yadier Molina pick players off at first base. But, the catcher he admires most is JSerra head coach Brett Kay. Kay went to the College World Series twice with Cal State Fullerton between 1999-2001 and was an eighth-round draft pick by the Mets in 2001. He spent three years in the minor leagues before beginning his coaching career.
"Basically everything I know now is from him," Hedges said. "Between teaching me receiving, catch-and-throw, blocking pitches, even calling pitches, it's all him. He's my high school coach and I can just pick his brain. I've even got some tapes of him catching when he played at Cal State Fullerton and I just want to copy him. That's who I look up to."
Hedges' relationship with Kay goes back to when he was in sixth grade and played for his mentor on a travel ball team. Hedges became one of just two freshmen to start on JSerra's varsity team and the two have formed a special bond over the years. After all, not many coaches take their players to Nine Inch Nails concerts.
"I've never pushed a kid so much as I've pushed him," Kay said. "The tough thing is that I've had him for six years, so some people may look at that and say, 'Oh, well he's on Coach Kay's good list.' No. I'm harder on that kid than I'm harder on anybody else."
But Hedges eats it up. He loves putting in the hours to fine-tune his game, whether it's working on his footwork on throwing down to second base or learning the intricacies of pitch selection. Hedges lives and breathes baseball. Even as a junior, he showed the leadership teams covet from players—especially catchers—and often helps the program's younger backstops. Coach Kay said having Hedges on the team is like having another coach on the staff.
"He changes the game so much behind the plate," Kay said. "You can throw any pitch you want at any time, whether it's going to be a dirty pitch or not, whether it's going to be in the dirt or whatever, there's a 99.9 percent chance it's not going to get past him or he's going to throw someone out by 30 feet. And the pitchers love it. What pitcher wouldn't love throwing to Austin?"
Armed And Ready
The reason pitchers love throwing to Hedges is because he's so fundamentally-sound behind the plate. He's a great athlete—good enough to play middle infield for his high school team—which helps him block balls in the dirt. He also has soft, but strong, hands that allow him to freeze pitches on the corners and give umpires a great look.
"I look at some catchers who guys think are pretty good and they're catching balls that I think that should be strikes that the umpire is calling balls," Hedges said. "I really take pride in receiving and being able to steal strikes for my pitchers."
And then there's his arm. Hedges has well-above average arm strength, regularly recording pop times around 1.75 seconds.
"Nailing a guy and throwing a guy out, it's an adrenaline rush," Hedges said. "When I throw a guy out, it's the best feeling. I almost like that better than hitting a home run. Especially with two outs, to throw a guy out and run back into the dugout, it's a good feeling."
"I'm not trying to toot his horn, but he's cant-miss," Kay said. "He's way better than I was—and that's not saying a lot—but I played against some good guys in college and in the minor leagues. Right now, going into his senior year, he's better than a lot of guys in college baseball and in the minor leagues. In my opinion, I think he could catch right now in the pros and be just as good, if not better, than some of those guys."
At this point, Hedges' defensive skills are ahead of his bat, but that's mostly because he's such a good catcher.
"He's got power and he's got pretty good speed for a catcher," Kay said. "But the thing that sets him apart is just his baseball acumen, his awareness. He knows how to steal bases, he knows when to drag and push, he knows when to move runners over and he has good balance at the plate. His swing is evolving rather than changing, he's just kind of growing with it and getting better with it. He finds a way to get on base and he finds a way to create havoc on the bases."
Whenever Hedges needs a pick-me-up at the plate, he often thinks back to advice given to him by former UC Irvine assistant coach and founder of Elite Baseball, Joe DeMarco.
"He called it 'flap your wings and feel the ground,' " Hedges said. "That's just kind of loosening up your arms, letting the air out of your shoulders and just kind of squatting down and feeling the ground, letting the ground be your friend. That's kind of what I go back to if I'm ever struggling."
While Hedges may be trying to 'feel the ground,' the sky is the limit.