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Austin Hedges (Photo by Bill Mitchell)[/caption] EL PASO—
In early May 2015, things finally began coming together at the plate for catcher Austin Hedges
. He was hitting .324 in his first 21 games with Triple-A El Paso after struggling the past two years in Double-A San Antonio. Then the Padres, in desperate search for a suitable backup, called him up. "We saw a very sustainable improvement in him starting with what he did in the offseason and that carried over into playing under the lights in El Paso,” Padres farm director Sam Geaney said at the time. The plan was to give Hedges playing time behind starter Derek Norris
at least once a week while trying to design a variety of workouts to replicate game situations as much as possible. "I tried to treat every day like a game day,” Hedges said. "I went out and worked with the coaches and was taking extra batting practice and treating it like a spring training day, where there is a lot of work before the game.” Although the physical work did help, Hedges found his biggest growth as a player on the mental side. "For me, it was just being at the highest level and being able to watch and learn. The things I learned from the guys on how they prepared and how our coaches managed the games. When I got in there, I kind of knew what needed to be done in order to win a ballgame." Even though the Padres were more than pleased with what they saw from him defensively, sporadic at-bats are difficult for any young player.Partly because he hit just .168 in 145 plate appearances, the organization decided to return him to Triple-A to start 2016. "We think he did develop and we saw a better hitter this year along with other aspects of his game,” Geaney said at the beginning of the season. "Because of our depth we thought it was a good idea for Austin to play every day and keep going forward.” Returning to El Paso, Hedges posted a .958 OPS and had thrown out five out of 10 runners attempting to steal before a broken hook of hamate bone in his left hand sidelined him in early May. "I’ve told our pitchers that I really don’t even want them throwing over to first base,” said El Paso manager Rod Barajas
, a former major league catcher for 14 years. "If all of our guys are under 1.4 (seconds) to the plate we are going to get a lot of free outs.” While Hedges’ defense has been his calling card since he was drafted in the second round by San Diego in 2011—he lasted that long because of the perception of an iron-clad commitment to UCLA–it’s the development of his bat that has people excited. "My timing this year is the biggest reason that I feel comfortable at the plate,” Hedges said. "Knowing when to start my load and separation to get to my best hitting position is all I am really thinking about—if I am on time, everything comes together.” "Being on time” is the mantra the Padres have imparted on players the past two springs—be in a good hitting position when the ball leaves the pitcher’s hand. "As long as he is in a good strong position to hit—and they were really on him in camp about that since the middle of February—he will be on the right path," said Morgan Burkhart, El Paso’s hitting coach. Before the injury this season, and in spring training, Hedges showed a much-improved ability to not only go to the opposite field, but to drive the ball with power that way. "When he is on time, his extension is incredible,” Burkhart said. "He can drive the ball out to all fields. He has that power. "He’s doing quite well and in San Diego, and so far there have not been any setbacks,” Geaney said. "If anyone is going to take advantage of this time and find some way to get better its Austin.” Unless there is a trade to open up playing time, it’s likely the Padres will still want to see more from Hedges in Triple-A this year. A.J. Preller’s group is the third regime that Hedges has played under since he was drafted and the one common thread that runs through all three groups is the belief that while Hedges is a much better offensive player than he is given credit for, his defensive ability behind the plate—ability to throw and frame pitches—is what makes him special. Fellow catcher Ryan Miller
, who is currently on San Diego’s Double-A roster, a few years ago talked about how much Hedges defensive ability is respected. "One of our pitchers was just back from San Antonio, where Austin was catching, and he said this to me on a mound visit; "You know, no offense dude, but everything that I throw to Austin looks like a strike, even the (bad) ones.”John Conniff is a contributor to FoxSportsSan Diego and you can follow him @madfriars.com.