Hedges catching on with the program real quick

Hedges catching on with the program real quick

SAN DIEGO -- It may not seem ideal, but Austin Hedges has no issue spending the first few hours of his 20th birthday on Aug. 18 crammed on a bus with his teammates, rumbling along Interstate 69 in the wee hours of the morning on a ride from Lansing, Mich., to Fort Wayne, Ind.

"There's no place I'd rather be," he said.

No, Hedges' native California has never seemed so far away, though the young catcher has embraced his Midwest digs and, better still, he's flourished while scaling the learning curve and the grind of what it takes to get through his first full season in professional baseball.

All while playing such a demanding position, no less.

"He has done a phenomenal job, considering he's a 19-year-old kid. This is the first time that he's had to handle a pitching staff," said Fort Wayne TinCaps pitching coach Willie Blair, who played parts of 12 seasons in the big leagues.

"His pitch calling has gotten better, he watches the game and he watches the hitters. Austin is learning to become a student of the game."

Hedges, who will turn 20 on Aug. 18, is regarded as the Padres' seventh-best Minor League prospect, according to MLB.com. He slipped to San Diego in the second round of the 2011 First-Year Player Draft when a handful of teams passed on him because of what was perceived as a solid commitment to UCLA.

The Padres were giddy when Hedges was still around in the second round, and they gladly went well above slot to ink him to a $3 million bonus. The organization felt that it was getting a catcher with a mature approach to behind the plate and someone with polish and presence -- a real rarity, especially for a high schooler.

"He is by far the best amateur catcher I've ever scouted," Padres scouting director Jaron Madison said shortly after the 2011 Draft.

To that end, Hedges hasn't disappointed.

The Padres challenged him by sending him straight to the Midwest League, even though he had all of 26 professional at-bats after signing late last summer. The organizational thinking was Hedges could handle himself defensively. But after impressing last September in the instructional league, Hedges' bat played a lot better than many figured it would.

"We were thinking he would go there [Fort Wayne] and hold his own, maybe hit between .220 and .250 ... but he's exceeded that," said Randy Smith, the Padres' vice president of player development and international scouting.

Hedges entered Thursday's game against West Michigan with a .261 average in 79 games. He has eight home runs, 23 doubles, 42 RBIs and 13 stolen bases, to boot. Defensively, he's thrown out 34.1 percent of would-be basestealers in 126 attempts and leads the Midwest League in games caught (77) and putouts (628).

He also had 12 passed balls and nine errors and is working to clean up his mechanics on the receiving end, like blocking balls in the dirt. These are the growing pains of a young player, though and Hedges' first season has been anything but a yo-yo in terms of reliability.

"It's probably been the consistency," Smith said when asked what about Hedges has impressed him the most. "He's really maintained a consistent and a professional approach all season. It's a grind catching every day, and he's caught a lot of games. But I think that he has held up very well."

All while learning how to handle a pitching staff for the first time, not an easy task regardless of how much experience you have.

The TinCaps' pitching staff includes a little bit of everything. There's Matt Stites, a closer with an electric arm who hit 100 mph earlier this season, and there's also Frank Garces, a left-hander who relies more on his changeup and curveball.

"You learn how to take care of the staff and you learn the different personalities, and you're growing relationships with the pitchers," Hedges said. "You learn that there are some guys that you need to pump up and some you need to slow down."

So how have the TinCaps' pitchers responded to Hedges, who in nearly every case is a year or two younger than they are?

"They all love throwing to him," Blair said. "He's gained their trust."

All in all, it's been a good first season for Hedges. His parents are coming out from San Juan Capistrano, Calif. -- right up the road from San Diego -- to help him celebrate his birthday and to watch him play. He hasn't been back to California since before Spring Training, yet you get the sense by talking to Hedges that he's entirely comfortable right where he is.

With one notable exception.

"I miss the food," Hedges admitted. "I've got my go-to restaurants back home that I miss."

Corey Brock is a reporter for MLB.com. Keep track of @FollowThePadres on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.