While team captains aren’t common in baseball, many teams have a veteran player they think of as their leader. The Giants had Buster Posey, the Angels have Mike Trout, and the 2022 Cleveland Guardians had Austin Hedges. Going into the 2023 season without Hedges, how will the Guardians move on without their leader?
Hedges the Hitter
Austin Hedges joined Cleveland on August 31, 2020, in a major trade with the San Diego Padres. He made the move with teammates Cal Quantrill, Josh Naylor, Gabriel Arias, Joey Cantillo, and Owen Miller. Cleveland pitcher Mike Clevinger, outfielder Greg Allen, and a Player to be Named Later were sent to San Diego in return.
Appearing in just six games with Cleveland that year, Hedges didn’t have much time to make an impact with the team. He had just one hit, going .083/.083/.083 in 12 plate appearances.
2021 gave Hedges many more opportunities at the plate as Cleveland’s #1 catcher, Roberto Pérez was placed on the Injured List from May 5th to July 3rd. Just one month later, Pérez went down again with right shoulder inflammation and was inactive until September 14th.
Thrown into the #1 catcher spot for most of the year, Hedges racked up 312 plate appearances in 88 games. He improved slightly upon his 2020 numbers, going .187/.220/.308. While not necessarily the offensive numbers you want to see from your #1 catcher, his defensive stats certainly helped him cement that role. In the 2021 season, Hedges allowed just two passed balls while owning a fielding percentage of .997.
The 2022 season saw a slight offensive regression for the veteran, coupled with a trip to the Injured List for a concussion—something that has frequently plagued him in recent years. Hedges hit .163/.241/.248 in his second full season in Cleveland while keeping up those defensive stats with just one passed ball and a fielding percentage of .994.
So maybe his statistics weren’t anything to write home about when he was in Cleveland. However, the reason Austin Hedges is so important to the city of Cleveland is something that can’t quite be put into numbers.
Hedges the Leader
With the departure of Pérez after the 2021 season, the Cleveland Guardians were left with two members of the 2016 World Series-bound squad—José Ramírez and Bradley Zimmer. On the second day of the 2022 season, Zimmer was gone too. With the youngest roster across Major League Baseball, the Guardians needed a veteran presence to connect with them and lead them. Austin Hedges was that veteran.
In an interview from the end of the 2021 season, Hedges proved how much he’s willing to go out and help his teammates—specifically the pitchers he works with.
“I think the more dialogue I have with the guys between innings, walking them through what works and what doesn’t, I feel like the better off they’ve been,” he said to Guardians reporter Andre Knott.
Entering the 2022 season, Major League Baseball allowed teams to use a device called PitchCom to decrease sign-stealing. The device allows the catcher to click a button that will call a pitch into the pitcher’s ear so any runners on base can’t see or hear what is called.
On April 20th, Hedges unveiled his own variation of the PitchCom device, one that calls the pitch in his own voice. In addition to simply calling pitches, Hedges added some extra buttons that called encouraging exclamations into the pitcher’s ear whenever he struck out a batter, ended an inning, etc. Pitchers like Shane Bieber and Triston McKenzie loved the new addition.
“I came into the dugout, and I was like, ‘Is that you? I love that sh*t.’ I hugged him,” McKenzie said in an interview with Travis Sawchik.
Later in the season, the Guardians fell to the Yankees on August 16th due to an overturned call at home plate. After the game, Hedges took a stand against the umpiring that had been a problem most of the season but reached a peak with that call.
“When we say something, we get held accountable. We get mocked. We get shamed. There’s no accountability on [the umpire’s] part right now… They say, ‘OK here’s a play where I can show my power. Here’s a play where I can take over the game.’ And that’s not the game we play,” Hedges said in the interview.
“For a team that goes out there and fights every single night to win every game, for it to cost us a game when we’re trying to win a division, we’re trying to make the playoffs, we’re trying to do something special, and for it to be taken out of our hands like that is a disgrace and it’s extremely disappointing.”
Moments like that where the team needed a leader and Hedges (literally) stepped up to the plate were what made everyone click. That click came at the perfect time, as the Guardians ended the regular season 92-70 and 11 games ahead of the second-place White Sox. They were the underdogs and nobody expected them to win. So what did they do? They won.
The Guardians swept the Tampa Bay Rays over two games to win the Wild Card Series and advance to the American League Division Series where they faced the New York Yankees. While that deserves an article in itself, Cleveland took New York to five games before ultimately falling in Game 5. After that crushing loss, it was once again Hedges who took center stage and helped the team keep their heads up.
“This is the most special group I’ve ever been a part of,” he said in an interview after the game. “I looked forward to coming into the clubhouse every single day. What a joy these young guys, this staff, really everybody here, what a joy to work with. It’s a year I’m never gonna forget.”
The story of the 2022 Cleveland Guardians is not complete without the character of Austin Hedges. His talent, his leadership, his shirtless clubhouse celebrations, and his interview interruptions are what made this team so much fun.
Hedges the Pirate
On November 6, 2022, Austin Hedges elected free agency. He was no longer a member of the Cleveland Guardians‘ organization. On December 15th, the Guardians signed catcher Mike Zunino. It was clear that the organization had moved on and found Hedges’ replacement. Five days later, he signed with the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Austin Hedges era in Cleveland was over.
With prospect Bo Naylor on the rise in the Guardians’ organization, it was clear that Hedges would not have remained the #1 catcher for long. While he would’ve been a great teacher for Naylor, the Guardians believe that Zunino can be that teacher instead. Additionally, Hedges is moving to the city where his great-grandparents first immigrated and where he lived for multiple years.
While the move didn’t make a lot of sense to many fans and most of his teammates, it’s clear to see now that it was the right move for both parties. It has paved the way for Naylor to become Cleveland’s star catcher and allowed Hedges to return to a city that is deeply special to him.
Austin Hedges‘ time in Cleveland will be remembered because of the way he guided the youngest team in baseball to a Division Series and because of moments like this.
Austin Hedges pls
And for all of this, we thank you, Captain Hedges.
Featured image from Christopher Corr.