MLB Rumors: Padres Catcher Will Make Stephen Strasburg Better, Could Attract Free Agent Pitcher, Per

Washington Nationals World Series MVP Stephen Strasburg opted out of his contract with the team on Saturday, and almost immediately, his hometown team, the San Diego Padres, emerged as a suitor for the 31-year-old’s services starting in 2020. But in addition to playing in the city where Strasburg was born, the Padres may have an additional selling point to attract the three-time All-Star — the team’s catcher, Austin Hedges.

According to an analysis by statistical specialist Mike Petriello, the “elite” defensive abilities of Hedges would make Strasburg “even better” than he has already shown in a career that has seen him post 112 wins against just 58 losses, with an overall 3.17 ERA.

The top overall pick in the 2009 Major League Baseball amateur draft, Strasburg is coming off perhaps the best season of his 10-year career.

Strasburg left behind $100 million in salary over the next four years when he elected to opt out of his contract with Washington, sending a clear message that he will be in the market for a potentially record-setting contract. The current record for a free agent pitcher is held by David Price of the Boston Red Sox, who signed a seven-season, $217 million deal following the 2015 season.

Austin Hedges of the San Diego Padres throws to first base.

But finances should not be an issue for the Padres, who are reportedly looking to contend for a spot in the postseason in 2020, despite winning only 70 games in 2019. According to a report by The San Diego Union-Tribune, the Padres are expected to raise their $124.8 million payroll last season significantly by next year’s opening day.

With the “hometown” and “big contract” boxes already checked for the Padres in their expected pursuit of Strasburg, Hedges could provide a final factor in San Diego’s favor, according to Petriello. The reason is the catcher’s ability to “frame” pitches. “Framing” is the ability of a catcher to position his mitt within the strike zone, making borderline pitches appear to be clear strikes.

In particular, Petriello says, Hedges excelled at framing pitches at the bottom of the strike zone. Hedges ranked second in MLB in framing low pitches, according to Statcast numbers. Strasburg’s Washington catcher, Kurt Suzuki, ranked 56th out of 68 MLB catchers, while the Nationals’ other backstop, Yan Gomes, ranked 35th — almost exactly in the middle — when it came to framing low pitches.

“Guess what Strasburg did more of this year than ever?” Petriello wrote. “Throw breaking pitches (a career-high 31 percent), and throw them low (an average of 1.71 feet off the plate).”

Hedges’ framing ability would give Strasburg “more confidence” in his low breaking pitches, causing him to throw them even more than in 2019, Petriello wrote.

The 27-year-old catcher’s remarkable pitch-framing skills are “something the Padres should be selling hard, in addition to ‘coming back home” and “big new contract,'” as they make their play for Strasburg, according to Petriello.