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ERIC SONDHEIMER / ON HIGH SCHOOLS

Austin Hedges a prime catch behind the plate

Hedges, of San Juan Capistrano JSerra High, has signed with UCLA, but pro teams may try to talk him out of it. His coach says his skills are already at the big-league level.

May 05, 2011|Eric Sondheimer
  • San Juan Capistrano JSerra catcher Austin Hedges has been timed in 1.74 seconds getting the ball from his glove to the bag at second base, according to Coach Brett Kay. Anything less than two seconds is considered good.
San Juan Capistrano JSerra catcher Austin Hedges has been timed in 1.74… (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles…)

Catchers wear lots of equipment to protect their face, chest, head, knees and ankles. They play the most demanding position in baseball. They're stuck in an uncomfortable crouch for pitch after pitch, getting dirty, nicked up and abused.

Yet, Austin Hedges of San Juan Capistrano JSerra acts as if catching is as therapeutic as spending a day at the beach.

"It's more challenging, but that's why I like it," he said.

Not since the days when Hall of Famer Gary Carter played at Fullerton Sunny Hills in the early 1970s has Orange County produced a catcher with the defensive skills of Hedges.

His coach, Brett Kay, played catcher at Cal State Fullerton and said of Hedges, "He's the best I've ever seen. Major league guys are at a different level, and I don't want to toot his horn too much, but he's up at that level right now."

Hedges is so good behind the plate that opposing teams don't bother testing his arm. There have been three steal attempts of second base and one success. He has picked off eight runners.

Kay said Hedges was timed in 1.74 seconds getting the ball from his glove to the bag at second base. Anything less than two seconds is considered good.

"That's pretty ridiculous for a high school kid to do that," Kay said. "He shuts down everybody's running game."

Hedges jokes to his coach about perhaps encouraging teams to try to steal second, saying, "Let's not worry about the runner as much. Maybe they'll go."

Physically fit and a warrior behind the plate, Hedges demonstrated his durability last season when in a doubleheader against Huntington Beach Edison, he caught 12 innings in the first game, then seven in the second.

"In all honesty, there's no reason I couldn't catch another seven innings," he said.

Hedges is 6 feet 1, 195 pounds and signed with UCLA last November. He's an A student, and pro executives will have to decide how much money they're willing to spend to keep him from going to college.

"I've never had any plans and goals in life besides being a professional baseball player," Hedges said.

He was the Trinity League most valuable player as a sophomore when he played second base. He took over as JSerra's full-time catcher last season.

He thrives on the many responsibilities and tasks assigned to the catcher.

"I think the biggest challenge are the intangibles, trying to control the game, catching, receiving, blocking, trying to keep your pitcher calm so he can bounce an 0-and-2 curveball," he said.

As ambitious as he is, he also understands he must keep improving.

Last season, coming off his league MVP year, he was inconsistent at the plate. This season he's batting .380 with nine doubles, two triples and four home runs.

"I was trying to hit a five-run home run, trying to do too much," he said.

Hedges has been playing catcher for so long that he has catcher mitts scattered around his bedroom, house, truck and garage.

"I like them when they're a little beat up," he said.

It takes a lot to beat up Hedges, who seems a perfect fit to play catcher for years to come.

eric.sondheimer@latimes.com

twitter.com/LATSondheimer

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