Watching Nick Hundley | The Process Report

Watching Nick Hundley

Nick Hundley is a player worth keeping in mind as the trade deadline draws near.

Over the winter, the Padres re-signed Hundley to a three-year extension worth $9 million, with a team option worth $5 million for the 2015 season. At the time, I applauded Josh Byrnes for the move by writing:

Evaluating Hundley is all about context. His .259/.323/.435 line since 2009 is unimpressive to the naked eye, but you need to consider that he plays in PETCO Park—though, as Jason Collette recently pointed out, Hundley has performed well at home. You can either adjust his line upward to consider the park or allow True Average to do the work for you. Hundley’s .279 True Average puts him in the company of hitters like Jay Bruce, Mark Reynolds, and Nick Markakis. Oh, and unlike those three, Hundley is a catcher. The league-average catcher had a .252 True Average in 2011, making Hundley a well above-average offensive backstop.

As solid as Hundley’s offensive contributions appear, his defense is less redoubtable. He does keep balls in the dirt in front of him, however, and he has improved as a thrower, outing a career-high 36 percent of attempted thieves last season. But there is room for improvement, as Hundley’s framing continues to receive unfavorable marks. Further, Hundley has yet to tally more than 308 plate appearances in a season. Hundley went on the disabled list twice last season—once due to a strained oblique and another due to right elbow surgery—while in the past, the Padres opted for timeshares.

Still, Hundley’s overall package combined with this contract make him one of the league’s better values behind the plate. Keep Hundley’s desirability in mind as the Padres continue to foster Yasmani Grandal and Austin Hedges on the farm. Grandal could be ready for major-league duty by late 2012, meaning Byrnes could turn around and flip Hundley and his new contract for some additional help sooner than later. In fact, it would be a surprise if the Padres were the team exercising Hundley’s option come 2015.

Hundley entered the season as the Padres’ starting catcher. An 0-for-21 start challenged that distinction, though Hundley would recover and push his OPS over .700 in late April. Hundley would again slump in May and June, and the Padres had no choice but to demote him and his sub-.500 OPS heading into July. Success has eluded Hundley in the minors, too, while Grandal is claiming a foothold on the big-league catching job. All of this leads to some obvious thinking. Hundley might be available via trade for less than he was months ago.

But not every devalued asset is worth acquiring. Some have legitimate, fatal flaws—be it skill decay, age, or whatnot. In attempt to figure out what’s up with Hundley, I reviewed six of his games over the course of this season—some at the beginning of the year, some in the middle, and some at the end. I wanted to see if Hundley was having good at-bats, if he was stinging the ball, or if he looked the part of a player having a bad season.

The thing that stood out to me through the juxtaposition is Hundley’s change in approach. Hundley always had the reputation of being a hitter who knew the strike zone and knew how to work the count. Early in the season, he looked the part. He seemed eager to attack fastballs in drivable locations—over the middle or on the inner-third—yet had enough discipline to take bad pitches. During an at-bat against Chad Billingsley, Hundley fouled off two fastballs in prime locations before working a walk.

In the final two games I reviewed, Hundley seemed to stray from the path. He swung at everything, good pitch or otherwise, and looked to be hoping the bat at the ball. Aggression at the plate can get a bad rap—look at how people diagnose B.J. Upton whenever he goes through a slump—but focused aggression is a nice quality. Take Matt Joyce. He has an excellent command of the strike zone and walks plenty, but he’s still willing to swing early in the count if the pitch is one he likes. No one is expecting Hundley to be a Joyce analogue at the plate; just being himself has been good enough to get results in the past.

When Luke Scott was in the midst of his own hitless streak, I talked to someone who used to have him on another team. He said that Scott is one of the most hot and cold players in the majors, in no small part because of his emotional swings. Scott becomes dejected when things go poorly and that can snowball into prolonged stretches of poor at-bats and results. The opposite can be true, too. While watching Hundley’s final plate appearances, I couldn’t help but wonder if he had similar issues.

It didn’t take long for a Google search to unearth this quote from Bud Black:

“I know Nick, and he is as tough as they come in a lot of ways,” said manager Bud Black. “This stretch, this first half, it was wearing on him to the point where he needs to just take a big step back and exhale and get back to enjoying the game, playing loose and relaxed. He’ll never lose his intensity as a player. As it went on, he tried harder and harder, and you can’t play like that. There’s got to be a looseness and a relaxed focus to your game.

When Hundley is loose, relaxed, and on his game, he’s someone who can produce a decent-looking line with an OPS buoyed by his power production. He’s unlikely to hit for as good of an average as he did last season (.288) and he doesn’t walk a ton (eight percent since 2009). But his ISO since 2009 is higher than Carlos Ruiz, Matt Wieters, Joe Mauer, and a number of other catching options that folks would be thrilled to have.

There is another part of Hundley’s game to consider, of course. It’s impossible to know how Hundley works with a pitching staff, but the other aspects of catching—receiving, blocking balls in the dirt, and controlling the running game—are easier to evaluate. Hundley’s overall package falls short of Jose Molina. He isn’t as good of a framer or as good of a marksman, though he is the better goalie. Hundley’s overall package isn’t likely to cause his team regret on any given night.

I wanted to note one thing about Hundley’s caught stealing rates. His pop times aren’t overwhelming. I had him in the 1.9-2.2 range most of the time—the league-average is thought to be around 1.9. He has a good arm, but what struck me as the key is his accuracy. It seemed like every throw was to the same spot—right on the bag, right where the infielder can catch and make a compact, quick swipe at the runner. I’m not exaggerating:

As for whether the Rays should pursue Hundley. It comes down to the cost. A change of scenery could do Hundley well. And, even with the negatives in his game, his contract and talents may offer enough value to intrigue Andrew Friedman. I do think he’s a better target than Kurt Suzuki, mostly for contractual purposes.

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