Padres’ prospect Blake Hunt adjusting well to pro catching routine
PASCO, Wash —In the summer of 2017, Blake Hunt, one of the top prep baseball prospects in Southern California, faced a choice with no wrong answers.
The six-foot-four-inch catcher from Mater Dei High School in Costa Mesa could accept a scholarship to Pepperdine, where he had a long-standing relationship with the coaching staff or sign with the San Diego Padres, a team he had grown up watching in Petco Park, and begin his professional career.
“It was a tough choice because I thought I was going to go to Pepperdine and I really liked the coaching staff,” said Hunt before a recent game with the Tri-City Dust Devils, the Padres’ short-season affiliate where he played this year.
“But where the Padres took me, it was a good opportunity to start my pro career at 18 instead of after my junior year of college at 21.
“This is my second year and looking back, I really think it was the right decision with how much that I have grown as a player mainly just because of the amount of work you put in every day to try to get better.”
San Diego selected Hunt with a Competitive Balance Round B pick and signed him for $1.6 million, nearly $750,000 above slot value and second only to MacKenzie Gore in their 2017 draft.
Hunt got off to a slow start because of a shoulder injury in his debut year, which relegated him to designated hitter, instead of being behind the plate.
“Last year it was more of a little nagging injury that I played through in high school but when I started to play every day in the pros it became more of a concern,” Hunt said. His injury limited him to only 30 games in the Arizona League, with all but three as a designated hitter, where he hit .241/.315/.405 with 13 extra-base hits.
“I took care of it in the offseason and I really didn’t know how I was going to react because I hadn’t been healthy in about five months. This offseason I really worked on getting my body in shape so I could remain healthy.
“So far, it’s been good.”
This season, Hunt showed his durability, catching 47 games and starting nine more at designated hitter. He finished with a well-above league average slash line of .271/.371/.377 at just 19 years old, two years younger than the average age of players he is competing against.
“I love to be in any game, but I would much rather be behind the plate because I think my pitch-calling and on-field awareness can really help the team,” said Hunt. “Also, I think I have a little bit of ADHD, so because there is always so much to do, catching really helps me to keep my focus with guys throwing things at me over 90 miles per hour,” laughed Hunt.
One of Hunt’s biggest defensive assets is a plus arm. He threw out nearly thirty percent of runners attempting to steal and caught more innings than anyone else in the Northwest League.
“Blake has a great arm and is constantly working on his receiving,” said his manager Mike McCoy. “He’s come a long way since the beginning of the year.”
The arm strength comes from Hunt’s overall physicality. But that size also has some drawbacks for him behind the plate.
“He’s a big man,” said long-time catching instructor and now the Padres’ coordinator of instruction in the minor leagues Ryley Westman. “He’s getting reps every day on trying to be very fine with his movements and his path to the baseball because, if he does add some length to it with those long arms, there can be some issues there.”
The amount of work minor league catchers put in before the game is staggering. They usually are at the park before noon, getting in weight work, then batting practice, catching a few bullpens and, especially at the lower levels, extra blocking and throwing drills.
Then it’s time to study what the opposition will do in addition to knowing the strengths and weaknesses of his staff. On the 35-man short-season rosters, that is a chore.
“I check all the scouting reports, I look at the heat maps and try to know what tendencies the hitters have and what our pitchers like to do on the mound.”
“I’m really happy with where’s he’s at right now and how he’s progressing,” said Westman. “Going through the road schedule and what it’s like to sit down and map out a plan to attack the offense that night with his starting pitcher, I’m really happy with everything he’s doing right now and where he’s headed.”
Offensively, Hunt started out fast in June, slumped in July hitting only .200/.304/.275, but bounced back with a big August hitting .316/.378/.506, with 11 extra-base hits after having only four in June and July. He finished the season on Monday with a slash line of .271/.371/.377.
“I think I work counts well and feel good deep in counts, which is not normal,” Hunt said on his offensive approach. “So I don’t panic when I get two strikes. There isn’t a lot of swing and miss in my game, my hand-eye coordination is going to come along with power.
“I think I’m having good at-bats, I would like to see better results, but I like the process and the coaching that is helping me to become better. As long as I stick with my approach I think I will continue to improve.”
John Conniff is a contributor to Fox Sports San Diego and you can follow him @madfriars.com.