If you’re one of those people who has a hard time justifying the use of a high draft choice on a catcher and you like to bargain shop, then perhaps San Diego Padres backstop Nick Hundley is a name you should consider this season. He’s not one to top many lists right now and between the mediocre stat lines and the power-suppressing ballpark he calls home, the 28 year old backstop has become much more of an afterthought in fantasy drafts. However, if you take a closer look into his numbers and the circumstances surrounding his career, there is definite reason to believe that there is growth potential on the horizon which could result in him being a possible breakout sleeper candidate in 2012.
The early goings of Hundley’s professional career have really not been all that exciting. He’s never appeared in more than 85 games in a season and has posted offensive totals that aren’t too exciting. After showing some promise in the power department in the minor leagues, Hundley has never cracked the double digit home run barrier in the majors and has produced a career triple slash line of .255/.314/.420 with a career wOBA of just .317. He is capable of drawing a walk, as evidenced by his close-to-league-average BB%, but his career SwStr% is an unwelcome 10.2%. But it’s not like he’s up there just blindly hacking away. He doesn’t swing at a lot of pitches outside the zone and his overall Swing% isn’t outlandishly over the league average. He just fails to make decent contact on the whole — a career mark of just 78.0%.
However, before you just dismiss Hundley as a below average hitter, take into account the fact that injuries have played a major part in his fledgling career. In 2009 he suffered a wrist injury early in the season and shortly after his return from that, he went down again with a hand injury that kept him out of another 50 games that year. As everyone knows, injuries like that can have a lingering, adverse affect on a player’s hitting. Last season, after a strong first month, Hundley began experiencing pain in his elbow. He attempted to play through the injury, but after a while, realized that he needed time to heal. In fact, he opted for mid-season surgery to remove loose bodies from his elbow and lost another substantial chunk of the season. That certainly begs the questions — how damaging was that hand injury and did it cause Hundley to overcompensate in such a way that it lead to elbow problems down the road?
The reason those questions need to be answered is the way Hundley came back after surgery last year. His production in August and September have left several people wondering if he’s turned a corner and can produce enough in 2012 to make him a coveted fantasy backstop come draft day. Upon his return, Hundley hit .389 for the month of August with a pair of home runs and reduced his K% from his usual 23-26% down to 17.2%. He dropped his GB/FB to .059, increased his OPS to 1.190 and his ISO for the month had a ridiculous .370 mark. Obviously sample size plays a huge role in looking at these numbers and a .452 BABIP was an obvious contributor, but before his critics had the opportunity to dismiss them, he went on and hit .351 for the final month of the season, cracked another 4 home runs and saw his OPS drop only to a .966 mark. Again, a strong .423 BABIP was helping, but we were all looking at a different hitter than the one we witnessed pre-surgery.
So now the question is, which Hundley will we see in 2012? Will this late season surge carry over into the spring and afford him the opportunity to be the Padres primary backstop this season? It seems that the Padres will give him the opportunity to do so. They will let Rob Johnson walk via free agency and while traded for John Baker here in the offseason, he is a 31 year old veteran coming off of Tommy John surgery. Hundley doesn’t need to hit like he did for the final two month of 2011 to maintain number one status on the team, but if he can show improvement this season and that those last two months weren’t just a fluke, then he could end up being a solid hitting backstop all season and a tremendous late-round fantasy steal.