Think of it as a catcher having tentacles -- Rockies fans know all about those. Nick Hundley’s tentacles have done their best in 2015 to keep far too many pitches from sailing to the screen. They've slapped the wrists of unfriendly media, and wrapped themselves supportively around the shoulders of a struggling pitching staff.
It’s hard to imagine what this Colorado Rockies season would look like if it weren’t for the efforts of Hundley, the first-year Rockie. That is, it’s difficult already to gauge the sort of influence a catcher has on a ball club because his reach is deep and widespread. The team has sung Hundley’s praises since before setting foot in the same clubhouse, and he has yet to give them a reason to change their tune.
He’s just doing his job, but it’s a job being done well for the Rockies for the first time in a long time.
Hundley wasn't even signed for his offense. Before coming to Colorado, the 31-year-old catcher had never finished a season with a batting average above .288. He was signed in the offseason as a defensive upgrade, without much mention of the team’s offensive expectations. Realistically, he figured to hold down a pedestrian six-hole spot in what was an incredibly daunting preseason Rockies lineup—hopefully taking well to playing half of his games in a hitter’s ballpark.
Spring training always gives way to the throws of reality. Luckily for the Rockies, reality has been better than expected. Hundley’s .306 average ranks third among Rockies starters. His 33 runs batted in are sixth-best among catchers in the National League.
The accolades don't stop there.
Hundley's three stolen bases come second only to J.T. Realmuto of the Miami Marlins, and his three triples tie for second (with teammate Michael McKenry). Tentacles, sure, but wheels too?
The splits would be more concerning on any other Rockies team but this one. Hundley is hitting .349 at Coors Field and .254 on the road through the first 94 games of the season. If the Rox weren’t 23-26 at home, that would be an issue, but for now the team will take a high average—and a win—wherever you want to give them one. All the better in front of a hometown crowd.
Behind the plate, Hundley’s numbers shoulder much of the burden of his pitching staff, depleting his range factor per nine innings to a career-low 7.19. Compare that to Yasmani Grandal, who handles two of the league's strikeout leaders in Clayton Kershaw and Zach Greinke, and boasts a RF/9 of 9.03.
Nevertheless, it’s a jump from last year for the Rockies, who saw Wilin Rosario post an unsettling—rather appropriate—RF/9 of 6.66 over his 96 games behind the dish. Between he and backup catcher Michael McKenry, Rockies backstops combined for 10 runs below average on defense in 2014. Hundley has had to grind for his two runs above average in 2015.
The understanding that pitching at altitude offers a unique set of physical and mental challenges has to make catching at Coors Field one of the hardest job in baseball. Hundley’s numbers are as good as can be expected for a team that desperately sought consistency from the position. But he’s not the flashiest catcher in baseball. The fact remains that beyond a breakout year at the plate—and the tall task of holding his head above water behind it—Hundley has become an integral part of the Rockies ball club largely in ways numbers cannot be assigned to.
It’s in the eye test that one can see Hundley’s strongest performances of the season: the first one to jump in a walk-off celebration, the consoling voice in Eddie Butler’s ear after perhaps the worst baserunning blunder baseball has seen this year. He’s stood up for his pitchers to the public, and kept quiet for them in the face of some truly atrocious pitch calling.
Nick Hundley won’t salvage the season on his own, but it’s an ugly image to picture this team without his unwavering, tentacled dedication.