AFL Spotlight: Catcher Tony Wolters
The “AFL Spotlight” is a weekly feature piece on a player from the Cleveland Indians farm system that is participating in the Arizona Fall League. League play wraps up on November 15th. Here are the previous 2014 spotlight pieces on other Indians players: Grant Sides, Louis Head, Nick Maronde, Jordan Smith and Francisco Lindor
Another Arizona Fall League season wraps up today as the championship game in winner-take-all fashion convenes with the Salt River Rafters squaring off with the Peoria Javelinas.
While the two teams are squaring off for a championship, it is just a six term league and the AFL is more about showcasing talent and hot shot prospects than it is about one team finishing on top. Yet, it is a league, and a champion needs to be crowned, and Indians players just happen to be a part of the Peoria team chasing a championship.
As another chapter closes in the AFL, so does another chapter in the ongoing transition from middle infielder to catcher for Tony Wolters.
Wolters, 22, has been with the Indians for five seasons now since being selected in the third round of the 2010 Draft out of Rancho Buena Vista High School (CA). While there have been some bumps along the way, his progression through the system has been steady. He’s proven to be a very capable defender in the middle of the infield, but has since handled a transition to catcher seamlessly.
At the end of spring training last year the Indians approached Wolters about the position change to catcher. He was completely on board with the change, took the challenge head on and has proven it to be a stroke of genius by the powers that be that came up with the idea to move him there. As a middle infielder he probably would have been lost in the shuffle by now considering the depth the Indians have there in the upper levels, but behind the plate he has really stood out and made a name for himself.
While he has only been catching for roughly 19 months, Wolters finally feels at home and that he has settled into the position.
“Yeah, I am a catcher,” Wolters stated. “I can play the infield and it is easy to go back there, but I am a catcher. I have really settled in, but I still have a lot of work to do and I know that. You know how I am, I am always going to try and learn and get better. If you don’t do that and get complacent this game will spit you out. I am just trying to keep learning and try and be the best I can. Try to be the best receiver, blocker and be the best captain. You just never get too comfortable and try to learn.”
Developing a catcher is no easy task. There are players the Indians have drafted or signed as free agents on the international front who had years of catching experience before coming on board with the Indians who never put it together as a pro. But Wolters has shown natural abilities and a quick aptitude with picking up all of the intangibles to the catching craft, has gained the trust of his pitchers and, oh yeah, he plays pretty good defense too.
This past season Wolters did not make a single error in 94 games behind the plate and also threw out 47.2% (25-of-53) of attempted base stealers.
“Wally (manager Dave Wallace) and Harry (pitching coach Jeff Harris) helped me a lot,” Wolters said. “It is not just throwing guys out with the running game; it is about stopping them by putting picks on. Whenever I looked back to Wally and Harry in situations I remember that 1-1 situation they called a pick on, so I will remember that and maybe I can call that sometime. I am smart with pitch selection when the other team has a guy that can run. That 90 foot base from first to second is big, so I am smarter with putting slide steps on and really being alert about the runner. That 90 feet is so crucial.”
Wolters also knows that his pitchers had a big hand in his strong showing controlling the running game. A lot of people will focus on the straight up throw-out percentages for a catcher, but if his pitching staff doesn’t do a good job holding runners then teams are going to steal bases at a high rate even if Pudge Rodriguez is back behind the plate.
“I think our pitchers really made a lot of good adjustment with holding guys on, being quick to the plate and giving me a chance,” Wolters said. “That percentage of throwing guys out is not me. They were awesome. They are always giving me feedback. I have learned so much how to talk and what to see. I think that was a big thing. I am learning how to speak and say the lingo too. I think now I am gaining trust from a lot of guys. I think that is the key thing is being on the same page and working together. Championship teams have to be working together between catcher and pitcher.”
What really makes Wolters unique and a potential Major League asset is not only does he look like he has the skill to be at least an average Major League catcher, but that he has the ability to be at least an average Major League defender at shortstop and second base.
“They want me to focus on catching as it is my number one priority,” Wolters said. “I am going to do whatever it takes. I am not going to be a corner guy; I am going to be up the middle. That is my goal is to stay in the middle and be like that. I am just trying to find a spot in the lineup. If they ask me to play outfield next year I will get an outfielders glove and do that.”
There are few, if any, players who can boast that ability to play catcher as well as the middle infield, which is what adds some significant value for Wolters to the organization.
“It will work,” Wolters noted about catching. “I just need to keep my body up and I just need to keep working to get faster. I have a speed coach I am going to work with after the fall league. I am just going to try and keep gaining confidence on the bases. Stealing bases is confidence. After my first year it kind of went downhill because of my groin and everything, but my body is feeling better and my knee feels good. I just need to get my confidence back, be well rounded to help win games and get runs for the team.”
Wolters has had a few lower body injuries which have plagued him the last few seasons, most recently a knee injury he suffered this past July which kept him out of the lineup for the remainder of the season.
“It was a play at home,” Wolters recalled about the injury. “I got a throw from the outfield and the guy didn’t slide and we got tangled up. I played the rest of the game but the next day I couldn’t even move my knee. I hyperextended it and got bone bruises on the outside.”
Wolters is obviously fine now as he is playing out in the Arizona Fall League. He has played about two to three games a week, totaling 15 games played and is hitting .255 with 0 HR, 8 RBI, .642 OPS and 7-7 strikeout to walk ratio.
“I just want to keep working on my whole game,” Wolters said. “I need to keep seeing the ball and seeing good pitches. I think the more at bats I get the more confident I will get there. It is just about being more consistent, not swinging so hard and playing good defense at second, short and catcher. Just being able to go from catcher to short or catcher to second.”
If there is one part of Wolters game where he has underwhelmed and struggled the most, it is at the plate. He’s been a solid performer considering his age with respect to the league he has played in the past few seasons, but this past season at Double-A Akron he only hit .249 with 1 HR, 34 RBI and .633 OPS. Those are pedestrian numbers which for a middle infielder might have people looking the other way on his big league potential, but at catcher they are suitable. If a catcher can put up quality at bats and play good to excellent defense, he is going to get a long look as a Major League option at some point down the road.
“I just felt like I never had those weeks where I was locked in,” Wolters said about his hitting. “It wasn’t a big deal. I am figuring out my swing. It is going to take a little bit and I need to be patient with it. I can’t give into just going back and using my hands. I am actually learning my swing and really focusing in on using my lower half. Power-wise right now I feel good. It is there, I just need to find it and it will take time. I never really got to a good month where I felt good all the time, but I was consistent, I did my job and I felt like I handled the pitching really well this year.”
With the AFL wrapping up play this weekend, Wolters will earn some much needed down time to recharge the batteries over the holidays. However, when a player is as close to the big leagues as he is, there is no time to rest as he plans to do two-a-day workouts at a training facility in December and then go to Indians strength and conditioning camp in January. Shortly after that spring training will start up.
“It is going to be a short one,” Wolters said about his offseason. “I am going to go home for Thanksgiving. The Indians want me to come back for strength camp in January, but I am thinking about working out at API in San Diego [in December]. I have my running coach there and am trying to figure out a catching guy that I might workout with down there as well. Then in January I will go to strength camp in Arizona. Then spring training starts.”
This is a big offseason for Wolters as he is up for roster protection and is in the Major League mix. He is not a Major League option right now at this moment, but by the middle to end of next season he is someone who may help the Indians not only as a backup catching option, but one who could play a few different positions and offer up an extremely valuable skillset off the bench for Indians manager Terry Francona.
“This offseason I need to be agile and not get too big and work hard and get faster,” Wolters said. “I just need to figure out my routine as it is different now. I am not just a catcher as I am going to be playing everywhere.”
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