AFL Spotlight: Tony Wolters
2013 was a year of change for Tony Wolters.
At the tail end of spring training a little over seven months ago he was pulled into the Indians offices in Goodyear, Arizona and received word that he would be making the switch from the middle of the infield to catcher.
This was a move that caught many by surprise, and even Wolters himself. Vice President of Player Development Ross Atkins, manager Terry Francona and many others pulled him into a meeting near the end of March and they made their case why they felt like catcher was the right career path for him going forward.
“It was four or five days before we were leaving for a team in spring training,” Wolters recalled. “I was having a good spring training. I played good defense and got to play in some big league games and felt good. They took me in there with a lot of the front office people and Terry Francona, and they just said that I looked like I could catch.”
Wolters needed some time to think about such a significant change. He consulted family and friends for what was a major decision to leave the comforts of the middle infield for the unknown at catcher. In the end, he came away with the belief it was the right move and that he could do it.
“I took a good two to three days to think about it, talked to my parents and all of the different coaches I have had,” Wolters said. “If [the Indians] thought I could do it and I truly thought I could do it, I was like, ‘why not’, and if it doesn’t work out I can go back to the infield. I am glad I did it and I have no regrets. I am having a lot of fun doing it and am enjoying the position.”
Consider for a moment that Wolters made the catching change not in Instructional League or during the offseason, but at the end of spring training and near the start of the season. Knowing that, it is impressive to see how far he has come along.
Eighth months ago Wolters really did not know much about catching, but he was put on a crash course to learn the position in April and May and learned on the fly in games at High-A Carolina the rest of the season. Eight months later, he is flashing some impressive ability behind the plate that has scouts believing he truly can play the position someday at the highest level.
Wolters has always had good hands in the field, was very fundamentally sound, was athletic and had a strong arm. The Indians liked all of that to go with his strong compact frame and makeup and felt he could become as good of a defender behind the plate and so far that belief has held true. He still has a long way to go in his development as a catcher, but the strides he made this season were extraordinary.
A lot of Wolters’ success at catcher comes from his belief that he truly can play there. It took some time to settle in and get accustomed to the position change. He worked out with the Carolina team early in the season for a few weeks but didn’t catch any games, went to extended spring training in Arizona to continue to work on the change and catch games in a low pressure environment, and then he reappeared in Carolina on May 19th when he made his first start at the position.
A few starts later, Wolters caught a good game and feels it was that game where he took a huge step forward and finally believed he belonged as a catcher.
“There was one game where I was catching Cody Anderson, probably my fifth game catching, and I just felt like that game every pitch I called was the right pitch,” Wolters recalled. “After that I took it as, ‘wow, I just need to repeat that.’ You are always thinking two pitches ahead and I think after that game I realized I can do this and I just have to keep thinking, relax back there and slow the game down.”
Wolters is learning all of the nuances that come with the catching position on the fly, things that often take years for catchers to really pick up and refine. He is learning how to call games with pitch selection and location, how to set up hitters, and reading their swings. It is a completely new viewpoint from behind the plate and so much more is involved than when he was playing second base or shortstop.
“You pick up so much from a hitter just when he steps into the box,” Wolters said. “How his stance is, where his hands are, is he tense or loose, does he swing at the first fastball that he sees. It is about getting people uncomfortable back there and just realizing that one pitch can take a guy out of an at bat. They are little things you never would have thought about when playing shortstop, so it is a totally different perspective and I love it.”
The Indians picked up Wolters in the 3rd round of the 2010 Draft out of high school. He has always had a strong, compact body for a middle infielder, but his maturation physically has been noticeable, particularly in the past year. He has certainly gotten bigger and stronger since he was drafted and signed with the Indians three years ago, and now that he is catching he is really taking his workouts to another level.
“I have started working out more,” Wolters said. “I was always tired, so when I worked out I felt stronger. Yeah, I was sore, but I felt like my body was recovering faster when I worked out. So, yeah, I worked out more this season than I would have if I was in the infield. I haven’t gained weight, but I feel I am a little thicker and my body is changing a little bit.”
Wolters has only played in 11 games in the Arizona Fall League, and is hitting .194 with 3 RBI and .584 OPS, though has a nice .362 on-base percentage thanks to eight walks. He has also seen most of his time at shortstop as he has played five games there while playing four at catcher and two as the designated hitter.
But Wolters’ assignment to shortstop is more about where he can get at bats and has nothing to do with any thoughts of pulling him off full time catching duties for the Indians. In fact, even though he is developing as a catcher he routinely takes groundballs to stay sharp in the infield.
“It is just to get more at bats,” Wolters said about playing shortstop in the AFL. “Number one is catching and I am getting used to that. It is going very well and I just need to keep learning, help the pitchers out and make it easier for them.”
With Wolters getting some time at shortstop it does offer a glimpse into what his future may be as a super utility player. He is a very good defensive player that has proven he can handle shortstop, second base and now catcher, and there is no reason he can’t handle third base, first base and even the outfield if needed in the future. That versatility is a valuable skillset and makes him an asset to the organization as so few players can play so many positions in the middle of the diamond and play them well.
“It sounds cliché, but I will player anywhere,” Wolters said. “It really doesn’t matter. If I am catching, I am catching. I love infield and I love catching. I haven’t played first base yet but I would probably fall in love with playing there too. It is going well and I am not thinking about it that way. I am just thinking about playing the game, having fun and doing whatever it takes.”
Wolters not only had a good season behind the plate, he had a good season at it. The transition from another position to catcher is probably the toughest to do in baseball. With so much focus on a position change, players often struggle with the bat or in other areas of their game. But to his credit, he remained consistent with his approach at the plate this season and made some strides.
“I can say my power was not there or I did not get on base as much as I could, but this year I just focused on quality at bats,” Wolters said. “My main focus was seeing pitches and getting deeper into counts. My swing is getting there. It is a process, but I feel really good. I have picked up a lot through Instructs and now, and I am really learning a lot of different things about the swing. I feel really comfortable and I think it is a matter of getting more at bats and seeing more pitches.”
While the playing time has not really been there for Wolters in the AFL, he understands there is so much he can learn by not playing. It is a league filled with some of the best prospects in baseball, and he knows he can learn so much from watching the other players that play his position.
“My goal is to just always have fun out here,” Wolters said. “This team is awesome. I’m having fun with these guys and there are a lot of good guys on the team. I look at the catchers and infielders and learn something from them. We are playing another 30-something games, so it is preparing you for a longer season. I think it is just to get the exposure, get more reps in, work on things and try to figure things out with your swing, defense and everything.”
With the offseason quickly creeping up on Wolters, when it arrives he plans to spend a lot of time on his boat, fishing and spending time with his family. But after a few weeks, he will be right back at it as the offseason is shorter and he needs to get his body ready for next season. There is also a good chance he could be a non-roster invite to major league spring training which starts in mid-February, so he has to be prepared for that as that is only about three months away.
Overall, Wolters is happy about his 2013 season and is excited for what 2014 may have in store.
“I didn’t play a full season, but I felt good,” Wolters said. “I learned every day. I learned something new, not just with catching and how to call games, but with hitting and how to be consistent with my bat. It was a good time and was a good season for me.”
Follow Tony and the Indians Baseball Insider on Twitter @TonyIBI. Also, his new book the 2014 Cleveland Indians Baseball Insider which profiles the Indians' Top 100 Prospects and more is available for sale.
Good point. I think Wolters basically said he gained bulk, not weight though.
I've seen catchers who can also play 3rd base, usually guys like Santana who were originally 3rd basemen before being converted to catcher. But it looks to me like Wolters' upside is a ML catcher who can play 3rd in a pinch.
Fast forward two years to the winter of 15/16. If Wolters progresses well enough, we can trade Santana for a king's ransom, who'll have 2 years left on a very affordable contract. Gomes and Wolters would be an awesomely versatile duo with great defensive ability.