The Tony Wolters Experiment: The Making of a Receiver

Near the end of spring training in 2013, just days before the Cleveland Indians were to travel north, then-middle-infield prospect Tony Wolters was called into the manager’s office at the club’s complex in Goodyear, Ariz.

There, Terry Francona and a number of front-office members awaited. They offered Wolters a choice. One option was that he could remain a middle infielder, even though he might be unable to stick at shortstop and even though his .260/.320/.404 line the year earlier at High-A hinted at insufficient offensive production for second base. Furthermore, with Francisco Lindor and Jason Kipnis in the organization, his opportunities would be limited. The other option? He could try his hand at catching.

Wolter’s experience behind the plate, to that point, had been limited to catching one game at Rancho Buena Vista High, from which school the Indians had selected him in the third round of the 2010 draft. He was to turn 21 in June. He had not risen above A-ball.

“They gave me a day to think about it,” Wolters said. “It was kind of the end of spring, so I had to tell them. I couldn’t say ‘No’ to Tito [Francona]… The main thing was, I just wanted to do what they wanted me to do and I felt I could do it.”

Thus, one of the more unusual position changes — at least as measured by successful outcomes — in recent professional baseball began. A reverse Craig Biggio, a move from the middle infield to catcher. The Indians gave Wolters a brief tutorial. He borrowed a glove and caught his first bullpen. Who pitched? Pre-breakout Corey Kluber. “He was pretty good,” Wolters responded. “That day he wasn’t spotting up, so I kind of got messed up a little bit.”

As the Indians’ major- and minor-league teams departed to begin their respective seasons, the club held Wolters back for one week to receive a crash course in catching at their Arizona complex. After a week of experience, he was sent off to High-A ball to become the Carolina Mudcats’ starting catcher. Along the way, he worked with coaches like former major leaguer Sandy Alomar to learn some intricacies of the craft.

Now fast forward three years. Last season, as a member of the Rockies, Wolters ranked as the ninth-best framer and 10th-best overall defensive catcher in the majors, according to Baseball Prospectus’s catching metrics. Ever since Colorado claimed him off waivers on Feb. 16, 2016, Wolters has become one of the better values and under-the-radar additions in the majors. He entered play on Wednesday with a batting line just 10% shy of league average at one of the game’s weakest offensive positions. In 111 career games, he’s accumulated 1.5 fWAR and 2.2 bWARP. He’s helped the Rockies to a 42-26 mark, percentage points behind the Dodgers, entering Thursday.

But what is most interesting about the Wolters story, at least to this author, is how quickly he acquired the skills necessary to become one of the better defensive catchers in the game (even if he’s rated as more of a league-average catcher to date in 2017). Whatever the precise level of his skills, average or better than that, he reached that level quickly. It raises the question of how many other position players could have benefited themselves and their teams by making the move to catcher where the position’s collective wOBA (.307) is above only that of shortstop (.304) this season.

Can just anyone catch? Probably not. There’s both innate and learned skill involved. We know not everyone receives equally well or can produce a quick enough pop time. But could there more potentially adept catchers uncovered — particularly among the middle infielders who are generally excellent athletes with soft hands and strong arms — like Wolters?

Of course, a player has to be willing to work. Wolters has quickly become devoted to a daily routine and regimen.

It was in Zebulon, N.C., with the Mudcats that Wolters developed a critical part of his pre-game routine, one which he still employs today. Its a routine that includes a series of drills catching weighted balls in the bullpen before games. He participated in it before warming up Tyler Chatwood Tuesday in the left-center bullpen at PNC Park.

“I started doing that because I wasn’t used to the heavy glove as a catcher. I was always a middle infielder. I wanted to make the glove feel lighter,” Wolters said. “I liked it. I said ‘I am going to make this part of my routine, every day, before every game.’ After a long year, it really does help you strengthen your shoulders and forearms, helping keep the ball still. It helps the umpire see the ball better.”

It helps Wolters get calls like this one from last year against Aaron Hicks in Yankee Stadium:

And like these consecutive pitches earlier this season against Joe Mauer:

He’s added other drills to the pre-game routine to include blocking and receiving work. In one, a coach tosses him a series of clean pitches interspersed with random balls in the dirt that he must quickly block. He catches balls off high-velocity machines and engages in bare-hand catching of underhanded tosses designed to soften his hands. Since making the move to catcher, he’s taken thousands upon thousands of physical reps.

Wolters also developed a practice of visualization. At the conclusion of each game, he would turn his focus to the next day’s starting pitcher, his pitches, and to the opponents they would face together.

He will visualize a pitch and practice the motion of catching and securing it. He will get into his squat in hotel rooms — and, if the wall-mounted mirror will allow for it, go through dry catching motion after motion, examining his technique via reflection.

“I love doing dry stuff, because it really does work,” Wolters said. “[Developing] rhythm with the glove.

“It’s like a wave,” he said of the movement in reaching a pitch. “You have to have that relaxation.”

He is always craving new knowledge. Wolters is always studying.

In the pre-game clubhouse last week, he and Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado sat before laptops at a folding table in the center of the room and Areando took an imaginary swing, seemingly explaining something to Wolters, who watched and listened intently.

“I want to be in the game all the time. That might be what they [Cleveland] saw in me,” Wolters said. “Right after the game, flick a switch, and you have the next game going. I like that part. I just really love the game”

He believes it is important to “feel athletic” as a catcher, and he still often takes ground balls during batting practice and occasionally is used at second base by the Rockies. He has appeared in one game at second this season. He feels the work there helps him in blocking, in getting to a quick, proper throwing position. For his career, Wolters has thrown out 33% of would-be base-stealers. The league average has been 28%.

Wolters is remarkable in how far he has come so quickly as a catcher, and it will be interesting to see where he goes from here, how much he grows, particularly for a team that has rarely employed an able receiver, as Jeff Sullivan noted earlier this spring.

“You’re always in the game [catching], always touching the ball, making tempo of the game. I enjoy that part of it,” Wolters said. “It’s hard. I’m still growing. I’m still learning. I get frustrated. There are fun days, too. But I’m blessed for both those kinds of days because they are both getting me better.”

Wolters has transformed himself from a likely utility infielder to a major-league starter. How many more Wolters could be out there?

Said Wolters from the visiting clubhouse at PNC Park: “I fell in love with the position and here I am now.”

A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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John W.
6 years ago

great read