From Bill Dickey and Yogi Berra to Elston Howard and Thurman Munson, to modern-day stars like Jorge Posada and Gary Sanchez, Yankees history is replete with game-changing catchers. On Wednesday, the team drafted another catcher in Austin Wells, though he might end up with a legacy very different from earlier Bombers backstops — simply because he might not suit up behind the plate for the Yankees in the end.
Wells, a 20-year-old hailing from the University of Arizona, is a left-handed hitter with power to all fields and a keen eye. The organization is excited by his promise at the plate. In 74 college at-bats this year, Wells slashed .375/.527/.589.
But defensively, questions abound, with concerns about the agility of his six-foot-two, 220-pound frame and arm trouble affecting his throwing. He has reportedly worked on that side of his game, but had limited chances to show his improvement this year due to the season being cut short by coronavirus.
And while Wells has stated he wants to catch, he has also embraced a willingness to play any position that will get him on a big-league field.
NYY first round pick Austin Wells: "I'm a catcher, and I want to be a catcher. I know I'm definitely willing to do whatever it takes to get to the big leagues. So if that's at another position, then I'll just hit home runs at Yankee Stadium and play wherever they need me to."— Bryan Hoch (@BryanHoch) June 11, 2020
There’s definitely precedent for such a position switch bearing fruit. The Astros’ Craig Biggio crossed the diamond from home plate to second base at age 25. The end result was a body of work that would land him in Cooperstown, highlighted by 3,000 hits and seven All-Star nods.
Plus, the defensive benefits of Biggio’s relocation to second base were two-fold: the Astros became more robust both in the infield and at catcher. Biggio thrived as a pivot man, earning four consecutive Gold Gloves.
Though he lacks Biggio’s Hall-of-Fame resume, Carlos Delgado also proved the value of a judicious position switch. The power-hitting catcher-turned-first-baseman — listed at six-foot-three and 215 pounds during his playing days — notched 473 home runs, slashed .280/.383/.546, and compiled 44.1 fWAR over a career that spanned 17 seasons. He was a three-time Silver Slugger, and a runner-up for AL MVP in 2003. Whatever his shortcomings were as a backstop, they didn’t matter too much in the end.
This isn’t a recent phenomenon. Dale Murphy, who started his major league career in 1976, is another best-case scenario for a former catcher. Murphy was a two-time MVP who earned four Silver Slugger Awards in a row during his peak.
Like Biggio, Murphy’s move from behind the plate didn’t just hide his weaknesses — it allowed his athleticism to blossom elsewhere. Murphy earned five straight Gold Gloves as an outfielder to match his prodigious offensive production.
Eddie Murray, the Orioles legend and Hall of Fame first baseman, is another example. Murray was drafted out of high school in 1973, but had abandoned the position entirely by the time he won AL Rookie of the Year in 1977.
While this switch came earlier than those made by the other former catchers here, it’s still instructive. Murray’s superior bat made him an impact player for years, and just as Biggio and Murphy did, he turned himself into a multiyear Gold Glover in the field.
What does this mean for Wells? The burden of being an everyday catcher is a heavy one. If he’s talented enough offensively, it might be prudent to get him as many at-bats at another position with as little wear and tear on his body as possible.
Joe Mauer, Minnesota’s former sweet-swinging lefty catcher, spent ten years behind the plate before permanently moving to first in the wake of injury and concussion trouble. Might he have benefitted, health-wise and statistically, from an earlier transition?
Maybe so. But teams also find value in employing an elite hitting catcher, even if his glove work is only serviceable.
After seeing one too many passed balls or mental errors, a faction of fans has called for Gary Sanchez to be displaced as the starting catcher. But because he offers special production at a premium defensive position, the Yankees have deemed some trade-offs worthwhile.
For now, Wells doesn’t have to worry where he might be deployed once he officially signs, even if the organization is surely already plotting his future. As he suggested himself, hitting home runs in Yankee Stadium would be a great achievement, no matter what defensive territory he stakes out on the field.
Given the proven and varied models of success for former catchers, Wells will be an exciting prospect to follow, whether at first base, in a corner outfield role, or behind the plate.