In a desperate ploy to keep fans engaged though the final month of an unsuccessful regular season, the Yankees called up a slate of their top rookies to inject youthful exuberance into an otherwise drab team. Jasson Domínguez stole the headlines, homering on his first major league swing — off Justin Verlander no less — but top catching prospect Austin Wells provided easily the second-most impressive performance from the youth movement.
2023 Statistics: 19 games, 75 PA, .229/.257/.486, 4 HR, 13 RBI, 97 wRC+, 0.4 fWAR
2024 Contract Status: Pre-arbitration (arbitration eligible in 2027)
Signed with the 28th overall pick in the 2020 MLB Draft, Wells rose quickly through the ranks to earn his MLB debut in just his third season of pro ball. Scouts have always loved his left-handed bat, which produced no less than a 129 wRC+ across Low-A, High-A, and Double-A in 2021 and 2022, launching 36 home runs in 195 games. He hit a bit of a rut in 2023, with a 108 wRC+ in 58 games with Somerset and a 101 wRC+ in 33 games with Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, but the Yankees still saw enough to call him up to the majors on September 1st, where he would remain for the rest of the season. Wells made his debut that very day alongside El Marciano against the Astros, collecting his first big league hit — a single off the future first-ballot Hall of Famer.
Despite that very preliminary success, Wells looked thoroughly overmatched in his first taste of the bigs, slashing .128/.167/.205 with a -3 wRC+ in his first 11 games. But then it started to click for him at the plate, perhaps as he began to adjust to how big league pitchers were attacking him. He finished off the season on a red-hot tear, slashing .355/.375/.839 with four home runs and a 229 wRC+ in his final eight games.
When you look under the hood, there’s a lot to be encouraged by Wells’ plate discipline and batted ball profile. He struck out well below the league average, and it’s reasonable to expect his walk rate to creep up as he gains experience against this level of opposition given it sat in the double-digits his entire time in the minors. Even in his limited sample size, Wells placed among the game’s elite when it came to the consistency of his quality of contact. Among hitters with at least 50 balls in play, Wells ranked sixth in expected slugging (.584), tied for ninth in barrels per plate appearance (10.7), tied for 21st in xwOBA (.373) and tied for 30th in expected batting average (.283). What’s more, there’s some evidence to suggest Wells was unlucky, with a .228 BABIP while placing among the top 25 under-performers in expected vs. actual stats (average, slugging, xwOBA), so upward regression is not out of the question.
That brings us to the one sticking point: his defense. Scouting reports were never impressed by his arm strength or framing abilities in high school and college, and while reports suggest he’s put in countless hours to improve that side of his game, there’s still a long way to go. Wells placed 40th out of 74 catchers in framing runs (zero), 56th out of 77 in blocking runs (-2), and 54th out of 76 in throwing runs (-2). He’s got an excellent pop time, tying for 12th out of 81 at 1.91 seconds, but this is cancelled out some by bang average arm strength.
Zooming in on the framing, Wells could certainly learn a lesson or two from teammate Jose Trevino, arguably the best framer in the game. Look at the difference in technique on two almost identical pitches.
This pitch on the corner caught by Wells was called a ball:
And this pitch on the corner caught by Trevino was called a strike:
The difference is night and day. Wells keeps his glove static at the target he’s set, and only at the last second does he stab at the pitch, causing the glove to jerk below the zone before he snaps it back up above the hitter’s knees. Trevino on the other hand hover his glove below the zone, smoothly gliding it up to catch the pitch before freezing at the bottom of the zone all in one clean motion. Wells isn’t going to trick any MLB umpire with his herky-jerky glove movement.
Of course, the introduction of the automated balls and strikes system may render the entire framing problem obsolete. In that case, Wells would become an even more valuable catcher to the Yankees, as league-average hitters behind the plate are an increasingly rare species. That change is not quite on the horizon, but all the same Wells showed enough in his brief spell in the majors to merit consideration for at least a spot on the Opening Day roster, if not an even timeshare at backstop in 2024.