Catching has to be one of the hardest positions not just in baseball, but in professional sports. Not only do do these warriors have to be crouched or on a knee for hours (with interruptions, but still!) but their work is evaluated by so many different factors: how good they are at stealing strikes, blocking ability, throwing strength and accuracy, communication skills, baseball knowledge, game-calling, game prep… the list doesn’t end.
These freaks of nature are also asked to hit, and the most demanding fan bases also require them to do it well. There is a reason why catchers aren’t usually offensive machines!
The Yankees didn’t really have a quality starting-caliber catcher this year. José Trevino is a master of his craft behind the plate, but has been injured for a while and isn’t really an offensive threat. Far from it, as his career 73 wRC+ can attest. He was an asset last year because he was nearly average offensively (92 wRC+), but when he posts a 57 mark like he did in 2023, things get rough.
Kyle Higashioka and Ben Rortvedt are both backup types. The Yankees do have Austin Wells, though, who has the potential to be an average MLB hitter or perhaps a bit better than that.
The Yankees haven’t had an above-average hitter at catcher since 2019 Gary Sánchez, and the last time they had an average batter at the position was in 2021 (again Sánchez). The 24-year-old Wells posted a 129 wRC+ in Double-A last year and had 107 and 100 marks in Somerset and Scranton in 2023, respectively.
Wells hit 16 home runs between the two levels this year, and his offensive production and, particularly, his upside earned him a promotion to the majors.
The bat is there to make an impact as soon as 2023, even if the Yankees are really aiming at 2024. His defense, however, doesn’t come without questions. Here is what Eric Longenhagen, FanGraphs’ prospect analyst, wrote about him in his preseason report:
“The general sentiment across the industry (though it’s not universal) is that he isn’t an acceptable defensive catcher. His receiving has improved to the point of viability but Wells’ arm, which has been below-average since he underwent shoulder surgery as an amateur, has not. Many of his throws don’t even reach the bag on a fly, tending instead to one-hop in front of it, though Wells does lob them in there pretty accurately and often gives his middle infielders a chance to apply a quick enough tag to make things close.”
That was before the season started. Wells, as hard-working as they come, has put a lot of time and effort to improve in every facet. As Longenhagen noted, his receiving skills have improved, but his two main weaknesses are his arm and pitch framing. We will get to both in a minute.
First, it’s important to point out that the reports coming from within the organization after his first few days in the bigs are glowing.
“I’ve been extremely impressed with just kind of the aptitude and how he’s stepped into this environment,” Yankees catching coordinator Tanner Swanson told the New York Daily News. He also praised him for his ability to manage the PitchCom, pitch clock and running game signs, all on top of getting familiar with new pitchers and hitters.
That’s where you see that being a rookie is not the same for catchers as it is for, say, outfielders.
Michael King was impressed with Wells and he didn’t hold back when offering details. King said “He had a great gameplan going in. He’s phenomenal at adjusting & a real great communicator. We had a ton of conversations in between innings... I loved working with him.”
Michael King went out of his way to praise Austin Wells as a receiver, as many #Yankees Ps did this series.— Gary Phillips (@GaryHPhillips) September 4, 2023
"He had a great gameplan going in. He's phenomenal at adjusting & a real great communicator. We had a ton of conversations in between innings... I loved working with him."
Wells likes to prepare for games. He doesn’t improvise. He also loves establishing good communication channels with his pitchers: everyone from King to Clay Holmes (Wells reportedly prepared for his nasty sinker movement with a machine) to Tommy Kahnle and even Wells’ competition for playing time, Kyle Higashioka, praised him as Phillips wrote in the Daily News article.
The two biggest knocks on his defensive game are his framing and arm. Regarding the former, he is far from a disaster, but it’s clear there is work to be done.
For reference, here is how Trevino handled a pitch from left-hander Ne Cortes:
And here is Wells framing a similar pitch from Carlos Rodón:
There is a noticeable difference in quickness, effectiveness, and how natural the hand movement looks. This requires experience and familiarity with big league umpires, among other things, but perhaps Wells can improve there with time.
Regarding his arm, the numbers don’t really back Wells even though he threw out the first runner that attempted a steal against him, Mauricio Dubón, over the weekend series vs. Houston:
Austin Wells picks up his first CS in the bigs as he nails Mauricio Dubón at 2nd. pic.twitter.com/HbvlbVzVYI— Caught Stealing (@MLB_CS) September 4, 2023
Despite focusing on arm strength in the offseason, he logged just 15 caught stealing as opposed to 101 successful steal attempts across Single-A, Double-A, and Triple-A this season in the minors. He will have to improve those numbers to be a more viable everyday catcher for the Yankees, but if his throws will be as accurate as the Dubón one, he will have a chance.
One would expect his teammates and coaches speaking highly of Wells if asked by the press, which is why we can only rely on their reports so much. Maybe they are biased, and that would be logical. However, people from within the organization are the best ones to discuss and evaluate his game calling skills, and he has aced that test so far.
The bottom line is that Wells’ defensive skills, arm, game-calling and overall performance behind the plate will be the key factors determining his future in MLB and, of course, with the Yankees.
So far, so good.