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There are many things in baseball that are fickle, but perhaps none compare to the volatility of a young catcher. The meager amount of good young catchers out there will tell you that alone. Rarely is there a catcher in the majors under 25. That’s where Colorado Rockies rookie backstop Tony Wolters is different, the 24-year-old has spent the entire season in the majors after being picked up on waivers from the Cleveland Indians.
Wolters hasn’t struggled either, he’s excelled as the understudy to the veteran Nick Hundley. His offensive stats aren’t pretty, but his defense more than makes him for the cold hitting for which there is hope he will still improve upon. On defense he has been noted as a phenomenal receiver of the ball and the Rockies pitching staff oft praises the rookie for his composure and ability to call a game from behind the dish.
What’s lost a lot is what are the backup catcher’s duties throughout the game. From warming up pitchers to working in the bullpen to helping out the starting backstop and staff.
“I learn a lot from Nick,” Wolters told BSN Denver. “And he’ll always be like ‘can you check this pitch.’ I’ll go check it and tell him what I see. We talk about a hitter or sometimes I’ll go get his protein bars. But it teaches me you need to make this game smaller and treat it moment by moment not look at the big picture of the game but to stay in the moment and pitch by pitch. Nick is really good at that, that is still something I’m learning. I go to the bullpen, sometimes we’ll throw two guys at once so I have to go down there but there is a TV down there so I’ll still look to see how he is attacking guys and I’m learning for the next game I play.”
Within a five-minute stretch during the last homestand, Wolters put the game to a halt as he sprinted in from the bullpen. He went to the dugout took off the gear hopped up on the on-deck circle and was up to the plate to pinch hit with runners on. On the first pitch, he saw he drove in two with a knock.
“The good thing about pinch hitting is it makes you not think about hitting,” Wolters described. “You just have to go up and swing so it makes you more natural. Just going up hey, ‘I’m gonna put the ball in play and make something happen.’ And something happened.”
In his five at-bats as a pinch hitter this season he has two hits. Furthermore, he is batting .363/.465/.667 with runners in scoring position, which isn’t just good for a backup catcher, it would be good for Carlos Gonzalez. So Wolters has had a knack for the clutch plate appearance.
“I think the good thing about this team is there are so many (good pinch hitters),” Wolters said. “I could see a (Ryan) Raburn, he always a really good routine. Going up in the cage, looking at video going back and forth, waiting for his time and he’s ready. I really like that. The thing about catching is I have to catch in-between innings, sometimes I look at things for Nick about the hitters so I’m constantly going upstairs checking video so it’s hard to do that routine. I’m just gonna keep it simple if I’m gonna pinch hit I’m going to do the best to put the ball in play and make something happen. I’m not gonna overthink about, just be mentally prepared.”
Wolters isn’t just learning from Hundley as he said, he’s learning from guys all over the clubhouse. And if he can learn to sufficiently pinch hit, it gives Colorado another left-handed hitter off the bench complimentary to the hot Daniel Descalso.
However, it is odd that a backup catcher pinch hits. Mostly due to the team not wanting to be put in a bad spot if their catcher gets hurt and they’ve already used their backup off the bench. For the Rockies in Wolters, they have a solution. Manager Walt Weiss has said many times that he plays a big league caliber second base and because he can play infield the Rockies can keep both him and Hundley in the game allowing the club to use Wolters more as a pinch hitter than a team normally would with a backup backstop.
Thus far he has played in a total of five games in the infield, or in all games he has pinch hit in, he has stayed in and played middle infield.
“You’re in the squat a lot to do catcher drills, I’m a catcher,” Wolters said. “But at the same time, I grew up playing infield and it’s always nice going back and feeling at home. I have to get a better routine for taking ground balls. Sometimes we have rush days, so I do my catching drills then I can take ground balls. I need to make it a priority, I’m gonna be put in late inning games, and I’m gonna be in the infield. I have to make that a priority, if I don’t prepare myself I’m not preparing for the team. And that hurts the team and I don’t want to hurt the team.”
The 24-year-old from Vista, CA isn’t just strictly a defensive catcher or a pinch hitter, at least he doesn’t see himself that way. He’s quietly raised his batting average to .238 and is hitting .368 in the month of July. Very under-the-radar he has steady improved his bat in every month going from a 26 wRC+ in April to 61 in May, to 72 in June, to 141 in July.
“I have confidence in my game,” Wolters exclaimed. “I need to enjoy the process. Everyone here is constantly working on their swing, tweaking things. I need to not take one moment for granted and work my butt off to where I want to be. I take swings here and I’ll be like ‘that’s me, where has that been?’ Then I’ll take swings it’s just ‘what the heck.’ I just need to be more consistent and once I find my swing that I know that I have, I’ll be in a good spot. And I can help the team, right now I’m just trying to put together good at-bats.”
Rookie Tony Wolters still has a lot to prove, but he’s in a better spot than most 24-year-old catchers. When you consider he only picked up the position three years ago, he’s going to get even more sound on defense. No matter which way you look at Wolters, it’s hard to look at him without thinking he might just be the catcher of the Rockies future.