When you’re the Colorado Rockies and you’ve tried virtually everything to keep your pitchers' ERAs down and their confidence up when they pitch at Coors Field, you have to consider any new approach with an open mind.
“You have to dream, think outside the box and be creative,” said Rockies assistant general manager Jon Weil.
This year, part of the dream is a 23-year-old catcher who hit .209 with a .570 OPS at Double-A Akron last year and who, 26 games into his major league career, is hitting .187. But rookie backstop Tony Wolters has skills worth savoring. The Rockies are 12-9 when Wolters starts behind the plate (they're 9-14 when he doesn't). Their staff ERA is 3.89 in those games, compared to 5.81 when others catch. Wolters has already caught three of the team’s four shutouts.
That Wolters is on a major-league team at all is remarkable, and a credit to his defensive talent. Wolters was rehabbing a torn meniscus in his left knee in spring training when he learned the Indians had designated him for assignment. While taking batting practice a couple days later, he was told he'd been claimed by the Rockies.
“We had followed him for three years since he moved [from middle infield] to catcher,” Weil said. “He was a product of multiple looks from three scouts -- Ty Coslow, Joe Housey and Mark Germann. I watched a ton of video on him and was in agreement with our scouts. He had some of the best hands we’ve ever seen with regard to reception and pitch-framing.”
The Rockies didn't expect Wolters to play his way onto the 2016 team. He was considered a prospect, ripe for further development in the minors.
“I didn’t know anything about him,” said Rockies manager Walt Weiss.
But Weiss learned a few things about Wolters within a couple of days. He heard about conversations Wolters had with pitchers about their game plans, and how he told them his job was to make them better (as Wolters said: “It’s about showing them that you care”).
Weiss watched Wolters, who was drafted in 2010 by Cleveland as a middle infielder, take ground balls and turn double plays with a smoothness that made him think Wolters could play second base or shortstop right away. He heard from the front office about Wolters’ character and grit in coming back from injury. And he heard from Wolters himself about his conversion to catcher in an Indians organization stacked with middle-infield depth.
About six weeks later, Weiss and Wolters had another conversation -- this one to tell Wolters he had made the team.
“His is a really, really unique skill set,” Weiss said. “Usually middle-infield guys who go to catcher are heavy-footed guys who can’t run. But Tony runs well. And you could see the middle-infield hands behind the plate right away.”
Those hands are what make Wolters so valuable.
They’re the key to his pitch-framing. Wolters, who was mentored through the minors by former Indians catcher Sandy Alomar Jr. and current Rays manager Kevin Cash, excels at making sure his pitchers get calls not only on pitches in the strike zone, but also on pitches that aren’t.
“When I played infield, I made sure I always looked in for the signs and made sure I was cheating to the pitch on off-speed pitches,” Wolters said. “I do that now, too. I try to get my body in a better position to catch the ball. I prepare myself for multiple pitches on every pitch. Sometimes a pitcher may catch a seam and the ball may go somewhere else. You have to be prepared for pitches in different spots.”
Sabermetric measurements show Wolters has gotten the fifth-most extra strikes for his pitchers in the majors (see the accompanying chart). He excels on pitches in the bottom of the strike zone and just below it, as well as those on, or just off, the inside edge.
The image below shows how Wolters fares compared to his peers when it comes to getting called strikes for his pitchers. The area shaded in red shows where Wolters rates far better, blue shows where he is worse, and green shows where he is average. Wolters has more red than most catchers.
Additionally, Wolters is the best catcher in baseball at getting strikes on pitches that are not usually strikes -- pitches that have a 0-to-25 percent chance of being called a strike.
“It’s like having a shortstop behind the plate,” Weiss said. “He’s lightning fast. He’s got soft hands that can subtly massage the ball into the strike zone.”
Said Rockies pitcher Tyler Chatwood, who has a 2.90 ERA in five starts with Wolters catching: “He never panics. He always makes the balls seem like it’s close to where you wanted to throw it. That’s huge for a pitcher’s confidence.”
Wolters' hands are both strong and soft, which Weil notes may seem paradoxical, but is really an ideal combination. To build that strength and softness in practice, Wolters repeatedly catches weighted balls.
“A big part of it is making sure your glove doesn’t shake,” Wolters said. “The umpire looks at the glove. If it shakes or moves wrong, then it could be called a ball. You have to be strong and let the ball come to your core."
Wolters’ hands also help him throw out potential base-stealers. He threw out 47 percent and then 49 percent of them at Double-A Akron the last two seasons. He’s thrown out 4-of-16 in the majors so far, but the Rockies expect that to improve.
“[We like] the quickness of his feet, the transfer and the accuracy of his throws,” Weil said.
Said Weiss: “You should see his [glove-to-hand] transfer when he turns a double play. That translates behind the plate.”
In a series against the Mets earlier this month, Wolters showed his value by getting an RBI single against Matt Harvey after it appeared he’d been struck out, which made all the highlight shows. But he added just as much value on the defensive side, getting a called third strike on David Wright on an eighth-inning pitch, which loomed large when the next hitter, Michael Conforto, tripled.
Baseball Tonight analyst Alex Cora came away impressed after he watched Wolters catch early in the season against the Cubs.
“He got my attention with his awareness behind the plate,” Cora said. “He didn’t try to 'present' every pitch, just the close ones. He blocked pitches well. He has a good throwing arm and a quick release.”
If Wolters is fazed by the spotlight, he’s doing a good job of managing it.
“The first time I squat every game, I’m like, 'Wow, this is cool,'” he said. “I have a little bit of butterflies. Once I catch that first pitch, I’m like, 'All right, let’s go.'”
It's been just 26 games, and they haven't all been a good ones. Wolters had a rough day on Monday, allowing three stolen bases in a loss to the Pirates. But the Rockies are still dreaming.
“We've been extremely pleased with Tony Wolters in every way,” Weil said, “as a teammate, as a guy in the clubhouse, as a player, and as a winner.”