Rockies' backup backstop studies mechanics of Pudge, Yadi and Martin
By Ben Weinrib
DENVER -- Video study of his catching idols has helped Tony Wolters climb from relative anonymity as a Spring Training waiver claim by the Colorado Rockies to one of the best statistical receivers in the game as a Major League backup.
As a backup to veteran Nick Hundley, Wolters -- who had never played above Double-A with the Indians -- is playing twice a week and needs to improve upon a .216 batting average to be considered for everyday work. But he played roughly every other day during Hundley's two trips to the disabled list, and the measurables say his pitch framing has been elite.
Wolters' 30.4 percent caught-stealing rate is right at league average. More impressively, according to Baseball Prospectus, Wolters gains 1.9 percent more called strikes than the league-average catcher -- seventh best among Major League catchers.
Wolters, 24, was a shortstop until the Indians converted him to catcher in 2013. To ease his transition, he melded his middle-infield attributes with heavy video study of the mechanics of the game's best defensive catchers -- Ivan Rodriguez, Yadier Molina and Russell Martin.
"I like watching good catchers to see the little things they do," Wolters said. "There are little things I see that I'm like, 'Man, that's pretty cool. I'm going to try that out.' Or, 'I don't like that. I'm not going to do that.'"
Wolters got a chance to play against one of his idols when Martin's Blue Jays came to Denver this week. He said hello to Martin as he strolled to the plate for his pinch-hit appearance on Tuesday, but he was able to appreciate the veteran more from a distance.
"Just his receiving and his antics back there, his leadership. I appreciate that, what he does out there," Wolters said. "He works hard. He wants to win. I can see when there's hits, he's [mad]. I love that. He's very competitive, and I love that about him. That's what makes him a really good catcher."
Wolters also shares Martin's history. Martin was drafted out of Chipola College as an infielder in 2002, and he played third base before transitioning to catcher.
Wolters believes maintaining middle-infield skills helps his catching. While many at the position can be heavy-footed, he practices fielding ground balls before games to keep himself feeling athletic and light on his feet.
Rockies manager Walt Weiss, who was a shortstop for 14 years in the Major Leagues, appreciates Wolters' familiar attributes. He sees that Wolters has taken to catching quickly because his soft hands help him receive the ball and frame pitches well.
"He certainly has the soft hands those guys have," Weiss said, referring to Rodriguez, Molina and Martin. "I think his hands are pretty unique back there because he's a middle infielder. That's what he's been most of his life. He's a catcher with middle infielder hands. The best receivers, they have hands like Tony."
Wolters earned a surprise roster spot not only because of his catching, but because of his defensive versatility -- he has appeared in two games each at shortstop and second base.
"I've fallen in love with catching, and that's my No.1 priority -- catching," Wolters said. "I'm a catcher on this team. I'm an infielder too, but I definitely don't take for granted anything I do in this game, and I just need to keep getting better every day."
Ben Weinrib is a reporter for MLB.com based in Denver. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.