Yankees top prospect Austin Wells is determined he wants to be an MLB catcher

Austin Wells was an outfielder when he first started playing baseball as a kid. He hated it.

There was little action this far away from the plate, so he kept himself busy picking grass, daydreaming and not paying attention to the game. His father, Greg, a former baseball player at the University of Arizona, wanted his son to fall in love with the game he loved, thinking that if the kid played a position that required 100 percent commitment, his feelings about the sport would change themselves. So Greg bought catcher’s gear and stuck his son behind the plate. Austin loved it.

MLB Pipeline now rates Wells as the Yankees’ No. 4 prospect and the best catcher in the farm system, but there is considerable outside doubt that he will stick with the position that has become his identity when he gets to the big leagues. Athletics‘s Keith Law wrote Wells “can’t catch at all” and “amateur scouts pretty much agreed he wouldn’t stay a catcher.” Another report says “few scouts outside the organization think he’ll be a long-term catcher,” and says another evaluator“I like Austin Wells’ bat, he can’t catch.”

“It’s basically been that way since before I was drafted,” Wells said of his doubters. “There’s always been that doubt and there’s still that doubt. I want to continue to prove that I can play the position at a higher level is the goal, and not necessarily because of what other people say, but because I want to be the catcher for the New York Yankees. I want to be an All-Star catcher. I want to be known for not just being able to hit. I want to do both and I want to do both really well. Yeah more people saying I can’t, it definitely fires me up to work harder and be in a better place every day.”

Wells said the Yankees have only discussed his future behind the plate. No talks have taken place regarding a potential change of position. Since being drafted, he has played 135 games at catcher and 27 games as the designated hitter. Catching is Wells’ preference, though he said if a future position change meant helping the Yankees win a World Series, then he’s all for it and it won’t be a problem.

Wells had promising results this season in the minors. His defensive metrics from 2021, his first season in the Yankees organization, to 2022 show improvement behind the plate. Wells’ steal percentage jumped from 13 percent in 2021 to 25 percent in 2022. His turnovers dropped from 16 to 4 this season. His framing runs above average went from 2.6 to 9.4 in 2022. Wells credits his development to working with both Aaron Gershenfeld, the Yankees’ minor-league defensive coordinator, and defensive coach Aaron Bossi, who have helped him get better at blocking, receiving and improving his release. The positive metrics have only strengthened Wells’ desire to prove to everyone that he belongs behind the plate.

“Being a catcher is a priority because I love the grind of the position,” Wells said. “To get beat up and come back the next day and go out there like nothing happened the night before — I love that and it drives me to play baseball, to be back there is a different feeling.

“The highest priority in my game is without a doubt being a catcher.”

Less than 48 hours after the Yankees selected Wells with the 28th pick in the 2020 draft out of Arizona, he was on a video call with Gershenfeld, who wanted as many details as he could soak up on how he can become a more complete player. There was never any question about his bat; he finished 2022 with 20 home runs, an OPS of .897 and has never had lower than a 129 wRC+ any stop in the minors. The major-league wRC+ average for all catchers in 2022 was 89. His 16.6 percent chase rate would have been second in the majors this season behind Max Muncy.

The future of MLB will likely feature an automatic strike zone that will place less emphasis on framing. Both Jose Trevino and Kyle Higashioka’s value to the Yankees is largely tied to how well they hit pitches. With bigger bases coming this season, it will be important for catchers to throw out runners at high rates because the league expects stolen base attempts to increase. With what Wells showed in 2022 at High A and Double A, the Yankees are encouraged by his progress and believe he will be ready to catch when his time comes.

“He’s produced above average from a receiving standpoint and he’s made significant improvements as a thrower, so holistically you look at a guy who, from a tangible skill set, has really grown in all three key areas,” Gershenfeld said.

“What we’ve seen so far from Austin as a catcher is really, really encouraging. I think we’ve seen some production on the catching end that definitely predicts success later on. And we’ve been, we’ve been pretty clear with Austin that we believe he’s a catcher and he wants to be a catcher. And so we’ve been on that path to help him become the very best catcher he can be.”

The Yankees have not yet told Wells where he will report for the 2023 season, but it is likely he will start the year in Triple A after a successful year in Double A in which he helped Somerset win a title. If the bat continues to be as impressive as it has been and he still shows signs of improvement behind the plate, it’s possible he could be a late call-up this season. The Yankees need more left-handed hitting, and Wells provides that, even if he has to play a different position, such as first base or left field. In college, Wells played some first base and every outfield position, so it won’t be entirely new to him.

Shortly after the Yankees drafted Wells, the social media team sent him an edited video of himself hitting homers on the short porch at Yankee Stadium while the crowd went wild. Since then, he has imagined what it will be like when he has the opportunity to experience the real thing. But when he dons the pinstripes for the first time, he hopes to also don his catcher’s helmet and chest protector.

“I want to build on the last two seasons and really show people that I’m a catcher and have no plans to change that or move anywhere,” Wells said. “I plan to debut as a catcher and stay there. Going into this year, I have a chance to solidify myself in that place. And I look forward to doing that.”

(Photo and video courtesy of Somerset Patriots)

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