Colorado Rockies manager Bud Black first saw Tony Wolters play by accident. At the time, Black was the San Diego Padres’ skipper and Wolters an upperclassmen at Rancho Buena Vista High School. Black was there to watch a kid on the opposing team whose name is lost on him now.
“Then somebody said watch the shortstop on the other team,” Black recalled. “One of those deals.”
Wolters caught Black’s eye that day. He was a slick fielder and a tough hitter to fool. Little did Black know then that seven years later the two would work together.
The Rockies hired Black in November. The former big-league pitcher who managed the Padres from 2007-15 is in his first spring training with Colorado. One of the players contending for his team’s starting catching job is the skinny shortstop he saw all those years ago in suburban San Diego.
Wolters, a converted infielder Colorado claimed off waivers from Cleveland in February 2016, made the Rockies’ 25-man roster as a dark-horse candidate during spring training last year. He’d go on to appear in 71 big-league games and catch 501 1/3 innings while emerging as a standout defensive player.
Rockies’ pitchers praised Wolters for his work behind the plate in 2016. He proved particularly adept at framing pitches, which is the subtle art of making questionable pitches look like strikes. He ranked just inside the top-10 of all catchers in pitch framing, according to Stat Corner.
He’s taken to catching remarkably well — especially when you consider that he’d never played the position until four years ago.
Cleveland Indians manager Terry Francona asked Wolters during spring training in 2013 if he’d consider making the switch from middle infield. Wolters took a day to think about it. Then he agreed.
“Now I’m here,” Wolters said.
Wolters found that a lot of the skills he picked up while playing middle infield translated. The footwork. Keeping fast-flying balls in front of him. He liked how much control he was allowed to wield at catcher.
Black said that it’s Wolters’ athleticism and a feel for the game that have helped him acclimate so quickly.
“He can move. He’s agile. He’s got good hands,” Black said. “Putting a guy behind the plate with the gear on — that’s not easy. It’s hard for a lot of guys. Guys who try to do it more often than not can’t when they try to convert. I think instinctually he’s got a good baseball mind. He’s played a lot of baseball. I think he enjoys being at this position because it encompasses so many different parts of the game.”
Wolters’ biggest challenge this season should come at the plate — not behind it. Wolters hit .259 with three home runs in 230 plate appearances last season. He struggled out of the gates, going .215 with 40 total bases in his first 42 games. But he improved over his final 29 games of the year, as he hit .321 with 41 total bases across that stretch.
Sustaining that offensive improvement will be a key for Wolters as he competes for time with Tom Murphy, who’s got a better and more powerful bat right now but isn’t as advanced defensively.
“You want production everywhere if you can have it,” Black said this week. “But I think the thing that’s first and foremost on our mind is that this guy (Tony) is a defender first. He handles the pitching staff, game caller. On the defensive side, when we’re on defense, he’s a positive. And both these guys have done a nice job.”
Wolters has come a long way since Black watched him as a high school shortstop. He’s changed positions and changed clubs. Wolters says he’s found a home at catcher. Just as Black stumbled into a pleasant surprise the day he went to watch Wolters’ high school game in 2010, Wolters did as well the day he was asked to switch positions.
“I’ve just been working my tail off,” Wolters said. “Baseball is unpredictable. The game doesn’t need you. I just worked my tail off to try and make the club. Now we have a good thing going. We have a good squad together, and everybody loves each other. I think it will be a fun year this year.”
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