Yankees Mag: Catch All

Austin Wells climbed most of the Minor League ladder last year, and feels ready to soar in '23

March 8th, 2023
(Photo Credit: New York Yankees)

It’s hard to imagine too many better endings for a season than catching the final pitch of a no-hitter to clinch a championship. For Yankees Minor League catcher Austin Wells, whose 2022 season started in big-league Spring Training, then made stops in High-A Hudson Valley, Low-A Tampa and, finally, Double-A Somerset, the championship dogpile at TD Bank Ballpark was a thrilling culmination to a huge year that established the Yankees’ No. 4 ranked prospect as a potential MLB player.

Affable and determined, the 2020 first-round pick spent the next few weeks in a necessary decompression mode, but by the time he sat down for a chat at a coffee shop near his home in Las Vegas this past November, he was already raring to get the 2023 campaign started. Wells, who keeps putting in the work to improve his catching skills -- and noticing positive results -- hears the people wondering if his future is at a different position, and he easily swats away all doubts. Despite a rib injury that kept him off the field during 2023 Spring Training, he’s not afraid to share his goals, nor the fact that until anyone tells him otherwise, he sees himself as a catcher who can contribute to the big-league club as soon as this season.

During a wide-ranging interview with Yankees Magazine deputy editor Jon Schwartz, Wells shared some insight into what he has learned about the Yankees organization, the ways that Minor League ball reminds him of college, and, of course, that mustache.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

It was about a year ago that I interviewed you in the dugout at Camelback Ranch during the 2021 Arizona Fall League. How would you say the last year has been from that point to where you see yourself now?

I think the last time we spoke, I was in a spot where I was just trying to continue to improve every day. I think the Fall League gave me an opportunity to continue to do that after last season. And then I think this whole year, I’ve been able to continue that trend -- especially defensively. I think my numbers have kind of doubled in every aspect. It was a really good year just to increase my progress and kind of just stay on the uphill climb.

If I asked you a year ago what your biggest strength was, and if I asked you that question again today, would the answer be the same?

I think so. I think if you asked me last year, it would be my hitting, and I think it’d still be my hitting. But I do think that this year, I was able to bring the gap a lot closer between the defense and the hitting. So, I think now, I’m just trying to even those out as much as I can going into spring training.

When you see yourself improving defensively, what is it that you are seeing? Your framing numbers were through the roof this year and things like that, but what do you see that you’re doing right to close that gap?

I’ve been able to put in a lot of work with our catching coaches, Aaron Bossi and Aaron Gershenfeld. Those are the two main guys who I really worked with this year. They helped me a lot, and we really broke down my setup and how I was attacking the ball. And then just being aggressive at the plate and not letting the ball dictate what I do, but dictating what the ball does. I was able to really grasp that concept this year and take that next step as a receiver, a blocker and a thrower, too.

When you look at defensive improvements, you know how it is: If you’re a catcher with a good bat, inevitably everyone’s going to say things like, “Well, he’s going to catch for now, and then we’ll see … ” That’s a dig, even if they don’t mean it that way, right? How do you push back on that?

Yeah, I’ve heard that since I got drafted. To me, it’s just more motivation to be a catcher and to want to continue to improve and to show -- not to anybody but myself -- that I know what I can do, and I can do it. Internally, we’ve had no conversation about me moving off the position.

You can just look at your Baseball Reference page …

Yeah, I haven’t played a single position anywhere but catcher, so I am a catcher in my mind. And if in the end, they believe that my bat is outpacing my catching, or they want my bat in the lineup more often, then we’ll have that discussion. But as of this day, we have had no conversation about it. It’s easy for me internally to say, “I don’t really care,” [about the outside noise] because the guys who support me and have given me the opportunity believe in me. That makes it easy for me.

You suffered a freak injury in 2022, really scary. I’ll spare you from having to talk about it (and spare our readers the details), but how difficult was that recovery, and also how gratifying was it to come back so strong afterward?

Injuries are part of the game; freak injuries are definitely a part of the game. It was difficult for a time, but knowing that I was going to come back and be able to perform, I had no doubt in that. So having confidence going in, and then going up to Double-A, that was really great for me because I knew that’s where I should be playing. I think it really was a good year to be able to show that you can battle through some injury and still perform.

Wells climbed from Low-A to Double-A in 2022, and now he is ready for what promises to be an important year in his development. The Nevada native has worked diligently to improve all facets of his game, and as he sat at a coffee shop near his home this past November, he couldn’t wait to get it all started up again. (Photo Credit: New York Yankees)

In each of the last two seasons, you got to participate in big league Spring Training. For a guy in your position, what’s that experience like? And what are you trying to do while you’re there? When you’re not necessarily expecting to break camp with the big league club, what’s your goal when you’re showing up as a young guy, ticketed for the low-level Minors?

Being around those guys, making relationships and showing face around there, I think it’s very important. Because at some point, hopefully, I’m going to be interacting and playing with these guys. So just to get up there and show that I’m working my way and improving every year, I think that’s the important goal.

Right now, you have Jose Trevino, who won a Platinum Glove Award this past season. Are there things that you know you want to work on with him when you get down to Tampa, things that you want to take in from him or talk to him about?

I hope that I’m able to work with him all Spring Training this year. Just being around a guy like that, who’s dubbed the best position player in [the AL] defensively? I think that’s really going to be an awesome experience, being able to work feedback off of him back and forth and hopefully gain some more knowledge. Controlling a pitching staff and learning how to really call a game and what our pitchers really like to throw in certain situations, I think that’s all really good information that I’ll try to get from him.

Last year, you moved up the system so many steps, allowing you to experience the whole organization, to say nothing of Spring Training. What do you see as the Yankees’ consistent strengths and messages?

I think as a whole, our organization is very holistic in our approach. Our hitting department is on top of everything that we’re doing. There’s constant communication; we’re looking at data, looking at numbers from the game before. And it goes the same exact way that we really just started implementing on the defensive side, looking at the numbers from game to game and looking at positioning and everything. As a whole -- offensive, defensive, pitching staff -- everyone follows the same structure, where we’re looking at data from the game before, and looking at video, and we’re analyzing what we can do to be better each and every day.

What was different, then? What differences did you see in Hudson Valley from what you saw in Tampa? And what was different in Somerset? Were there things that changed in regard to the competition, skill level or intensity?

I think moving level to level has actually been positive for my play. I think I have a solid understanding of the strike zone, and I think a lot of pitchers, as you move up, are more in that strike zone. So, it makes it easier to pick a spot and go attack that spot because you know that the pitcher is not going to throw one off the backstop or bounce one 45 feet, like they might in Low-A. Moving up to the higher levels, the pitchers have just become more tight with their zones and where their misses are. For me, it honestly made it easier to view what I wanted to do in my approach and stick to that. Because before that, I feel like I had to fight off a curveball that could be right down the middle or 45 feet [off].

And then you top off the year by catching a no-hitter to win the championship, 15-0, with the Somerset Patriots. That’s something …

Being able to be a part of that no-hitter, and to be on a really solid page with Randy [Vásquez] and Carson [Coleman] to end that game, was super special for my career. That was a peak so far in my career.

But I have to imagine it’s weird, because when you win a big league championship, you’re always chasing that next one, right? But unless something goes terribly wrong, the last thing you want for your career is to win another Double-A championship. Does that make it more of a singular experience, something that you can love and cherish, but also move past?

I think in a sense, you could say it’s more special to the group of guys. Because we’re all trying to get to the top, and for it to be that special to grind it out together in a Double-A season, and get to that championship and win it together? It totally felt like camaraderie was at an all-time high the whole playoffs. Being able to share that experience with that group of guys, that’s something we’ll never, ever forget, no matter what team we’re playing for in the [Majors], no matter how many World Series [championships] we win. That’s going to come up at some point; it’s going to be something we remember. Especially the way we won it -- 9-0 in the first inning, throwing a no-hitter. Not many people are ever going to forget that.

You’re making it sound a lot like how a college team might be remembered.

I was going to say, it feels a ton like college. That team, that atmosphere, it felt like we were in a regional. We had a ton of college-experienced guys on that team, too. So that really helped everyone kind of get on board to [understand], “This is important that we win this. We’re here, we might as well do it. This is what we worked for all season, not just to get better, but to win.”

I mentioned this to you over the summer, but I took my kids to a game at Somerset this season. You crushed a three-run homer in the first inning, and for the rest of the night, they were transfixed by Austin Wells, the guy with the funny mustache who hit the home run. They thought you were so fun and exciting. When I told you that, you said, “That’s the type of player I want to be.” I wonder if you can elaborate on that a bit. Is it about being exciting? Dynamic? Having an aura?

Your kids were all pumped up about that, and that’s exactly how I want to be able to play in front of people. I want to be the guy that everyone gets excited for when he comes up to bat. But I also want to be the guy who they know is going to go 100%. Not just the guy who is really fun; like, I would love to be known as, “He gave every single bit of energy that he has to the organization.” But that excitement and energy, I think, when given the opportunity, I show it, and I bring up the energy of my teammates. That’s my definition of me as a player.

No matter how much Wells continues to develop behind the plate, the catching prospect knows that his bat is his ticket to the Majors. Last year, he hit 20 home runs, including 12 in a 55-game stint to close out a successful year at Double-A Somerset. (Photo Credit: New York Yankees)

In the short term, it’s OK to be the mustache guy, though, right?

Yes, I’ll take the mustache guy. Yeah.

What’s the backstory there? It’s fantastic.

I don’t know. Last year, I kind of kept it clean. And this year I was like, “You know, I need a little something. A little flavor. Something to get me going.” I started it in Spring Training, and it never left.

What excited you as a kid when you were watching baseball?

It’s easy to say seeing guys hit home runs, walk-off homers. That always was exciting to watch. But for me, the most exciting time I’ve ever had watching baseball is watching playoff baseball. Just knowing what’s on the line for that, and now understanding it on my own, what we went through this last year. It was kind of a peek at the moment there. I can only imagine what it feels like at the next level, and the next level. I could feel the chills of the crowd going crazy when the guy would have a big hit in the playoffs. It just sounds different. It feels different.

When you’re watching the Yankees in October this past postseason, you know you’re a member of the organization, you’re a member of that family. But do you feel like you’re watching your team? I know the Yankees are really big on “Be where your feet are.”

It feels removed, you know? I feel like I am a Yankee. I feel like I am a part of the organization. Being a part of the Yankees, they’ve been amazing to me, so the only thing I can do is root for them, and hopefully, get the opportunity to go up there with them and show that I can contribute and help that team win a World Series and be a piece of that puzzle.

Do you sit here now and make goals about not just what you want to be and what you want to do, but also where you want to do it? Are you allowed to say to yourself, “I want to be in the big leagues this year?”

I do want to. And I think I’ll put myself in a position to be able to. I don’t have a superstition about saying that or being where my feet are. I’m very even-keeled when it comes to that. I have a good head on what I believe, and I truly believe I can help this year. And at some point, whenever that may be, I’ll be ready to go. I feel like I’ve shown that at every level I’ve gone to.

I know you need to pull yourself back from the season in some ways because it’s so long, but when do you start getting excited to start up again?

I was getting excited last week when I started hitting. Sitting here talking about it, I’m ready to go. I’ve had enough time. Let’s go. I know it’s good for everyone to decompress after the season and take some time off, but I definitely feel like, “Let’s speed these days up now.”