Yankees Mag: The Education of Austin Wells
Talent only gets you so far. Fortunately, the Yankees' 2020 first-round pick never stops learning
Troy Afenir knows a thing or two about gut decisions. The scout responsible for making Aaron Judge a Yankee has an eye for talent and can project years into the future with the best of them. But sometimes, he just knows.
Players have a tight window to make their mark in showcase tournaments, but as Afenir scouted the 2017 Underclass Area Code Games in Long Beach, Calif., he couldn’t look away from a particular junior out of Bishop Gorman High School in Las Vegas. “He really had a good understanding and grasp of what he wanted to do behind the plate,” Afenir recalls. “I can remember his release was good, quick. Good footwork. He was a strong young man.”
Showcase baseball is a lot like the game that plays out on fields over the course of each summer. The competition level is high, and even the best players make outs or give up homers. Scouts’ eyes run circles across the entire diamond -- everyone on the field is a potential prospect -- but something about the catcher clicked for Afenir, even in the limited sample.
“He could really catch and throw,” Afenir continues. “He got the most out of his opportunity in those times. And he just impressed me with his maturity and the way he handled himself.
“I think first impressions are really important. And his first impressions were good. I mean, really, really good.”
Afenir filed his reports, and 10 months later, the Yankees took a 35th-round flier on Austin Wells, who surprised almost no one by choosing to play for the University of Arizona instead. A relationship was established, though, and two years later, with the 28th pick of the 2020 Draft, the organization finally closed the circle Afenir began drawing at Blair Field in Long Beach three years earlier.
It’s a long road to Draft day, whether the first time or the second. And the journey from that life-changing phone call to a big league debut is even more precarious, a daily, hyper-real game of Minesweeper. There aren’t any shortcuts, and a misstep can be catastrophic.
Which is why Wells leans on all that he has learned to this point as he ascends toward the Bronx. His is an education that began at home, the son of athletes who viewed scholastic accomplishment and athletic success as complementary pursuits. It carried him from Vegas to Arizona to Cape Cod and, finally, to the Yankees’ player development complex in Tampa, Fla. The future is yet unwritten, but there’s a syllabus that maps it all out.
“He’s still a student of the game,” says Gino DiMaria, “like everybody should be until the day they’re done.”
As the head baseball coach at Bishop Gorman, DiMaria leads teams that regularly feature among the nation’s elite, evidenced by long lists of prominent prospects (or prospects-to-be) that DiMaria has and still does instruct. “My freshman year we had eight or nine guys going to Division I schools,” Wells says.
DiMaria savors the familial bonds that he builds with his players; he wasn’t the team’s coach when Joey Gallo attended from 2008-12, but he does still engage in some intense Call of Duty battles against the current Yankees outfielder. And he speaks of Wells with a paternal reverence.
“Austin is a special kid,” DiMaria says. “When he came in his freshman year, I’m like, ‘Ooh, that’s not an ordinary-looking freshman.’ He already had the tools.”
It was fun for the coach to watch, gaming out the future during batting-practice sessions. This 14-year-old would get in the cage, and the raw attributes blazed like fireworks. “He had quick hands; he had correct mechanics,” DiMaria recalls. “And when he hit it, even if it didn’t go out, it was hard. The velo off the bat was hard.”
Wells laughs at the scouting report. “I wouldn’t say I was very good,” he says. As for the home run power … “Sometimes?”
As coach and player bonded, DiMaria realized how much more Wells offered than a solid bat. He remembers -- in what would become a theme among everyone who has coached the young catcher -- how he listened, and how he responded in ways that almost forced you to interact with him as an equal. If he pushed back on any particular point, it wasn’t with defiance, or even with a competitive challenge; it was to offer a different way of approaching something.
“And,” DiMaria notes, “we would say, ‘You know what? You’re right. That does work.’ So, his maturity and the knowledge, his baseball IQ just grew.” Eventually, the high school coach realized how much trust he could place in the uber-mature young star. Whether on the bases or at the plate with a 3-0 count, DiMaria made sure Wells knew that he had a green light. Behind the plate, the coach even let Wells call pitches, marveling at the way he studied opponents.
“I believe the way you’re raised is the way you are when you go on in life,” DiMaria says. “And his mother and father are just unbelievable, what they’ve done with all three of the boys. [Wells] came in disciplined. He came in knowing exactly how to play the game, what needs to be done to get better.”
The formal education could have ended when the Yankees picked Wells out of Bishop Gorman in 2018, but the catcher wasn’t done with school, or with schooling. Originally committed to Stanford, where the combination of elite athletics and world-class academics would offer him the best of both worlds, Wells reopened his commitment when Cardinal coach Mark Marquess retired.
Wells’ father, Greg, is an Arizona alum, so when former Wildcats coach Jay Johnson came calling, the catcher says it wasn’t a hard sell. “It was an easy pick for me,” Wells says. But the Arizona staff did everything possible to get him to Tucson knowing that even some players seemingly committed to college get tempted by Draft day.
“We made a really hard push,” says Johnson, now the coach at LSU, who explains that signing Wells was priority No. 1 for the staff. “We really believed he was a special talent and had special makeup and character. … Early on, I had a pretty good indication that this was a difference-making type of player.”
It wasn’t just the talent, or even the results. It was the work, the will, the unstoppable determination to draw everything possible from his substantial reservoir of potential. When Wells wasn’t in the library, he was either in the weight room or the video room or the coaches’ office or on the field. “There was never a question in the two years we had him, ‘What’s Austin doing today?’” Johnson says of the 2019 Pac-12 Freshman of the Year. The impression was so positive that Johnson made a decision that went against his usual tendency, reaching out to Scott Pickler, coach of the Cape Cod League’s Yarmouth-Dennis Red Sox, and recommending a freshman for the famed wood-bat prospect league. “It can go bad,” Johnson says. “But he was clearly one that I believed could handle it.”
Elite-level baseball in a summer paradise suited the Las Vegas native, both competitively and formatively. “The Cape’s a great opportunity to grow as a player,” Wells says. “You get so much information, you can refine your tools.” He played 42 games, slashing .308/.389/.526, and three years later, his coach still raves with twinkle-eyed glee at his summer catch.
“He had more of an advanced feel at the plate than most of the guys I’ve coached in a long time,” says Pickler, who has coached at YD since 1998 and is known throughout the baseball world as “Pick.” “He just had an approach at the plate that I enjoyed. He was aggressive. I want guys to be aggressive and not have them taking a lot of pitches. And he didn’t overswing, but there was some power in there.”
Wells’ 180 plate appearances that summer were 31 more than the next-highest YD teammate; that had been part of Johnson’s sales pitch to Pick, that Wells would be the kind of guy who would compete every night. And it caught the eye of scouts, including those with the Yankees.
“In talking to the coaches there, Austin was [ticked] when he was out of the lineup,” says Damon Oppenheimer, the Yankees’ VP of domestic amateur scouting. “He was there to play baseball. And if you took him out of the lineup? Some guys, that’s great; they won a day off. He didn’t want a day off. And so, I got to know a lot of those kinds of things, key things about a guy’s makeup.”
Part of the reason Johnson sent Wells to the Cape after his freshman year was because, as a Draft-eligible sophomore (he would turn 21 within 45 days of the 2020 Draft), the coach knew that his star catcher wasn’t long for the college game. That made it even harder when -- with the Wildcats off to a 10-5 start, and with Wells sporting a whopping 1.116 OPS -- the whole world shut down, and with it, the scholastic baseball career of Austin Wells. Like everything else on planet Earth, the regular pre-Draft routines, for both players and front offices, shifted to Zoom, but in the Yankees’ virtual war room, Wells’ name sat between 10 and 15 on the Draft board. The team would pick 28th.
“Had COVID not happened, and we’d played the entire season, there’s no way he would have lasted as long in the draft to get to the Yankees,” Johnson says. “He would have been the Pac-12 Player of the Year, would have been first-team All-American catcher, and would have created a profile for himself that I believe would have pushed him up into those top 10 picks.”
Sitting in the dugout at Camelback Ranch in Glendale, Ariz., Wells tries to sum up a lifetime of education that led him to this point. After a successful first year in pro ball, in which he hit 16 dingers and stole 16 bases between Low-A and High-A, Wells was sent to the Arizona Fall League, where he could cap off his 2021 season with a few weeks among the game’s most exciting prospects. He thought back to taking part in big league Spring Training earlier that year, and the lessons he gleaned from an on-ramp to pro ball in which he could learn from successes and failures after what had been, for everyone, a totally lost 2020. The weeks in Arizona would drive him even further.
“There’s a lot of great talent that’s going to give me the ability to learn more about myself,” Wells says. “I want to be as good, if not better, than all of them. Seeing how they work, it gives me the motivation to work harder and to push myself even further to be the best that I can.”
The best that Wells can be looks pretty stellar. “I think the guy’s a surefire Major Leaguer,” Johnson says, calling Wells one of the four or five most complete players he has coached in 20 years. “A left-hand-hitting catcher has an opportunity to play for a long time in the big leagues, especially if they can hit,” adds Afenir.
Wells definitely can hit. And all of his coaches to date insist that he also has what it takes to stick behind the plate (although they also point out how athletic he is, and how he’d have no problem anywhere on the diamond). Kevin Reese, the Yankees’ VP of player development, says that every report he has gotten after one season demonstrates that Wells can cut it as a catcher, and he has put in loads of work with Yankees catching coordinator Aaron Gershenfeld. If nothing else, the position fits Wells’ personality and drive as well as anything could.
“It’s the most competitive position on the field,” Wells says. “You and the pitcher going to battle against the hitter every single pitch. There’s no pitch you can take off, and that’s what I love. I love being able to think about what pitches to call, how to work counts against hitters and really just execute a game plan. Just the planning and everything is what makes it competitive.
“No breaks. That’s OK.”
They call the Arizona Fall League “Baseball’s Finishing School,” and that’s certainly on Wells’ mind on this early November day. Figuratively speaking, every at-bat in Arizona is a learning experience, an extra rep you get while your peers are back at home. The big leagues are off in the distance, but each day in the desert brings them a little bit closer.
And in Wells’ case, there’s a literal piece, as well. Because as the “finishing school” wraps up, Wells will be … finishing school.
In early December, Wells will put on a cap of an entirely different sort, walking in his Arizona graduation after finishing up his degree in business administration with a focus on economics. “I’m glad it’s going to be done so I can focus on just baseball this next year,” he says. “I knew if I took a break, it was going to be harder for me to do, and so I continued classes after I got drafted. I’ve never really known baseball without school, so it wasn’t anything too hard.”
For all that those who have been around Wells, coached him or taught him, the degree might be the thing that impresses them the most, even if it’s wholly unsurprising. Dillon Lawson, the Yankees’ hitting coach who worked with Wells in the Minors last year, can talk for days about his left-handed power and zone control. He raves about how coachable Wells is, and echoes DiMaria’s own recollections about times when Wells responded to feedback in a way that made his coaches view the situation differently. There’s a levelheadedness and a confidence that Lawson -- like everyone else -- sees in Wells, and a belief that he can write his own path to big league success.
But spending your first year in pro ball working to finish your degree? Maybe that’s the perfect synthesis of this player and person, for whom the learning never stops. It doesn’t necessarily mean that Wells will be an All-Star, and it alone won’t earn him a place in Monument Park. But the novel process tells its own promising story, one hardly surprising to coaches such as DiMaria and Johnson and Pick, or to anyone who has had cause to be around Wells.
“He took a different approach,” Lawson says. “And it required more work out of him. But the fact that he’s not shying away from more work, it is the whole package. It’s definitely not irrelevant from him as a baseball player. It tells you what you need to know about him.”