ZEBULON — Tony Wolters says the biggest challenge is just getting used to the grind.
The Cleveland Indians’ third-round draft pick in 2010 out of Vista, Calif., is in his second season with the Carolina Mudcats.
But the repeat in A-ball isn’t because he didn’t have a solid season in 2012. He has taken on a new position – perhaps the toughest job in the game.
The former shortstop is now the Mudcats’ everyday starting catcher. And he’s the leader of a team that is fighting for a playoff spot in the Southern Division after finishing the first half with the worst record in organized baseball.
“His development has been incredibly impressive,” said Mudcats manager David Wallace, who played 486 games as a minor league catcher.
“Every single time he goes out there I’m more and more encouraged and more and more optimistic about his future of being a championship-caliber catcher one day in the big leagues. The way he absorbs knowledge and takes it right into the game, whether it’s game-calling or something physical; whether it’s just leadership, he’s done everything and more than we’ve asked him to.”
Wolters, 21, said he likes the close-up advice from a skipper who has been there and done all of that.
“Having ‘Wally’ as a former catcher is awesome,” Wolters said. “He tells me little things through the game. I make mistakes, but I’m trying to make sure I don’t make the same mistake twice. He always emphasizes that.”
Through Saturday, Wolters was hitting .280 with three homers and 25 RBI. Last season as a shortstop he hit .269 with eight homers and 58 RBI.
And until the last week of spring training, he had no idea the change was coming. He last caught in Little League.
“The last couple of days of spring training they asked me if I wanted to do it,” Wolters said. “I had a meeting with some people in the front office. I talked to the Indians’ coaches like Travis Fryman and Scooter Tucker, and they thought I could be a good catcher and make it to the big leagues faster.”
The Mudcats’ pitchers seem to like the change.
“He’s awesome,” lefty starter Shawn Morimando said of Wolters. “He’s in constant communication, and he’s right there with you at all times trying to get the right game plan. He’s great with pitch selection and with what does and doesn’t work. He has a great head for it and busts his butt every time.”
Wolters said the support of his teammates has been a big key.
“The whole team is behind me, and I really appreciate it,” he said. “I want to help my teammates out. They’re like a big support group.
“I always want to perform for the team, and try to catch a perfect game. I want this transition to be quick. Get on it. Like let’s go, I’m a catcher. The best part is when I know I caught a good game, and have a pitcher come up to me after the game and say thanks. When we’re on the same page with every pitch the whole game, it’s a lot of fun. I enjoy it a lot.”
But the physical part is the toughest.
“The grind is hard, just always being in the squat and getting sore legs,” Wolters said. “I try not to think about it. The first rule is to catch the ball, and then I just slow the game down and think on every pitch what we need to do. How are we going to get this guy out? Or what if the man on first steals? Or what are the signs? You’re always thinking. It’s tough, but I’m getting the hang of it quicker than I thought.”
And quicker than Wallace might have thought as well.
“I’ve got to be honest, I was a little bit on the pessimistic side when the transition was first made,” Wallace said. “But it was a great move, and Tony has made it a great move the way he has jumped into this and worked at it. His body is still adjusting to it, so he’s going to get better and better. And his bat is going to come around even more and more.”
Wolters said he thinks it’s all going to be worthwhile down the road.
“There have been ups and downs, but that’s what the season is all about,” he said. “It’s going good, coming together. I’m just trying to do my job every day. I just try to do my best, keep working to try to keep the game simple, to know what my strengths are and go with them. I don’t try to do things I can’t do. I just need to not do too much and let the game come to me.”