GOODYEAR, Ariz.: Tony Wolters spent the first part of Wednesday’s spring training workout with a group of catchers doing footwork drills.
As baseballs were fed into a pitching machine across from the group, the catchers took turns crouching behind the plate, receiving the ball, then quickly popping up into a ready position, poised to throw out an imaginary base stealer.
For guys like minor-league journeymen catchers Matt Treanor and Luke Carlin, the drill is one they’ve done so often over the years they could do in their sleep. Even youngsters Jake Lowery and Roberto Perez have run through it hundreds of times throughout their college and minor-league careers.
The footwork drill is old hat for Yan Gomes, who supplanted Carlos Santana as the Indians’ everyday catcher in the second half of last season. But for Tony Wolters, each catching drill he encounters is still being incorporated into muscle memory.
Unlike the rest of the catchers in the Indians’ big-league camp, the 5-foot-10, 180-pound Wolters is just a year into his transition from shortstop to backstop.
“I’ve put a lot of work into it and I think it’s going well,” said Wolters, who hit .277 with 13 doubles and 33 home runs last season in 80 games (58 at catcher) at high Class-A Carolina last season after first staying back at the Tribe’s spring training complex in Arizona to learn the nuances of a position that might save his career.
“The best thing is I’m really enjoying it. I really like being so involved in the game — not just on the position side, but working with the pitchers, too.”
After Wolters’ first turn through the drill, former Indians catcher and current first-base coach Sandy Alomar gently pulled him aside for a couple of quick pointers, motioning with his hands as Wolters nodded his head.
“Being put into catching super quick the way I was, I didn’t get to learn every little thing the other guys have been doing for years,” Wolters, 21, said. “But getting to be in camp here this year, I’m learning a lot of the little details. Throughout the day, a lot of the guys are coming up to me and giving me little tidbits of things I need to work on.”
The Indians drafted Wolters as a highly-rated shortstop out of California’s Rancho Buena Vista High School in the third round in 2010. But three years later, the organization found itself with a glut of middle infielders, including Baseball America’s No. 1 prospect Francisco Lindor — the heir apparent to Tribe shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera.
Behind Lindor, there are three more young infielders with considerable upside also ranked among the team’s Top 20 prospects — Dorssys Paulino (No. 6), Ronny Rodriguez (No. 7) and Jose Ramirez, who made his big-league debut as a September call-up last season and is ranked No. 9).
It was near the end of spring training last year when Tribe manager Terry Francona mentioned that Wolters already possessed many attributes of a catcher: strong arm, leadership to call a game and take care of a pitching staff.
“The first time I said it in the dugout, it was [an] off-the-cuff comment,” Francona said. “Then we started to talk about it and I realized I wasn’t the only one who’d ever thought that.
“He can go play the middle infield any time he wants. But this is an opportunity to excel. As a left-handed hitting catcher, you can make a pretty good living doing that.”
After taking a few days to ponder the change, Wolters, who had caught for just two innings in Little League, agreed to give it a shot.
It’s been a large learning curve, but Wolters has made solid progress with the experiment. Last year he had only six passed balls. He also threw out 28 percent of runners attempting to steal despite feeling like the hardest part of the transition has been throwing to bases.
“I’m still trying to find my footwork,” he said. “I try to be too quick and don’t get enough on my throws. I’m learning you have a lot more time than you realize.”
The best part of being a catcher? The mental game.
“There’s not really a book to tell you how to call a game,” Wolters said. “I’ve gone about it not necessarily winging it, but more by pretending I’m up to bat and I’m trying to mess with my own head.”
Francona hasn’t had a chance to see how far Wolters has come, but he’s heard enough to know the experiment is coming along.
“Everybody’s excited about his progression,” Francona said. “Probably the biggest compliment that I’ve heard is you can’t tell he’s converted. As you evaluate him, you evaluate him as a catcher, not as a guy who was a middle infielder. That’s a pretty big compliment.”
Stephanie Storm can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Indians blog at http://www.ohio.com/indians. Follow her on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/SStormABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.