Following a 2023 campaign where Austin Wells started the season on the IL, climbed through all the way up from Double-A with the Somerset Patriots to the Major Leagues with the Yankees this past September. While he got off to a slow start, he put on a power display in the final week of the season, hitting four home runs with nine RBI and showing off some improved defensive work behind the plate. Pitchers raved about how well he worked behind the plate, and he’s regarded as one of the hardest-working players in the organization.
Wells possesses a powerful left-handed swing that’s for the Bronx, and the perfect platoon splits to mesh with Platinum Glove winner Jose Trevino. Entering 2024, the Yankees have a lot of question marks, but if there’s one rookie who has the potential to make their presence felt from Opening Day, it’s their 1st Round Pick from 2020, and that’s Austin Wells.
The Exact Offensive Profile the Yankees Need
One of the things that Austin Wells did this season at the Major League level was swing and swing a lot. While the Yankees needed to cut down on their swing rate due to an inability to see many pitches, the University of Arizona graduate decided to go against the curb, forcing action at the plate and doing plenty of damage because of it. On the surface, a .742 OPS and 97 wRC+ aren’t eye-popping, but it’s the .367 xwOBA and 14% Barrel% that really stand out.
The Yankees swung in-zone just 63.6% of the time, but Austin Wells swung 77.2% of the time in the zone, with a 65.5% MLB average this past season. Being aggressive or not aggressive isn’t on its own a bad thing, but the Yankees finished 26th in Called Strike Rate, and if we look at the remaining offenses in the postseason, only the Arizona Diamondbacks finished in the bottom half of the league in that metric.
Balls in play are a premium when you generate damage contact frequently, and the Yankees certainly do. They were seventh in xwOBACON (.386), with every team ahead of them besides the Mariners making the postseason, two of which are the Philadelphia Phillies and Texas Rangers, who have been the two best offenses this October. If the Yankees are able to give themselves more chances to put these sorts of damaging batted balls in play, they could find another gear as an offense, and that doesn’t even mean having fewer strikeouts.
Wells excelled at generating the damage contact that helps teams like Houston, Philly, and Texas put up big runs against quality pitching, with a .440 xwOBACON, which would be one of the best marks in all of baseball over a full season. For context, Yordan Alvarez also had a .440 xwOBACON, finishing only behind likely NL MVP Ronald Acuna Jr. and Aaron Judge, who’s arguably the best hitter in baseball. This isn’t to say that Austin Wells is going to put up MVP-like numbers in 2024 since, again it’s a small sample size, and it’s likely he’ll regress from that mark, but impressive nonetheless.
The left-handed catcher found his most success against right-handed pitching, an area where the Yankees struggled mightily in 2024. He posted a 116 wRC+ and .811 OPS against right-handers, and while his lack of success against lefties can be seen as concerning, he only had six plate appearances against them this past season. The Yankees, on the other hand, finished with the 27th-worst OPS against righties (.682), and if they want to jumpstart their offense, handling righties is part of that process.
In 2022, they finished as the American League leaders in Runs Scored and only faltered in the postseason after losing some of their best bats against right-handed pitching. Matt Carpenter posted a 206 wRC+, LeMahieu a 111, and Benintendi a 132 wRC+ against right-handed pitching, and they looked overmatched by the Houston Astros’ high-powered right-handed arms, and as a result, they were swept.
Two of those three hitters didn’t return, and while the Yankees were smart in not bringing them back, they didn’t make adequate moves to replace the production they got from the DH spot and LF, and LeMahieu’s first-half slump hurt them as well. With Austin Wells, they have a reliable weapon against right-handed pitching and at the perfect position for it, considering the in-house options are Kyle Higashioka and Jose Trevino. Trevy feels like the likeliest option to stick around, and he’s excellent against left-handed pitching.
Even this past season, he posted a 116 wRC+ against opposite-handed pitching, and in his career, he’s a much more respectable 95 wRC+ hitter in those matchups. With the Yankees, he’s slashed .291/.345/.500 with a .338 xwOBA against lefties, and with Wells’ excellence against righties, the two could form a platoon that puts up strong offensive numbers behind the dish, something that they’re sorely needed since the regression and departure of Gary Sanchez.
With that being said, there are not many doubters of Austin Wells offensively, but people still hold reservations regarding how he’ll hold up behind the dish but the Yankees as an organization have been rewarded for their faith.
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Can Austin Wells Stick Behind the Dish?
The Yankees have remained steadfast in their belief that Austin Wells is a catcher, as even when talks circulated about playing him at first base, they didn’t let him play any position outside of catcher. Wells himself has spoken about his desire to stick at catcher, and he’s steadily improved every year, becoming more and more of a positive on the defensive side of the ball. This past season, he posted a +1.9 Catching Defensive Adjustment, +2 Framing Runs, but -2 Fielding Run Value.
Depending on the metric you look at, Austin Wells was either a net positive or net negative behind the dish, but he certainly wasn’t unplayable. He struggled with blocking, something that he went straight to Tampa to improve on following the conclusion of the 2023 season, and consistent work has become the expectation Wells has set for himself since joining the organization. Drafted in a COVID year, there was no Minor League Baseball for him to play right away like most position players do after being drafted, rather an entire offseason of uncertainty.
In that time, Wells has made the necessary strides behind the dish to put to bed the narratives that he’s destined for a corner outfield or first-base role, even with the addition of defensive stalwarts like Jose Trevino and Ben Rortvedt to go alongside their in-house veteran in Kyle Higashioka. Since 2022, the Yankees have led all of baseball in Defensive Runs Saved (32), Framing (44.5), and FanGraphs Defensive Value (74.3), and that’s something they feel has aided their pitching staff.
Austin Wells posted an 11.5 Defensive Runs Prevented on Baseball Prospectus in 2022, by far his career-high as a professional, and while he took a step back in 2023, he still posted a +0.6 DRP between Somerset, Scranton, and the Bronx. When it comes to his character, Wells’ makeup and baseball acumen make it easy to see how the young catcher has blossomed defensively despite the doubt he’s been well aware of regarding his glove.
When I asked Triple-A Hitting Coach Trevor Amicone about his thoughts on Austin Wells as a leader and clubhouse presence, he had a glowing review for the slugger:
“Austin brings a really loose but focused energy to the clubhouses he’s been in. Players really gravitate to him because he puts in the work to prepare really well but he always keeps things light. He earns the respect of his teammates with how hard he works but also helps everyone around him relax and be themselves”– Trevor Amicone (Scranton RailRiders’ Hitting Coach)
Amicone got to work with Wells in late July and August, and the catcher had hit a slump in Double-A, where he hit just .190 with a .276 SLG% in his final 15 games at Somerset. When he got to Scranton, he’d post a 57 wRC+ and 37.1% K%, but he’d find his stride once more, cutting the strikeout rate to 17.9% and posting a .869 OPS over his final 24 games. He’s the type of catcher and person who’ll handle a pitching staff extremely well, especially with multiple youngsters on the way.
Randy Vasquez and Jhony Brito both have familiarity with Wells, and Brito even pitched to a 1.53 ERA in his outings with Wells. Back in 2022, Vasquez tossed eight no-hit innings in the Eastern League Championship clincher, and while Carson Coleman came in to finish off the final three batters and complete the no-hitter, the catcher remained unchanged; Austin Wells was the one behind the plate that evening.
He’ll look to finetune his defensive skills, but he provided +1.3 Defensive Value in just 158 innings, but over the course of 1,000 innings, he’d have a +8.2 Defensive Value. The Yankees could have a catcher with +8 Defensive Value on FanGraphs with a plus-bat from the left-handed side, and with the reputation he has with pitchers in the organization. He could become the Yankees’ catcher of the future, and they should be really excited about what he can be in 2024.