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Austin Wynns, “The Tao of the Backup Catcher,” and one of the most unappreciated jobs in baseball

Colorado Rockies news and links for Tuesday, August 8, 2023

Recently, I reviewed Tim Brown’s new book, written with Erik Kratz, “The Tao of the Backup Catcher: Playing Baseball for the Love of the Game.” You can read my thoughts on the Pitcher List site.

I like the Pitcher List folks, but as a readership, they aren’t terribly interested in the Colorado Rockies. However, Brown included some observations from former Rockies backup catchers that seemed worthy of further discussion with a more-appreciative crowd.

Some things I learned about backup catchers in general

“The Tao of the Backup Catcher” transformed my understanding of the position. As Brown writes:

The backup catcher is, most often, the guy who was not quite good enough to be the starting catcher. But there are lots of those. The minor leagues are full of those. So are construction sites and insurance firms and high school coaching staffs and wherever glory days are warmed and served with cold beer. He is, then, also the guy who can be trusted with the fragile parts of a team, a season, and a culture. When it is darkest, he laughs. When it is easiest, he shows up an hour earlier. When the wins come and the championships follow, he stands to the side. When the season is lost and the sun seems two feet closer than it should be and nobody really wants to be doing this, he plays more.

Brown adds, “Then he’s gone. Because backup catchers also strain to hit .210, because if they hit .250 they wouldn’t be backup catchers.”

Backup catchers, in addition to being professional baseball players, have exceptional soft skills. They troubleshoot anything that comes up while preparing for each game as if they will be called on to play — even though they probably won’t be — and they will probably spend their careers defined by trades and DFAs while being shuttled between minor-league and major-league teams.

In short, it is a thankless job. Case in point, Austin Wynns, the Rockies’ current backup catcher, made his MLB debut with the Baltimore Orioles in 2018. This year, he has played for the San Francisco Giants, the Los Angeles Dodgers, and now the Rockies. (Seriously, after reading “The Tao of the Backup Catcher,” I started using more backup catchers in my Immaculate Grid answers.)

Brown uses Erik Kratz as the focus of his book, but he is one of the many backup catchers who make appearances, including Tony Wolters, Drew Butera, and Jonathan Lucroy.

Kratz is a terrific central figure for this book even as it makes for some tough reading for Rockies fans. Remember “Kratztober,” that 2018 playoff series against the Milwaukee Brewers? It was, incidentally, the highlight of Kratz’s career, even as he dashed the hopes of Rockies fans.

When Kratz reported to 2019 Spring Training, he hoped to make the Brewers’ roster. However, after the team signed Yasmani Grandal, Kratz knew his days were numbered. The passage in which Mike Moustakas tells Kratz he cannot participate in a meeting because everyone knows he’s about to be DFA’d is absolutely gutting.

Such is the career of a backup catcher.

Some things I learned about the Colorado Rockies’ backup catchers

Brown devotes a few pages to Tony Wolters. However, the focus was not that single against the Chicago Cubs. Rather, Brown was interested in something from earlier in the season. “[He] watched Wade Davis throw a pitch that Matt Kemp hit, the last of 117 by Rockies pitchers that night,” Brown writes. “He stood up and ran toward first base, because that’s the job and backup catchers run to the very end of the job because otherwise there’d be no job.”

And then this happened:

“I kinda got out of the box late,” Wolters recalled of that night. “I saw the play and started to take a deeper angle. And I started running harder.”

Kemp dabbed to his left, slightly more than a lean, enough by a whisper to have committed to a turn toward second base. Wolters swept the ball back to Desmond. Kemp’s eyes widened and he lunged to first base. He was out. The game was over. And four months later the Dodgers and Rockies finished the regular season tied atop the NL West.

After all that, the Rockies would go on to non-tender Wolters in 2020.

Austin Wynns doesn’t appear in Brown’s book, but his comments on the position are consistent with those of his fellow backup brethren.

“As a backup catcher, you have to be ready at all times every day,” he said. “You need to do your homework. You’ve got to make sure you stay sharp on your craft, whether catching bullpens or staying in tune, getting in the cage, making sure you’re on the fastball. There’s a lot, a lot goes into it.”

Some things I learned about Austin Wynns

He’s clear on the demands of the job.

“It’s not made for everybody,” Wynns said, “because some people need reps. For me, in my career from minor leagues to the big leagues, I’ve been a backup my whole life.”

But he always works for more.

“I always strive to be a starter,” Wynns said, “but when the skip calls my name, I’m ready to go in the game. I’m not gonna miss a beat. I prep for that. So it’s hard — it’s not made for everybody. But for me, I’ve taken the challenge, and I’m going with it day by day.”

Former pitcher Bud Black always tried to do something a little extra when he was working with a backup catcher.

“I felt a responsibility to them,” Black said, “because I knew they didn’t catch a lot. And I knew that it was so important for them, the day that they played, to have a good game. And that meant something to me. I wanted them to get a couple of hits. I wanted them to catch a shut out or catch a win.”

The next time you watch Austin Wynns — or any backup catcher catch a game — I promise you will see it differently. For example, when Wynns hit a sacrifice bunt, moving Brenton Doyle to third in Sunday’s game against the Cardinals, it was a quintessential backup-catcher play.

“I wanted to get [Doyle] over, no matter what,” he told AT&T SportsNet. “I mean, what’s my job? What’s my role? Move him over.”

It was a key moment in the game — and that’s the most backup-catcher quote ever — but I couldn’t even find a clip on MLB Film Room.

Such is the life of a backup catcher.

Closing thoughts

Here’s what I learned:

  • Being a backup catcher is hard, and as fans, we need to rethink our expectations. Often, we complain about a backup player’s slashline. It’s the stuff we can’t see that matters — and it matters a lot.
  • Being a backup catcher demands an attitude of service, something Drew Butera stresses in Brown’s book.
  • Wynns chose “Dancing Queen” for his walk-up music because he likes the classics. “I want to get the fans involved as well,” he said. “It’s a good throwback.”

So the next time you’re at Coors Field and Austin Wynns walks to the plate while Abba shimmies over the speakers, take a second to dance a little. The backup catcher just wants to be sure you, like the players, are having the time of your life.


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