During my lifetime the Philadelphia Phillies always seemed to have enjoyed a strong catcher holding down the backstop position and handling the pitching staff. From Wall of Famers Darren Daulton and Mike Lieberthal on to Carlos Ruiz, the Phillies seemed to place an importance on the position.
Ruiz was the team’s catcher through its heyday in the late-2000’s. He consistently delivered clutch hits and led a pitching staff that consisted of greats such as Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, and Cole Hamels. Ruiz had some great postseason moments in his Phillies career as well.
One of the most beloved players from that era, the fan favorite “Chooch” was traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers in August 2016 with the Phillies in the midst of a rebuilding process from those former glory days.
While playing summer ball in 2012 in the Cape Cod Baseball League, Andrew Knapp had been named an All-Star. He then impressed scouts while batting .350 and producing a .544 slugging percentage in the Pac-12 during the 2013 at the University of California-Berkeley. The Phillies made him their second round choice in that summer’s MLB Amateur Draft and felt like they may have the heir apparent to Ruiz.
After the trade of Ruiz, the Phillies used Cameron Rupp as their primary backstop through the 2017 season. He would produce a combined 2.1 WAR value in that period. The Phillies were clearly seeking something more as he was released at the end of spring training in 2018 at age 29.
Meanwhile, Knapp was continuing to develop in the Phillies minor league system. The switch-hitter gained experience at each level before topping off as the starter for Triple-A Lehigh Valley during the entirety of the 2016 season.
The Phillies turned one of the final pages in that championship chapter when they sent away Cole Hamels at the 2015 trade deadline. The Texas Rangers sent a six-player package to the Phillies, and the crown jewel of that package was a 22-year-old catching prospect by the name of Jorge Alfaro.
With a power bat and throwing arm, Alfaro had become the top-ranked catching prospect in baseball at the time, the type of player who scouts drooled over. The Phillies were willing to pair Alfaro with Knapp, giving themselves a catching duo they believed could be successful for a long time.
Knapp was the Phillies 11th-ranked prospect overall at that point, the seventh-ranked catching prospect in baseball. He had experience catching at all levels of the minor league system and handled just about every pitching prospect the Phillies had at that point.
In 2017, Knapp made his debut in Major League Baseball. He caught in 53 games that year, making 51 starts as the backup to Rupp. Meanwhile, Alfaro continued developing as the starter at Triple-A Lehigh Valley. Then after being called up himself in August, he would begin to take over the starting job.
When 2018 season started the Phillies had dumped Rupp, and were set to go with both of their top catching prospects on the big-league roster. Alfaro was slated to take the majority of the innings as the starter with Knapp serving as the backup.
The Phillies first series of the 2018 season took place in Atlanta against the NL East Division rival Braves. Fans thought Alfaro would be the starting catcher, but when new manager Gabe Kapler‘s first Opening Day lineup card came out, it was Knapp’s name that was in the starting catcher spot. That series did not go the Phillies way. Kapler became the laughing stock of the baseball world with his bad moves. The team broke down with errors in the field and seemed to lack attention to details of the game. Knapp went 1-8, starting the first two games of the season and appearing in all three games of that series.
Knapp would go on to catch in 53 games, 42 as starter, in that 2018 season. At the plate he posted just a -0.5 WAR, slashing .198/.294/316 over 215 plate appearances. He made eight errors and committed a half-dozen passed balls.
Kapler gave Alfaro the majority of innings, with 104 games and 98 starts. Trying to stay in the playoff race, the Phillies dealt for veteran Wilson Ramos at the trade deadline. Ramos had been an AL All-Star earlier that month but was out with an injury at the time. He returned to catch in 23 games, making 22 starts and never really helping as the club fell out of the postseason race.
Knapp had been largely overmatched that year. But the team stood by him and brought him back to the team in 2019. However, Knapp’s catching partner as the everyday regular would be someone new.
That someone else was J.T. Realmuto, an All-Star catcher during the 2018 season while with the Miami Marlins. The Phillies traded Alfaro and prized pitching prospect Sixto Sanchez in order to acquire him just prior to spring training in 2019.
As expected, Realmuto was an iron man. He played in 133 games at catcher, making 130 starts. He was the Phillies long representative on the NL All-Star team, and would win both the NL Gold Glove and Silver Slugger Awards after the season.
Knapp appeared in 43 games behind the plate, making 30 starts. He posted a WAR of 0.1 and produced a .213/.318/.324 slash line.
Perhaps the most memorable moment for Knapp last year was not something he did on the field, but rather what happened when Kapler inserted him into the starting lineup on a late-September Friday night in Cleveland while the Phillies were clinging to their fading playoff hopes.
The Phillies manager decided to rest Realmuto at the start of a key weekend series in favor of Knapp. Per Scott Lauber at The Inquirer, Kapler said that Knapp “has done a good job recently in his opportunities. I feel a level of confidence in Andrew Knapp to call a good game, to lead our pitching staff.”
Fans were irate at Kapler for the decision, and deservedly so. How do you take out the games best catcher for a player who had produced two seasons of negative WAR, with a ton of weak contact and who strikes out in around 40% of his plate appearances?
Knapp was not the reason as the Phillies dropped a 5-2 decision to the Indians. He went 1-3 with a double and did a fine job handling a half-dozen different pitchers that night, though Tribe baserunners did swipe a pair of bags. The Phillies did not make the 2019 playoffs in the end, and Kapler was fired during the off-season.
As the Phillies entered the 2020 season, new manager Joe Girardi planned to lean on Realmuto as a workhorse behind the plate once again. Realmuto would be performing in a contract year and Girardi, a former catcher, would certainly look to get Realmuto through the season healthy, keeping his legs fresh.
The manager would also want to ensure the team was in the best position to succeed come the stretch run. So, who would be the backup catcher, giving Realmuto that needed rest from time to time? The Phillies re-upped Knapp’s contract for $710k. Would he be the guy once again despite continued struggles at the plate?
The Phillies brought five catchers to their spring training camp in 2020: Realmuto, Knapp, Deivy Grullon, Christian Bethancourt, and Rafael Marchan. Battling a rib injury, Knapp appeared in just two Grapefruit League games before camps were shutdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Grullon was once considered one the best catching prospects from the 2012-2013 international signing class. The 24-year-old has displayed a good bat with power in the minors but scouts continually talk about him needing improvement on his defensive skills.
If defense is what the team is seeking, then Marchan would be the guy. Marchan impressed the coaching staff in a few games this spring . Girardi, being careful to not mince words and compare players, made the following comment per Jim Salisbury of NBC Sports Philadelphia: “Carlos Ruiz was not a great hitter when he first came up. He’s got talent and you hope he figures out the bat part of it because if he does, you have something really special.”
Additionally, after a game this spring in which Marchan caught, Girardi said “He’s the block master. The master,” per MLB.com’s Todd Zolecki. “That might have been the best exhibition of blocking I’ve ever seen in one game.” It is that defensive prowess that has the Phillies coaching staff excited for his potential.
Bethancourt, a former top prospect in the Braves system, was brought into camp to compete for the backup catchers role. He displayed a strong arm, something that once pushed him to work as a relief pitcher while with the San Diego Padres. The one problem with Bethancourt has been an inability to hit consistently at the big-league level. Despite getting a decent performance this spring, I feel that Bethancourt will most likely be sent to a minor league roster or waived before the start of any 2020 season.
So, with all of these other catchers in camp and on the 40-man roster, why do the Phillies continually give reps to Andrew Knapp? Well, again, he was drafted by the club and has been through the minor league system with a lot of the players. Knapp has built a rapport with his teammates and has caught many of the pitchers. There is a level of organizational trust and comfort with him as a person and a player.
By all accounts, Knapp is a great clubhouse presence. During a long, grueling season, it is helpful to have guys like that on a roster. But can being a great clubhouse guy keep him on that roster for much longer?
The proposed plan for MLB is to use expanded rosters for the 2020 season. Could the Phillies carry three catchers? I highly doubt it, and expect to see Realmuto as the start with Knapp once again serving as his primary backup.
However, I also expect that Grullon will continue to produce and improve in the minor leagues. At some point towards the end of the year he would very well replace Knapp on the big-league roster.
Knapp cannot become a free agent until after the 2022 season at which point he will be 30 years of age. The Phillies might like to keep him around for the next few years to continue working with the pitchers and mentoring younger players.
If the Phillies ever have to give Knapp significant innings as their starting catcher, they are in trouble. Fans continue to hope that the club is able to get Realmuto’s signature on a long-term deal once MLB once again allows them to open up operations and resume formal negotiations.