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Spring Training Battle Preview: Backup Catcher

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In the eternal struggle to play once or twice a week, who holds the edge in this grudge match?

MLB: Fall Star Game
Because I miss that mustache
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

This will be the start of a short series of previews that looks at the positional battles still to determined this spring.

With the Phillies’ spring training about three weeks away (side note: eeek!), there are still some unanswered questions about how the final 25 man roster will shake out when the team heads north in early April. However, there are not as many unstable positions as one might think.

Look around the infield. Who isn’t already locked into a starter’s job? How about the outfield? With the signing of Michael Saunders, those positions are just about set as well. In the rotation, as average-ish as it may very well be, it too is mostly set. Heck, even the bullpen has few jobs open, depending on how many arms they actually carry. So where are the positional battles to be had in Clearwater?

One certain one is that of who will play caddie to Cameron Rupp to begin the season. As Bunyan-esque as the backstop is, even he cannot play every day without a spell or two. Luckily, with spring training invites, the Phillies have several candidates. According to the increasingly valuable rosterresource.com, here are the names to watch:

Minor leaguers: Jorge Alfaro, Andrew Knapp
Non-roster invitees: Bryan Holaday, Logan Moore, Chace Numata, Ryan Hanigan

The team looks like they will open camp with these six catchers in addition to Rupp, and that makes sense. After all, someone has to catch all of these pitchers getting their work in at the beginning of spring. However, we can already cross off Alfaro from this race, as he will be in need of regular plate appearances and further refinement with his defensive game, making him the primary catcher at Lehigh Valley. That leaves us with five names. You can probably cross Numata off as well, seeing as he just last season made it to single-A Clearwater and is nowhere near ready. Same goes for Moore, who has never really started in his minor league career, and could be used to spell Alfaro this coming season.

That leaves us with a three man steel cage match between Knapp, Holaday and Hanigan. Contain your excitement.

First, here’s a brief snapshot of how they all fared last season with the lumber.

2016 AVG/OBP/SLG K% BB% wOBA wRC+
2016 AVG/OBP/SLG K% BB% wOBA wRC+
A. Knapp .266/.330/.390 24.2 8.4 0.327 107
B. Holaday (MLB) .231/.281/.359 21.7 5.4 0.277 66
B. Holaday (AAA) .324/.395/.588 23.7 7.9 0.426 160
R. Hanigan .171/.230/.238 23.9 6.2 0.212 20

It should be noted that Holaday and Hanigan were strictly backups last season, so their sample sizes will be demonstrably smaller than Knapp, who was able to see a lot more pitches in his 443 plate appearances. This will skew the numbers. And if you’re jaw is dropping at Holaday’s numbers in AAA Round Rock, consider two things:

  1. Round Rock is played in the Pacific Coast League, a hitter’s heaven.
  2. He only had 38 plate appearances. Hello, small sample size. Nice to see you again.

Yet it’s pretty obvious that with the bat, Knapp is a much better option to produce than either Holaday or Hanigan could hope to be. He was drafted high enough (2nd round of 2013 draft) that his bat made him a real prospect, and even though he had some struggles last year, he’s still a clear leader over the other two options.

Edge: Knapp

Let’s look at the other more important job a catcher has, and that’s defense. For this, we’ll utilize Baseball Prospectus’ advanced catching statistics to see how our combatants measure up.

2016 Framing Runs CSAA Throwing Runs
2016 Framing Runs CSAA Throwing Runs
A. Knapp 8.9 0.8% 0.6
B. Holaday (MLB) -6.3 -2.2% 0.3
B. Holaday (AAA) -1.5 -1.9% 0
R. Hanigan -4.5 -1.50% -0.3

Again, it must be said that Knapp had many more opportunities to frame pitches and throw runners out than either of the other two did, but looking at Holaday’s past catching record in particular, this is just about where he has been. Hanigan suffered from some injuries last season, which might explain his worst defensive season he’s had in some time. However at this point, according to the numbers, Knapp is a much better framer and controls the running game better than both Holaday and Hanigan. Now that doesn’t mean Knapp is great with the glove. In fact, in Matt Winkelman’s scouting report on Knapp, he mentions how he’s still a “below average defender who is not a smooth receiver”, but does possess an “average arm”. If that bat is anywhere near average, that kind of profile will be just fine.

Edge: Knapp

This isn’t really much of a battle. It’s quite clear (if it hasn’t been made clear already) that Andrew Knapp deserves to be the backup catcher in Cincinnati come April 3. There is probably an outside shot that Knapp earns even more playing time if Rupp proves that last season was a fluky one rather than the norm. You never know - in late March, injuries might force other teams to come looking around the Phillies for a starting catcher, making Rupp into an intriguing trade chip. At that point, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the team open with Knapp behind the dish and Holaday/Hanigan backing him up. THE POSSIBILITIES ARE ENDLESS!

In all seriousness, it looks like the best bet is that Knapp begins the season in Philadelphia as a backup while Holaday and Hanigan battle to end up playing behind Alfaro. This would send Moore to Reading, and the other looking for work elsewhere. It’s a pretty good situation to be in right now, where the team has two actual, real life catching prospects they’d be comfortable with playing regularly, with either seemingly able to comfortable inherit Rupp’s position as starter in case of decline. Either way, it’s Knapp’s job to lose. Here’s hoping he runs with it.