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2021 Player Previews: Andrew Knapp and Rafael Marchan

Not only do the Phillies have the best catcher in baseball, but they also have two very competent backups on the roster.

Philadelphia Phillies v Toronto Blue Jays - Game One Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

Andrew Knapp

What could go right for Andrew Knapp in 2021?

My first impulse was to talk about Knapp’s incredible batting line from last season (.278/.404/.444) and consider whether or not he might maintain any of that success. Unfortunately, I just don’t think there’s any real merit to that discussion. Knapp didn’t show serious signs of improvement in 2020. All he did was go on a three week hot streak thanks to a sky-high BABIP. I’d be thrilled if I were proven wrong here, but I just don’t think Knapp has it in him to significantly improve his offensive output over a full season. But more on that later, this is the part of the article where I’m supposed to be optimistic!

There is one skill area in which Knapp has succeeded in the past, and in which I’m hopeful he can succeed again: pitch framing. Framing is one of the few things the Phillies have been really good at over the past few seasons. Jorge Alfaro was an elite framer during his one full season with the Phillies (and he hasn’t been nearly as good since he joined the Marlins). J.T. Realmuto started to improve his framing in Miami, but he developed into an elite framer once he came to Philadelphia. And Andrew Knapp?

Well... Andrew Knapp was one of the worst pitch framers in baseball last year. He was also pretty dreadful in 2017 and 2018. 2019, however, was a different story. Andrew Knapp put up some very good framing numbers that year. According to Statcast, Knapp ranked among the top twenty catchers in “runs from extra strikes” that season. That’s a counting stat, not a rate stat, which means it’s very impressive for a backup catcher to rank so high.

So what happened in 2020? Why did Knapp’s pitch framing decline so drastically? Perhaps it had something to do with catching coach Craig Driver. Driver was the Phillies’ catching coach in 2018 and 2019, the two seasons in which Alfaro, Realmuto, and Knapp all took huge steps forward with their pitch framing. In 2020, Driver left the Phillies and took a job with the Cubs. Consequently, the Cubs went on to rank 6th in baseball in framing runs, a huge jump from 25th place in 2019 (Wilson Contreras went from one of the worst framers in the league to one of the best). Suffice to say, Driver knows how to teach pitch framing.

Can Knapp still frame without Driver as his coach? We’ll have to see, but it’s not out of the question. As good of a coach as Driver may have been, it’s hard to imagine that he did it all on his own. Presumably, other members of the Phillies organization have a pretty good sense of Driver’s pitch framing ideology. (For instance, Bob Stumpo, one of the current catching coaches, was the bullpen catcher during Driver’s tenure.) J.T. Realmuto was an excellent framer once again in 2020, so clearly Phillies catchers are still capable of framing well without Driver.

Knapp has the potential to be a good pitch framer; we’ve seen it before. When he does so, he can be an above average defensive catcher. It would be a real boon for the Phillies if he regains that skill in 2021.

What could go wrong for Andrew Knapp in 2021?

It’s unlikely that anything will go disastrously wrong for Andrew Knapp, because he has a pretty high floor (“high” is relative here). His primary offensive contribution is walks, and even when he’s slumping, he still walks at a good rate. His primary defensive contribution is his game calling, and it’s unlikely that he could “slump” in that area either. He’s been very healthy over the past several years, and there’s no reason to worry about injuries affecting his performance in the 2021 season. We can safely expect Andrew Knapp to be a perfectly solid backup catcher once again.

The downside is that Knapp also has a very low ceiling. Knapp is a known commodity, and other than pitch framing, there aren’t any areas in which we can reasonably hope for him to improve. That could be a bit of a problem for Andrew, because Rafael Marchan is right at his heels. If Marchan continues to develop, it might not be long before he forces the Phillies’ hand. Eventually, the Phillies will need to choose between Knapp and Marchan, and Knapp might very well find himself on the losing end of that decision. Knapp still has the advantage for now, but Marchan has the potential to be a much more talented player. I don’t think it’s likely, but I wouldn’t be shocked if Andrew Knapp is on a new team by the end of the season.

Rafael Marchan

What could go right for Rafael Marchan in 2021?

Rafael Marchan is a very exciting young player. He doesn’t project to be a star, but he’s only 22 years old, and he has the tools to be a successful major league catcher for a long, long time. Prospect evaluators disagree somewhat about what skills he still needs to work on, but there’s one constant across nearly all of his write-ups from this offseason: Marchan is going to be major league ready very soon.

There’s definitely a scenario in which Rafael Marchan displaces Andrew Knapp as the Phillies backup catcher in 2021, and this would undoubtedly be a huge win for Marchan. Knapp is well-liked within the organization, and he’s been with the Phillies since 2017. It would be a big deal if the Phillies decide Marchan is good enough that they need to trade Knapp. However, if I were a betting man, I’d say it’s much more likely that Marchan is the one to be traded. Either way, it’s win for Marchan if he’s playing for a major league team by the end of the season.

2021 could also be a successful season for Marchan even if he doesn’t make the majors. In fact, in the best case scenario, I think he stays in the minors all year. If Marchan shows signs that he’s improving in all the right areas, it makes the most sense to let him to continue working in AA or AAA. If he demonstrates real potential to become a starting catcher, then he needs to be playing every day.

What could go wrong for Rafael Marchan in 2021?

As good as Marchan has looked, he is still just a 22-year-old prospect, so of course there are a litany of things that could go wrong.

  • If J.T. Realmuto or Andrew Knapp get injured, Marchan could find himself called up to the big leagues ahead of schedule. In this situation, he’d most likely be sitting on the bench a lot, especially if he’s the backup for Realmuto. Spending too much of the 2021 season on the bench could, unfortunately, hamper his development.
  • On the flip side, even if Marchan proves himself ready for a major league call-up, the front office might still hold him in minor league purgatory. The Phillies might not be ready to part ways with Knapp, but they also wouldn’t want to give up Marchan. This could lead to Marchan languishing in the minors for the 2021 season.
  • As I wrote earlier, different prospect evaluators have different opinions of what Marchan’s carrying skill is. While many sources praise Marchan’s defense (MLB Pipeline describes him as “an outstanding defender”), Eric Longenhagen of FanGraphs called Marchan’s defense “suitable, but unspectacular.” Longenhagen is still high on Marchan, however, because he believes in Marchan’s bat more than most (60 future hit tool). If Longenhagen is right about Marchan’s defense and the other evaluators are right about his bat, Marchan won’t be nearly as impactful of a player.
  • Marchan is currently out with a hamstring injury. While it doesn’t appear to be serious, it’s never a good thing when a player has to miss 3-4 weeks of Spring Training.

I, for one, am really excited to follow both of these guys this season. Andrew Knapp has wiggled his way into my heart as one of my favourite current Phillies, and Rafael Marchan might just be a name we’re hearing for a long time to come. I’m also very curious what kind of trade return the Phillies could get for either player. It’s rare for the backup catcher to be such an interesting roster spot, so this is one small reason that I feel lucky to be a Phillies fan this season.