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Finally, a backup catcher we can all love

Who really misses Andrew Knapp? Anyone?

Philadelphia Phillies v Los Angeles Dodgers Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

Everyone loves the backup. Nowhere is this more apparent than in football, of course, when the backup quarterback becomes the one people would rather see when the starter is having a bad game. In hockey, if the starting goalie is struggling, particularly late in a season, the backup goalie becomes popular because that guy, if he gets hot, can carry a team a very long way on a playoff run.

In baseball, backups don’t really get the same type of love. Sure, if the backup is a gritty guy who comes in and “does all the little things right”, certain subsets of the fanbase would rather that guy get more playing time to help the team win. Over a long season like baseball, though, should the backups get too much playing time, he gets exposed and shown for the very reasons he is a backup in the first place. Last year, Ronald Torreyes was extremely popular because everyone was so mad at Alec Bohm for being bad that they forgot Torreyes wasn’t actually very good. He just wasn’t Bohm, so his stock over the course of the season was generally higher.

Being the backup catcher in Philadelphia, though, has to be one of the more boring jobs in baseball. J.T. Realmuto is known for wanting to play as much as he possibly can and for having a manager that wants him in the lineup as often as he can write his name down. We’ve seen that this determination, admirable as it may be, has given rise to the fear that Realmuto will wear down late in the season and his effectiveness at the plate will wane in response. This has not proven to be the case yet over the past few years, but as he ages, that fear will only grow.

Realmuto OPS by month

Year March/April May June July August Sept./October
Year March/April May June July August Sept./October
2018 1.092 0.827 0.907 0.859 0.631 0.759
2019 0.791 0.729 0.726 0.815 0.949 0.920
2020 n/a n/a n/a 0.538 0.928 0.764
2021 0.932 0.768 0.693 0.732 0.884 0.713

The problem with dealing with that fear has been that over the past few years, Realmuto at 75-80% was preferable to having Andrew Knapp playing at 100%. Nothing personal against Knapp, he just wasn’t a very good baseball player. He was popular on the team and had the familiarity of the pitching staff in his favor, but as the team was bleeding wins, needing to scratch and claw their way to getting whatever they could in the win column, having to rely on Knapp at all cost them those precious few victories any time he was in the lineup.

So, after the season was over, Dave Dombrowski and Sam Fuld finally recognized that the team needed to upgrade not only their depth at the catching position, they needed someone who could be a viable backup both offensively and defensively for Realmuto. Rafael Marchan is a great defensive catcher, but is a liability at the plate. Logan O’Hoppe is showing a lot of promise on both sides of the position, but is in the same developmental arc as Marchan in that they both need to play as much as possible and that time simply isn’t available in Philadelphia. So, a few shrewd moves were made to bring in Donny Sands and Garrett Stubbs. Sands has been very good in Lehigh Valley, hitting .333/.476/.462 with a whopping 22% walk rate while also providing the team solid defense as well. Should something happen to Realmuto, the team should be okay in his absence.

The real story though is that for the first time a great many years, the backup catcher’s position is no longer an eyesore. Garrett Stubbs, in only a few games of course, has given the team actual production and a sense of relief that life without Realmuto, at least for that day, will not fall apart.

Consider:

.201/.297/.303, 61 OPS+

Those are Knapp’s numbers at the plate over the three years that he and Realmuto were the catching duo in Philadelphia. That’s untenable and was derided as such the entirety of those years by the fanbase. Playing Knapp 20-30 times a year isn’t the reason the Phillies missed the playoffs those three years, but in times where attaining every win they possibly could, getting those edges by having a better backup option could have had some real impact. It’s one of the things that Gabe Kapler was known for saying during his tenure here - “winning around the margins” - that the team was unable to do.

Now, though, with Stubbs helping out with catching duties, it seems to signal that the team has finally understood what Kapler was talking about. He wasn’t the right manager for this team and showed that he wasn’t ready to be a manager, but that philosophy of trying to gain every edge possible is something that he was dead on accurate about. With the Mets and Braves (and Marlins?) all having rosters that can compete for playoff spots in the National League East, the Phillies need to gain every edge they can and it looks like they may have found one at the backup catcher’s spot.

Even though he has had precious few opportunities, Stubbs has shown that he can be a competent defensive catcher for the team.

He’s been solid with the bat, only getting 22 plate appearances, but giving a .350/.409/.550 line in those plate appearances is something the team can live with.

Now, it would be foolish to go on with mentioning that it is still early to be proclaiming Stubbs as having saved the team with his play thus far.

He’s still a backup.

Expecting that he would be able to produce like this across an entire season, or even for a long stretch should something calamitous happen to Realmuto, would be fool’s errand. Were that to be the case, no one would expect a .900 OPS from Stubbs. What they can expect is that he’s shown, both from this season and from his career, is that he would at least be able to hold down the fort for a decent amount of time. Should he be paired with someone else like Sands, Marchan or O’Hoppe in a timeshare, he would at least be able to hold up his end of the bargain, but no one would be expecting him to produce like Realmuto over an entire season.

What should be expected of him is a level of competency that this team has lacked over the past three years. A level of depth on the roster that could mean the difference in a game or two over the course of the long season. The wins around the margins that they have been searching for for some time. These are the things that separate the rosters in the middle, the ones that will be battling for those three wild cards. Let’s hope that having even this small advantage can help that playoff drought the Phillies are stuck in. So far, it’s off to a good start.