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The Cardinals Have a Problem at Catcher

Marmol has called out Knizner, but Molina has been one of the worst hitters in recent memory. It’s all bad for the team’s catchers.

St. Louis Cardinals v Chicago Cubs - Game One Photo by Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images

After Sunday afternoon’s loss to the Cincinnati Reds, Cardinals’ Manager Oli Marmol took a question from the press core about the state of hitting from the team’s catcher position.

If there’s one thing we’ve learned about Oli so far it’s that he’s not at all afraid to talk about the issues his players are having (and he has with his players) to the media. On Saturday, Marmol benched Harrison Bader for a perceived lack of hustle and talked about that decision extensively in the post-game presser. On Sunday, it was Andrew Knizner’s approach at the plate that drew his gaze.

It seemed unusual to me for the Cardinals manager, when asked about a position group, to focus his criticism on the backup player, saying about Knizner: “at some point, there has to be a change”.

Is Knizner the team’s unchallenged starter at catcher? Is he getting the vast majority of the playing time? Is he solely responsible for the team’s struggles at the catching position, and the sole “change” that needs to occur?

The answer has to be no.

Future Hall of Famer and Cardinals legend Yadier Molina arrived in camp late and out of shape. He spent the first week or so of the season working up to game speed. Knizner caught the majority of games that first week as Molina recuperated from whatever situation precipitated his tardiness.

But if you start counting after that period the numbers swing decidedly in Molina’s favor. Since April 19, Molina has started 30 games at catcher to Knizner’s 24.

It’s pretty clear what’s happening here. And it’s probably no surprise to anyone.

Yadier Molina’s status as a future Hall of Famer elevates him beyond public criticism from the club’s rookie skipper. Andrew Knizner’s status as a career backup and replacement-level producer simply doesn’t.

Thus the young backup/platoon partner gets the public scolding. Molina gets a pass.

Pointing this out on social media brought out the Yadier Molina Defense Force, with refrains of “he’s old, what do you expect!” and “He’s earned this!” and “It’s Knizner that needs to prove himself!”

Those excuses ring pretty hollow to me. Especially when you see the offensive stats I’ll show you below.

The reality is that the Cardinals have a real problem at catcher. It’s not one centered on one player. And I’m not sure there’s a viable solution to it.

Let’s not beat around the bush today. Here are the Fangraphs dashboards, first for Yadi and then Kniz.

As of Tuesday morning – before the double header – Yadi had a 52 wRC+ and a .235 wOBA. If you prefer more traditional stats, his line is .219/.231/.305, which is a 536 OPS.

Instead of putting an adjective on that line, let me just plow on forward.

Molina’s current walk rate is 1.5%.

That walk rate is a couple percentage points worse than the worst qualified hitter in baseball – Maikel Franco at 3.2%. It is the lowest walk rate I have ever seen from a Cardinals hitter with as many plate appearances as Molina has.

(Just to check my gut instincts there, If I limit the sample to 200 PAs, Shawon Dunston is next in line with a 2.6% BB rate. If I go down to 130 PAs, Tony Cruz shows up at 2.3%.)

With that kind of walk rate, no power, and a batting average in the low .200s, it should be no surprise that Molina’s weighted offensive stats rank among the worst from a Cardinal starter since 2000. Molina is on pace for around 400 PAs on the season. If he hits that mark while maintaining his current offensive output, the only players lower than him in wRC+ would be 2001 Mike Matheny and 2013 Pete Kozma.

If I cut the sample size down to Molina’s current 130 PAs a few more names show up, like Adam Kennedy, Justin Williams, Einar Diaz, Mark Ellis, and Tony Cruz.

That’s typically what happens when a player has an offensive performer like Molina’s. They quickly find themselves DFA’d, injured, sent to the minors, or relegated to the back of the bench.

That’s not going to happen with Yadi. He either needs to hit better or the Cardinals need to be prepared for worst-this-century levels of offensive production from their most-of-the-time catcher.

Could he improve? I guess so, but I think his walk rate reveals how little desire he has shown to make substantive changes in his batting approach. Frankly, at age 39 and 11 months as a catcher, I can’t hope for a whole lot more from him. This is a performance I’ve expected for a few seasons now and it’s no surprise that it’s finally coming in a year where he did not have a normal pre-season conditioning environment.

Ok. That was rough. I’m sure many of you will have some things to say to me after that.

As I said earlier, though, Andrew Knizner doesn’t get a pass here either. On to the second set of stats:

Kiz’s production isn’t quite “worse of the last 20 years” but it’s not great, Bob. He was at a 65 wRC+ heading into the doubleheader.

Marmol’s post-game critique seems to imply that the club expected more from Knizner, which might not be entirely realistic considering his performance to this point in his career. But I think I can see what they’re looking for.

In the minors, Kniz displayed a quality hit tool, which we know from scouting but we can also somewhat see in his yearly minor league batting average (BA) and batting average on balls in play (BABIP).

Andrew Knizner’s BA/BABIP by level & year in the minors:
’16 R - .319/.331
‘17 A - .279/.282
’17 AA - .324/.355
’18 AA - .313/.339
’18 AAA - .315/.370
’19 AAA - .276/.281

Throughout his minor league career, Knizner carried a line drive swing that was capable of pushing balls to all corners of the field. He translated that into good batting averages (very good for a catcher) and well-above-average BABIPs by level.

When we talk about above-average BABIP we normally associate that with luck. That’s definitely not the case with Knizner in the minors, who generated a lot of line drives and a contact ability that gave him an advantage against developing pitchers and defenders. His bat skill made up for a lack of power and inability to draw walks at an average level.

The problem with this kind of batting approach is that it can only get you to the majors. Line drive/BABIP-dependent hitters need something more than a wide spray chart to become above-average hitters in the majors. They either need to hit those liners hard (see early David Freese) or they need to walk a lot (see early Matt Carpenter).

This is where Knizner’s game falls short. His average exit velocity is just 85.9 this season, down from an average of 87.4. MLB average is 88.4. His barrel rate is also well below the league average.

Essentially, his quality contact bat for a catcher in the minors just plays below average in the majors regardless of position and he can’t muscle up enough contact to sneak much past fielders.

Yes, he’s learned to walk more but it’s not enough to move his overall offensive game out of the gutter.

Some of what I’m describing shows up from Marmol when he was asked to expand on his thoughts on Knizner’s offense:

In some ways, Marmol is right. This season Knizner is averaging a 20.7-degree average launch angle. That means fewer line drives and grounders and more balls in the air. Without the ability to drive those balls out of the park to the pull side, that just means more outs.

Knizner indeed needs to stop hitting this many balls into the air if he wants to reclaim the hitting approach he had in the minors. What’s not clear is whether doing so would result in any substantive change in his offensive performance.

After all, this is his fourth straight season of offensive production that’s as bad or worse than what we’re seeing this season, with batted ball profiles that are kind of all over the place.

That inconsistency could derive from a terrible career sample. Heading into this season, Knizner has had a whole bunch of spot starts and inconsistent plate appearances scattered around multiple seasons and a pandemic. Such is the life of a Hall of Famer’s backup.

That inconsistency could also derive from a batting approach that’s simply not going to reach average levels in the majors, even for a catcher.

At some point, you have to hit something to show that you’re capable of hitting something. Kniz just hasn’t done that.

It’s quite a pickle for the Cardinals, who hoped the combination of Molina’s swan-song and more consistent playing time for Knizner would bring out the best of both players.

That’s failed. At this point, I think the Cardinals would be lucky if they got anywhere close to the combined 75 wRC+ from the catcher position that they got in both 2019 and 2020.

I think something closer to 60-65 is more likely. That is, surprisingly, not going to put them at the absolute bottom of the league because catchers are terrible. But it’s not an acceptable situation for a team with championship aspirations.

So, can we solve it? I don’t think we can.

There aren’t any likely external alternatives. This is Molina’s final season. Are they likely to bench him so they can trade a prospect for a starting catcher? That’s not going to happen. It’s possible they could replace Knizner, but that means giving up a prospect for a part-time catcher who will handle the short side of a platoon with one of the league’s worst hitters. The cost to acquire a league-average bat at catcher would seem to be negated by the lack of playing time offered to such a player.

Internally, they could bring up catcher-of-the-future Ivan Herrera, who is having a quality season down in Memphis. Herrera has a Knizner-like .311/.400/.466 line in AAA. He does walk quite a bit, doesn’t K much, and has developing power. He also has a .354 BABIP, which is not all that relevant but fits the article’s theme. Reports on his defense are mostly positive.

I personally think it’s too early to consider Herrera in a meaningful role with the big-league club. The potential is there to be an average or better starter in the league but considering his struggles early at A+ and AA, I think patience is warranted. His performance at AAA is very encouraging but it would be good for him to spend the entire season at Memphis, barring an injury that forces the club to use him. A taste of the majors would be good for him. A don’t think a long-term call up as the “answer” at catcher would not. At least not before the All-Star Break

In other words, the Cards have a problem with catcher and it’s a problem they’re stuck with for now. Fortunately, the rest of the offense is rounding into form. And the team has Paul Goldschmidt!