I’ve spent some time the last few months considering the things that have gone wrong for the Cardinals this season. The list is long. LONG.
Some of those things that went wrong were anticipated. Early in the fall, before the offseason even got going, I devoted this space to Adam Wainwright’s injury, loss of velocity, and the likelihood that the club would bring him back anyway and forgo pursuing additional rotation upgrades. We talked many times about how the MV2 – Goldschmidt and Arenado – were likely to take a step back this season. Willson Contreras’ struggles behind the plate should have been no surprise.
Some were not anticipated. It sure seemed like Steven Matz was poised for a rebound season. He showed again that his inconsistency and propensity for injury matter more than encouraging peripherals. I thought O’Neill, Carlson, Nootbaar, and Walker would be just fine in the outfield. I liked the bullpen.
What you can never count on, for better or worse, are outlier performances. Seasons that defy convention but can make or break a club’s competitiveness. Take Tyler O’Neill in 2021. Who predicted his near-MVP caliber breakout? Or Pujols’ resurgence last season. Unforgettable. Unpredictable.
We call these seasons “career years”. And while you can never rely on them, the Cardinals have. And do. Because they happen every season. There is always at least one player whose performance defies expectations and helps carry the club further than they had a right to go.
I flipped through rosters for the last several years (minus the 2020 COVID season) and found at least one player in a prominent role on the club who dramatically overachieved.
What about this season? Do the Cardinals have anyone that is performing significantly better than expected? Is anyone having what we could truly call a “career year?”
My first answer was no. Jordan Montgomery is having his best year, but his stats are just slightly better than normal. He has 3.3 fWAR right now with a month to go. His second best season is 3.2 fWAR. A .5 fWAR increase might technically be a “career year” but the Cardinals aren’t going to see that.
Nolan Gorman doesn’t qualify either. His numbers have improved that much, but in just his second year, it’s too early to call this season a career outlier. Let’s hope it becomes his career norm.
There was only one player that I could think of who has dramatically outperformed his career expectations. It’s coming from a role and an impact level that encapsulates what has gone wrong for the Cardinals in 2023. That “career year” player is Andrew Knizner.
Entering this season, Knizner had a career 68 wRC+ and a .263 wOBA. His fWAR was -1.7. He’s been bad. The only reason why the Cardinals kept him around was his extremely low salary. He didn’t hit well. He didn’t field well. If he led well it didn’t show because of Yadier Molina’s influence over the clubhouse.
When Molina retired, the club made its stance clear. They did not have a catcher who could step into Molina’s shoes. That included rising prospect Ivan Herrera. It included Knizner, the primary backup over the last two seasons.
The club inked Willson Contreras to a long-term deal to be their starting catcher. That hasn’t gone so well. Contreras was relegated to DH for about two weeks as he worked through his game-calling woes. The club either sorted that out or gave up, and re-installed him as the starter for about a month.
In the second half, as Knizner’s hitting surged and injuries cleared more space in the lineup, the starting catcher role has become more of a timeshare. Contreras has 631 innings caught this season over 73 starts. Knizner has 417 innings caught over 47 starts and 50 games. That’s roughly a 60/40 split, with more time going to Knizner recently.
That’s about the same kind of time split that Knizner had with Molina last season. Molina, though, left the team for a month or more to
watch basketball rest his knees. Knizner received his plate appearances and innings by default in 2022. He’s earning them in ’23. And not because Contreras is slumping at the plate.
This season in 177 PAs, Knizner has nearly doubled his career wRC+. After his homer on Monday night (I’m writing this on Tuesday afternoon), he’s up to 120. His wOBA is .345. That’s built on an astonishing .497 slugging%. He has 10 homers, 3 more than his career total entering this year.
fWAR isn’t a very good tool to measure the impact of a career backup catcher who played mostly behind a Hall of Famer, but in 553 PAs heading into this season, he had a -1.7 fWAR. In his 177 PAs this season, he’s at 0.7. Extrapolate that over 553 PAs and that’s 2.2 fWAR. Not exciting but itself. But consider the difference. If the Cardinals gave him 553 PAs, he’s on pace to increase his fWAR by 3.9!
That is, for Knizner, undoubtedly a career year.
It wouldn’t land on my list above because you can’t count a .7 fWAR as a “career year” for a club. But relative to his expected performance, Knizner has certainly excelled.
Now, is it sustainable?
Like most career year performances, Knizner is benefiting from some improvements in approach at the plate and some really good luck.
In 122 batted ball events, Knizner has increased his average exit velocity from 87.7 over his career (which includes this season) to 89.9. Last year was his low point: 86 mph. In ’21, his other full season in the majors, Knizner had an 87.5. There’s no doubt that he’s hitting the ball harder more frequently.
But he’s not necessarily capable of hitting the ball harder than before. Knizner’s max exit velocity this season is 110.3. Last year it was 110.2. He had a 109.5 mph batted ball event in ’20. That’s pretty consistent for a mostly part-time player.
[Aside: max or 80th percentile exit velocity – I prefer 80th but Baseball Savant lists max – tells us more about a player’s production potential than average exit velocity. So many balls in the 80-90 mph range become outs. Increasing average exit velocity without seeing an increase in max/80th EV should lead to improved production. Increasing average EV AND max EV is a sign of a truly ascending player. 2023 Andrew Knizner and Dylan Carlson fit the first category. 2022 Lars Nootbaar fits the second.]
So, what’s fueling Knizner’s power surge? There are several stats beneath his elevated slugging percentage and ISO that stand out. First, his barrel% is nearly double what he’s done in his career and almost three times higher than last season. His current 10.5% barrel rate is 3.4 percentage points above the league average. That’s great! If you’re Albert Pujols or Paul Goldschmidt. If you’re Andrew Knizner? It’s not hard to believe that number will drop.
Or maybe not. Because pitchers are pitching him like they expect him to be an easy out. His “meatball” percentage is 9.4%! Think about that. Nearly 10% of the pitches that Knizner sees belong on a five-dollar footlong.
If you jump over to Fangraphs, that shows up. Knizner’s HR/FB% – the percentage of his fly balls that leave the ballpark – is 18.2%. Wowzer! Nolan Arenado has only topped that two times during his career. Even while playing in Colorado.
That said, Knizner is hitting more fly balls overall. He’s at 45.5% this season, up from 37.9% last year and 37% overall.
Knizner is hitting the ball consistently harder than ever. He’s hitting the ball consistently in the air. Pitchers haven’t been very careful pitching to it. He’s having a little bit of luck on pitch locations and quality of contact when he swings.
Add it up. Boom. Career year.
It’s not sustainable. But it has happened.
It’s also enough to be somewhat optimistic about his future. Baseball Savant gives Knizner an expected Statcast slash line (xBA, xwOBA, xSLUG) of .240/.318/.453 on the season. His actual performance is .267/.345/.497.
His “luck” factor, if such a stat existed, is probably about 20 points of wRC+. He should be about an average hitter.
What does that mean for Knizner’s future?
This is an important question. The Cardinals have stated that they will re-evaluate Contreras’ future and the catcher position in the offseason. Ivan Herrera has excelled at AAA Memphis and shined in his brief run at the majors this season. If the front office is convinced that Knizner’s rise is real and lasting, they could consider trading Herrera in a deal to acquire their much-needed cost-controlled starter. Contreras and Knizner could then continue their time split.
If the Cardinals determine that Contreras simply isn’t going to work as their starting catcher, they could try to move his fairly reasonable contract. They could also use Contreras as the primary DH. In either scenario, Knizner could find the starting catcher position open for the taking, with Herrera around to push him and apprentice behind him for the season.
It wasn’t that long ago that we discussed the possibility of Knizner getting non-tendered in the offseason. Knizner is entering his second year of arbitration. He’s getting more expensive. It was hard to imagine the Cardinals committing more than the league minimum to a catcher with a career fWAR below replacement level.
That’s a wide range of outcomes.
It’s worth noting that despite his career offensive performance and his 40% timeshare, Knizner’s fWAR is still below 1.0. Even projecting his current performance over a Molina-esque number of PAs, he’s still barely over 2 fWAR. His defense is dragging him down. Statcast believes that Knizner has improved in recent seasons in blocking balls, but he’s below average in both framing and throwing. He’s not as bad as he used to be, but overall he’s a -3 defensive runs catcher. In part-time duty. That’s up from -5 in ’21 and -6 in ’22.
In other words, Knizner’s career year extends beyond his bat. His glove is also defying established conventions.
He’s going to fall back. How much? A 20% loss of offensive production would still leave him well above his career norms. Any slippage in defense starts cutting into his overall production.
The result would probably leave Knizner as a 1.0-1.5 fWAR catcher if he received 450 PAs.
Is that enough for the Cardinals to consider displacing Willson Contreras from the catcher position? No way.
Is that enough to hold off the toolsy but inexperienced Ivan Herrera? Maybe for a while.
Is that enough to keep on the roster next season? Absolutely.
We’re just going to have to watch how it all plays out.
Still, I keep coming back to the idea that inspired this post. Career years. You can’t plan on them. You need them to raise a roster to its ceiling. The lack of such a player this year, with all due respect to Andrew Knizner, is not the deciding factor in their record. It is just the Cardinals’ luck in this failed 2023 that the player who most outperformed career expectations was a player in the least position to make a significant difference in the roster.