I was surprised to see the Cardinals make such a big deal of an open competition for the privilege of serving as the No. 2 catcher.
Andrew Knizner vs. Tres Barrera.
I’m excited. How about you?
C’mon now. Is this really a competition?
“It’s very similar [to competitions in the outfield and with bullpen slots],” said Cards manager Oli Marmol, via John Denton of MLB.com. “When you go into it and say there’s real competition as to who’s going to be the backup, I think that’s fair to those guys behind Contreras. That position is extremely important, and the backup catcher is a spot you need high trust in. He’s usually a high-trust/low-maintenance guy that understands his role. [The backup catcher position] will change a little bit and that’s why we want to make sure we’re not viewing this as, ‘Hey, this is [Knizner’s] job.’ No, guys are competing for it and we’ll make a decision once we break camp.”
I’m sorry for being such a nag, but is there that much difference between Knizner and Barrera? Is there any reason to care much about this?
The Cardinals have almost always settled for mediocrity – or worse – in choosing a backup for Yadier Molina. And that was a relatively minor concern.
Molina played with such iron-man frequency, the identity of STL’s No. 2 catcher was rarely essential. Molina was durable, and no catcher in the majors was stronger defensively over the course of his 19 big-league seasons with the Cardinals. You could live with Molina’s flaws offensively once he passed his peak phase as a hitter (2011-2018.)
New starting catcher Willson Contreras will upgrade the offense. He’ll give the Cardinals substantially more power and production from the catcher position that’s been terribly weak offensively over the past two seasons.
But in his five full seasons as as a Cub, Contreras averaged only 92 starts per season at catcher. It’s expected that he’ll increase that rate in St. Louis – and Contreras vows to do so – but the team’s backup catcher has a more important job now.
Accordingly, a competition for the backup catching job is a farce unless that No. 2 catcher is clearly better than what the Cardinals usually go with.
Barrera, 28, is the same age as Knizner. With only 51 career games and 162 plate appearances in the majors, Barrera doesn’t have as much major-league experience as Knizner, who has spent part of five MLB seasons with St. Louis
With Molina diminished by age and injury, Knizner caught more often during the past two seasons. Given a more extensive opportunity, Kiz responded with a two-year OPS+ of 64 … which translates to 36 percent below the league average offensively.
Barrera’s career OPS+ is 21 percent below league average. That beats Knizner, but we’re talking about a small-sample MLB resume.
Unlike Knizner, Barrera can claim at least one MLB season of above average offense. But that occurred in 30 games with the Nationals in 2021. Barerra was 11 percent average (111 OPS+). In 107 plate appearances, Barerra had a .374 onbase percentage, .385 slug and .758 OPS.
According to Statcast, Knizner has been among the worst catchers in the majors at framing pitches, registering a dreadful minus 10 in framing over the last two seasons. Barrera is a tick above average in that area. Over the past two seasons Knizner is +3 in blocked pitches above average; Barrera is a minus 1.
With an impressive career caught-stealing rate of 54 percent, Knizner seemingly has a big edge over Barrera in throwing out base stealers. Barrera has a career caught-stealing rate of 30 percent. Not awful, but below average. And last season Barrera nailed 8 of 10 runners that tried to steal on him.
According to Fielding Bible, Barrera is minus 2 in defensive runs saved during his his brief time in the majors. Knizner? Over the last two seasons, Knizner is a horrendous minus 12 in defensive runs saved, which ranked 71st on a list of 77 catchers who caught at least 375 innings. Good grief.
Two frustrating things about trying to compare these catchers: (1) we just don’t have a lot to go on to make a meaningful evaluation on Barrera. And (2) the Cardinals went for the low-hanging fruit instead of striving to add a more established backup-type to compete against Knizner.
As a Cardinal, Knizner is below the replacement level with a minus 1.7 WAR. That includes a minus 1.3 WAR over the last two seasons. Barrera was slightly above the replacement level during his time in Washington.
Compared to Barrera, Knizner has had a more extensive opportunity to prove himself in the bigs. But so far his record tells us that Knizner has little upside offensively and a poor record at framing pitches. And at least part of his caught-stealing prowess can be attributed to the excellent job done by STL pitchers at holding runners on. Perhaps that will change, for the worse, in the new pitch-clock format.
Barrera has had considerably less time to show what he can do in the majors, so perhaps there’s some potential for future growth and improvement. And he did put up some solid numbers offensively in his limited playing time in 2021.
But this sure looks like a “competition” that will lead to more of the same at their No. 2 catcher spot.
Oh, yeah, I forgot …
Whatever happened to Ivan Herrera?
In his annual prospect rankings for 2023, Keith Law of The Athletic praised Herrera and said he was ready for the majors.
“Herrera is blocked by Willson Contreras, but he’s still ready to be someone’s everyday catcher, even if it’s not in St. Louis,” Law wrote. “Herrera won’t turn 23 until June, and I think he’s someone’s regular, with enough contact quality now to make him a solid everyday player.”
I certainly understand why the Cardinals wanted Willson Contreras as their starting catcher. But Contreras has a five-year contract , so I don’t know what the Cardinals have planned for Herrera. Will he get a chance to serve as the No. 2 catcher in the majors? And if so, when?
Herrera turns 23 years old on June 1 and has played only 66 games at the Triple A level. But if he isn’t deemed worthy of being a big-leaguer catcher by now – capable of beating out Knizner and Barrera – then I assume the Cardinals will trade him at some point. They have other promising young catchers making their way through the STL farm system including Leonardo Bernal and Jimmy Crooks III.
I also assume the Cards want Herrera to get more developmental experience in the minors before wiring him in as their backup in St. Louis. For the time being, it looks like the competition for No. 2 is Knizner vs. Barrera. Kind of sad.
As always, thanks for reading …
Bernie invites you to listen to his opinionated and analytical sports-talk show on 590 The Fan, KFNS-AM. It airs Monday through Thursday from 3-6 p.m. and Friday from 4-6 p.m. You can listen by streaming online or by downloading the show podcast at 590thefan.com or the 590 app.
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All stats used here were sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, Baseball Savant, and Fielding Bible.
For the last 35 years Bernie Miklasz has entertained, enlightened, and connected with generations of St. Louis sports fans.
While best known for his voice as the lead sports columnist at the Post-Dispatch for 26 years, Bernie has also written for The Athletic, Dallas Morning News and Baltimore News American. Bernie has hosted radio shows in St. Louis, Dallas, Baltimore and Washington D.C.
Bernie, his wife Kirsten and their cats reside in the Skinker-DeBaliviere neighborhood of St. Louis.