Before shambling to the Injured List with a painful strained tendon in his right foot, the ageless Yadier Molina was leading the Cardinals in every way. In addition to his usual commanding presence behind the plate, Molina was the firebrand of the offense. His potent opening month featured a .323 average, .631 slugging percentage, five homers, five doubles and 14 runs batted in.
Will it last?
In a “Real or Not Real” piece for ESPN, baseball analyst David Schoenfield wrote this: “Molina’s OPS+, however, has been below average three of the past four seasons and he’s already exceeded his 2020 home run total. Verdict: Not real. In the Statcast era, Molina’s best barrel rate has been 5.9%. He’s at 13.7% in 2021. It just doesn’t line up with his history. This feels like a classic hot streak.”
Molina isn’t indestructible or permanent; it just seems that way. Losing Molina is always an unsettling development because of his all-around value, including game-planning and leadership. You can’t replace 2,007 games of award-winning catching experience. But while it is never beneficial for the Cardinals to have Molina off to the side, healing, I look forward to seeing how Andrew Knizner handles the first significant catching opportunity of an developing MLB career.
Knizner has talent. And while Molina is on the mend, we’ll have a chance to get a more extensive look at Knizner. This figures to be a meaningful showcase considering Molina’s age (approaching 39) and uncertain status beyond this season. In the moment, the Cardinals will have to rely on the young catcher to do his part to keep the pitching staff rolling. And a burst of offense would be appreciated.
“It’s an opportunity for Kiz,” Cardinals manager Mike Shildt said via video conference before Tuesday’s 5-2 win over Philadelphia. “He’s waited in the wings and earned it, played well. And now it’s more of a consistent opportunity for him.”
Knizner, 26, has made 19 starts and caught only 207 innings for the Cardinals in parts of three seasons. But the front office has always liked Knizner’s bat, and he’s progressed defensively after playing multiple positions in college ball at N.C. State.
In the minors Knizner improved his offensive performance at every stop. There were no setbacks after his promotion to the next level. That isn’t easy to do.
Small samples here, but…
Knizner has thrown out 56% percent of the runners that tried to steal on him during his time as a Cardinal. This season Knizner has a catcher ERA of 2.29. And in five starts with Knizner behind the plate, STL starting pitchers have been nipped for only four earned runs in 31.1 innings.In 25 plate appearances this season Knizner is batting .304 with a 115 OPS+. (100 is average.)
Though most of the offense at catcher has been supplied by Molina, Knizner has done his share when given a chance. Among the 30 MLB catching councils, the Molina-Knizner combination ranks second in batting average (.321) and OPS (.953.) The Cardinals drafted Knizner for his bat. He seems to be a fit, but it’s too soon for assumptions. But he’ll be watched. Closely.
“I’m kind of going by the motto, ‘If you stay ready, you never have to get ready,’” Knizner said in a recent video conference with the STL baseball media. “This whole year, I’ve been prepared every single day, and I think that has allowed me to kind of just roll into these starts and just keep it rolling. I’m just being prepared for whatever this team needs, and that’s what I’m going to do for 162.”
In Tuesday’s victory Knizner went 2 for 4 and scored from first base on a double by Tommy Edman. His athleticism is obvious. And Knizner must be doing a lot of things right as a receiver, because we’re seeing the starting pitchers sustain their run of dominance.
“I appreciate that he follows the game plans we have, and I also appreciate that he makes adjustments during the game, which has been a nice sign of growth for Kiz,” Shildt said.
Knizner’s chance to play could lead to a breakthrough. Probably not this year, unless Molina has additional injuries or requires more rest than usual. But if Molina retires after the season — which is no sure thing — then Knizner would be in position to take over as catcher.
Top prospect Carson Kelly never had an opening in St. Louis. He batted .154 in 131 scattered plate appearances as Molina’s backup (or the No. 3 catcher) for multiple seasons. Kelly’s offense ignited after his trade to Arizona in the deal for first baseman Paul Goldschmidt.
In 2019 Kelly walloped 18 homers and slugged .478. He was among many major-league hitters to struggle during the short-schedule 2020 season, but that was definitely an aberration. In 17 games for the Diamondbacks this season Kelly is batting .340 with a preposterous 1.274 OPS. He has more walks (14) than strikeouts (10) and the plate discipline has led to a .508 onbase percentage. And Kelly has triggered six homers and driven in 14 runs.
Kelly’s path in St. Louis was blocked by Molina. Another top catching prospect, Knizner, could experience the same fate. But at least for a little while, maybe longer, he has the stage. One way or another, Knizner’s performance could shape the future. For the Cardinals, and for his career.
Thanks for reading …
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