The Phillies will have a better idea later this week if J.T. Realmuto will be ready for opening day when his fractured right thumb - currently wrapped in a blue cast - is re-evaluated.
But they do not need to review the results of those X-rays before determining that they will be scaling back the catcher’s workload in 2021.
Realmuto, who turns 30 this month, has caught more innings over the last four seasons than any other catcher. The Phillies are looking to find Realmuto more rest this season. Enter Andrew Knapp.
“J.T. is going to catch a lot, but you can’t run him into the ground,” manager Joe Girardi said Wednesday after a 4-2 seven-inning Grapefruit League win over the Tigers. “Andrew needs to play, too.”
In 2019, Realmuto started 86% of the team’s games before injuring his knee in September. Last season, he started 91% of the games before straining his hip. Those percentages could drop in 2021 as the Phillies try to preserve Realmuto for the duration of the five-year contract he signed this winter.
Knapp, after posting a .663 OPS in his first three seasons, hit .278 last season with a .849 OPS in 89 plate appearances. He proved to be a more than capable backup to the game’s premier catcher. A productive backup could make it easier for Girardi to find days off for Realmuto.
“Andrew played extremely well for us last year. He swung the bat for us extremely well,” Girardi said. “I think the important thing is that we give him consistent at-bats in a sense, maybe a little bit more than he has had in the past. Like we did last year. And I think he becomes much more productive.”
Knapp has played in just roughly half of the team’s games over the last three years, but he’s carved an important clubhouse role as a respected leader. He’s well respected by the pitching staff for his diligent preparation and game calling. Zach Eflin, who pitched two scoreless innings Wednesday to Knapp, said the catcher is “prepared for everything coming his way.”
“We go way back to double A. Sometimes, I feel like he knows me better than myself,” Eflin said. “... I know he’s going to make the most of every single opportunity that’s given to him. He’s an amazing person and deserves to catch every day so I’m excited for him to get playing time and get into a rhythm. During the year, he’ll go four or five days without seeing live pitching. That’s a tough job. For him to get consistent reps in spring training is huge for him. He has to continue to show what he can do and we all have the utmost confidence in him.”
Knapp was one of the organization’s top prospects after being a second-round pick in 2013. He backed it up with a stellar minor-league career, highlighted by a 1.050 OPS in 2015 at double A.
But the transition to major-league pitching proved difficult. Knapp broke in as a backup and hit .223 in his first three seasons. He struck out more than twice as much as he walked. Finally, everything seemed to click last season. He was one of baseball’s most productive back-up catchers last season. The Phillies will still ride Realmuto, but they can now feel confident when they need to give their horse a rest.
“Going back to double A, he was the best hitter I had ever seen in pro ball,” Eflin said. “He was lights out in double A and that was consistency and being able to see pitches every day. Everybody knows his offense can be there. A great thing about Knappy is he cares a lot more about the pitch calling and defensive catching than he does hitting. I’m not saying he doesn’t care about hitting, but his main goal is to be a catcher that pitchers trust. He’s absolutely rocked that leadership role but we’re all excited to see him swing the bat because we know what he can be.”
The triple-A season will be delayed by four weeks, which will cause the Phillies to again use Allentown’s Coca-Cola Park as an alternate site to host players who would normally be playing for the Lehigh Valley IronPigs. If the Phillies need reinforcements, they’ll be calling up players who are training at Coca-Cola Park instead of playing in triple-A games as originally planned. The triple-A season is scheduled to begin May 4.
“I just don’t think they’re quite in the same groove as if they were playing in the minor leagues,” Girardi said. “Because you know they’re playing nine innings every night and it’s a normal schedule where sometimes they play five innings down there, sometimes they play three innings, sometimes they play seven. It’s just different. I don’t think you get the consistent at-bats that you would get during a regular season.”
Rhys Hoskins will be the designated hitter Thursday in Clearwater, Fla. against the Yankees. It will be Hoskins’ first Grapefruit League action as the team eases him in this spring following offseason elbow surgery. ... Matt Moore will start Thursday’s game. Vince Velasquez will work in relief. NBC Sports Philadelphia will air it.