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July 05, 2017

Leadoff-hitting catcher? Mackanin has considered it with underrated rookie Andrew Knapp

Last week in Lakewood, N.J., Aaron Knapp pulled off a couple of rare accomplishments in one-half inning: the Low-A Marlins outfielder worked a walk off Phillies teenage phenom prospect Sixto Sanchez and scored a run off the stingy right-hander, too.

Knapp scored the only run the Greensboro Grasshoppers would get off Sanchez. He showed off his legs by scoring from second on a softly hit ball to right field.

Knapp ranks fourth in the South Atlantic League in stolen bases.

“He was always known for his speed,” Knapp’s older brother, Phillies catcher Andrew Knapp, said Wednesday afternoon at Citizens Bank Park.

Andrew Knapp, three years older, isn’t known for his speed. Most catchers are not, of course.

And like his younger brother, Knapp regularly hits in the lower third of the lineup. There’s an argument to be made that he should get some looks toward the top, not unlike underrated on-base machine and former Phillies catcher Carlos Ruiz in the last half dozen years.

There's even been a groundswell of such talk recently:

Knapp entered Wednesday night’s game against the Marlins slashing .261/.366/.405 in the first three months of his first major league season. Knapp’s .366 on-base percentage ranks 8th best among big league catchers with a minimum of 100 plate appearances and third among Phillies players who fit the same criteria, behind only Howie Kendrick (.403) and Daniel Nava (.395).

“I know when I’m going good is when I walk,” Knapp said. “I try to get as many walks as strikeouts by the end of the year. That’s not really realistic for me, not as much as I would hope, but when I am feeling good at the plate is when I’m able to take a walk instead of trying to do too much on a 3-2 pitch, when I’m taking when I get. I feel really comfortable at the plate, more playing time has helped.”

The now 25-year-old Knapp, like top catching prospect Jorge Alfaro, was known more for his offense than his catching when the Phillies chose him out of Cal-Berkeley with their second-round pick in 2013.

His bat played throughout the minor leagues, when he sported a .348 OBP in four seasons. And the potential of Knapp’s offense really showed off two summers ago, when he slashed .308/.385/.491 with 13 home runs and 35 doubles in 118 games between Class A Clearwater and Double-A Reading, earning him the organization’s prestigious Paul Owens Award in 2015.

But the main priority for any catcher once they arrive in the big leagues is their job behind the plate, from the physical tools of blocking and framing pitches and throwing out runners to the mental preparation of learning opposing lineups and the repertoires, strengths, and tendencies all of the pitchers shuffling in and off your own roster, and then staying in sync with said pitchers for the duration of a game. If you have to take a breath after reading that sentence, imagine being the rookie catcher.

“(Your offense) takes a back seat for sure,” Knapp said. “I don’t want to say I’m not focused on it, but definitely the focus is defense first.”

Coupled with Cameron Rupp’s struggles at the plate (.205/.300/.343), Knapp has handled himself adequately enough as a catcher to earn the majority of playing time lately. Wednesday night marked his seventh start in the Phillies last 10 games.

“I wouldn't call him many primary catcher but I've been giving him more playing time because he's made a better impression than I thought he would make,” manager Pete Mackanin said. “He's handled himself well defensively, that’s the main thing. And he's contributing with some hits here and there. He's swung the bat pretty well.”

And he’s getting on base regularly, most importantly. Especially with a front office watching that puts a lot of emphasis on on-base skills.

Knapp worked a career-high three walks in the Phillies 3-0 loss to the Pirates on Independence Day. So, with leadoff hitter Cesar Hernandez still sidelined with an oblique strain and no one who’s been given a regular opportunity emerging as fit for the top spot, has Mackanin flirted with the idea of putting his new starting catcher atop the lineup?

“That’s funny you ask because I thought about it today, actually,” Mackanin said just before pregame batting practice Wednesday. “He can take a walk.”

Mackanin opted for Nava (.395 OBP) on Wednesday. Leadoff-hitting catchers were nearly as unpopular as left-handed fielding middle infielders for most of major league history.

According to data, only seven players have started double-digit games as leadoff-hitting catchers in the 88-year period between 1913 and 2000. And two of those players, Jason Kendall and Craig Biggio, have played within the last 30 years.

But an emphasis on OBP within the last two decades has changed major league managers' thinking some. Former catcher Carlos Santana led off 85 games for the American League champion Cleveland Indians last season and former Phillie Chase Utley, now 38-years-old, was in the leadoff spot for the Los Angeles Dodgers on Wednesday, a place he hit regularly for them in 2016.

The trend has even turned for some catchers, too.

In the last 10 years, catchers who have made at least 10 starts as a leadoff hitter:

 Year Starts 
 J.T. Realmuto 2016-17   24
 John Jaso 2010-1457 
 Russell Martin  2009-10 37 
 Kurt Suzuki  2008-09 25

In the last 10 seasons, four players have made double-digit starts as leadoff-hitting catchers, including one player in the ballpark on Wednesday night, Pirates outfielder John Jaso, who made 39 such starts as a catcher with Joe Maddon’s Tampa Bay Rays in 2010. More recently, Miami catcher J.T. Realmuto led off 23 times last season.

In another month, the debate of whether Knapp could or should lead off won’t matter, as Hernandez (owner of a .378 OBP and 19 stolen bases in the last 365 days) will be off the DL and back atop the lineup. But the fact that it’s even a conversation piece is something, especially when you’re talking about a first-year player who has had to make his defensive work a priority in his first half-season in the big leagues.

As the All-Star break nears, Knapp has been an underrated bright spot for a Phillies team that hasn't created much to get excited about. He’s more comfortable in his own big league skin, and it’s paying off at the plate.

“When the season first started it was just like, ‘Alright, just don’t screw anything up,’” Knapp said. “The more you play the more comfortable you get and you get more confidence, facing guys every night that have wipe-out stuff. You kind of get used to it. Especially in the (National League) East, between Washington and New York, there are tons of (top rotation guys) who throw really hard. So you’ve got to be ready to hit from the first pitch.”

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @ryanlawrence21

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