JUPITER, Fla. — As part of the homework he took into the offseason, Cardinals catcher Andrew Knizner used video to study dozens of late-game situations he did not get to call, did not get to see in person, but could still scrutinize for experience.
He would prep for the replays by researching the cold zones of hitters, the heat brought by the pitcher, and where the metrics might meet for a high-pressure out. An engineer major in college, he said, he likes numbers and wants them handy, just as he would for a game.
That is still his biggest variable.
How many games he will get is an equation the Cardinals must solve.
For the third consecutive season, Knizner comes to big-league spring training as the young catcher on the depth chart positioned behind Yadier Molina but not guaranteed to be the Gold Glove fixture’s backup. In each of the past two years, the Cardinals signed veteran Matt Wieters to serve in that role. This year, newcomers Tyler Heineman and Ali Sanchez have been added as competition. While the names have changed, the question hasn’t, kicked back year after year until now. The Cardinals appear ready to face the answer: How much playing time can they assure for Knizner in the majors as Molina’s backup? On Friday, the word “succession” was used.
“I think this is a question and topic we talk about every year, and I think to some level we have to come to grips with (it),” said John Mozeliak, president of baseball operations. “Yadi has to understand where he’s at in his own career and balance that with us trying to create that, really, succession plan or pipeline of sorts for the next person who is going to get that catching role. We have somebody like Kiz.
“As we look at 2021,” Mozeliak continued, “we can confidently say we know we have to balance playing time with Yadi with some level of development and gaining experience for that next generation or iteration of a succession plan for the Cardinals.”
When Heineman signed with the Cardinals early this offseason he did so assuming Molina would be back. It took some time. Within two weeks of the start of spring training, Molina, 38, and the Cardinals agreed on a one-year deal to bring the longest-tenured Cardinal back for an 18th season. Heineman said it was appealing to get a chance to learn from “my idol growing up.” Molina’s influence on the young catchers in the Cardinals’ organization is as obvious as the Nike swoosh on so many of their chest protectors, like Knizner’s.
That is Molina’s brand as the first catcher to wear Nike’s Jordan logo.
Watching the young catchers handle bullpen sessions Friday, some even have the Molina mannerisms. Ivan Herrera, the Cardinals’ top catching prospect and one of the leading prospects at the position in all of baseball, settles into his squat like Molina, has similar movements with his mitt as he tries to convey calm to a pitcher. Heineman picked up on that after three days.
“He rubs off on people — the way he goes about it and the way he thinks about catching and being there for the pitcher always,” Heineman said. “Respecting the running game and respecting 90 feet. Being prepared to block. I see that in all the young guys. … On top of being one of the best physically to ever play the catcher position, I think just mentally he’s far and away above everybody else.”
Molina gets there with instincts honed by experience.
Knizner has worked to get instincts through others’ experience.
Molina’s goal each year is to lead the league in innings, and he has stressed that his goal at 38 is to win a 10th Gold Glove, assert his place as the best defensive catcher of his generation, and prove he can play another season. What playing time that leaves his backup is a concern for the Cardinals who want to prep Knizner to be ready for an everyday role as soon as 2022, while also have Herrera on the move in the minors. It could put Knizner on the Interstate-55 shuttle seeking playing time at Class AAA Memphis for stints. Or, the emphasis could be, like it was this winter, training his eyes by watching games through the eyes of others.
“Try to get ahead of the curve a little bit,” Knizner said. “Baseball is a game where every play is different, every inning is different, every pitch is different, and the more you can see different scenarios and different outcomes — I think the big thing is thinking along with each play, each pitch, and then you’re able to remember certain things. Like, in that scenario this is what happened. I want the same result or different result and then call a pitch to change the outcome — or keep the outcome the same.”
With help from the Cardinals’ catching instructor Jamie Pogue and video coordinator Chad Blair, Knizner was outfitted with video from close games in the seventh, eighth, ninth inning.
He wanted to study how catchers call those moments.
None of the games were Cardinals games.
“I was there for most of them,” he said.
Knizner sorted the games by catchers with high ERAs — that is the earned run average while they are in the game — and low ERAs, the better number. He wanted to contrast how pitchers with low ERAs called high-leverage situations. He would prep for the video clips as he would game, watch through the innings once, and then start picking them apart with Pogue. “Mental reps,” manager Mike Shildt called them.
Knizner also kept in contact with Cardinals pitchers this winter to see how throws have been going, what they are working on. He even started scouting the Reds and Marlins — the Cardinals’ first two opponents in the regular season.
“I think you can learn from watching,” he said. “It’s just experience, and it all goes back to the preparation. The more you’re prepared you’re going to be better at doing anything.”
It all comes down to the time he gets to do it.
The Cardinals have a number of starts in mind that they think is viable, but they’ll let spring play out, competition happen, and ready both Molina and Knizner for that balance they hope to strike between the present and the future.
Knizner will use to the time to learn from the past.
“I’ll go look at some playoff games and see if there’s any difference in the way the catcher calls a game or manages a game,” Knizner said. “Maybe that’s something I can do over the weekend.”
Jordan Hicks (elbow surgery) recovered well from his first bullpen session of the official camp and will repeat that outing Saturday, throwing every third day to begin spring training. His schedule gives him an added day of rest, but as a reliever he will need less time to be ready for opening day. … Julio Rodriguez, a rising catcher in the Cardinals’ organization, has a wrist injury that kept him off the spring training roster for the first time in several years. Rodriguez will have the joint examined this week in Jupiter, Fla., and the club expects him to have his hamate bone removed, delaying his return several months. … The Cardinals’ initial understanding was the other four teams on Florida’s east coast would play nine-inning games to start spring training. Not so, Mozeliak updated Friday. Some of the exhibition games in the first week of Grapefruit League play may be limited to seven innings and will be “game-day decisions.” Mozeliak said the hope is to notify fans early when that is the plan.