Why Phils' strategy with Realmuto could make Knapp important

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Zach Eflin was sharp in his spring debut Wednesday. The Phillies’ projected No. 3 starter allowed just one hit and struck out three in two innings of walk-free, scoreless ball in a 4-2 Grapefruit League win over the Detroit Tigers.

Backup catcher Andrew Knapp was behind the plate for Eflin’s start. 

Don’t be surprised if you see more of the pairing this season.

Knapp had his best season in the majors last year, hitting .278 with a .404 on-base percentage, two homers and 15 RBIs. His strikeout rate (21 percent) and walk rate (17 percent) were both career bests.

Knapp’s performance was directly correlated to an increase in playing time. There were fewer off days and more doubleheaders in the shortened season. Also, starting catcher J.T. Realmuto missed time down the stretch with a hip injury. All of this added up to a higher frequency of at-bats for Knapp and more production.

“He played extremely well for us last year, swung the bat extremely well,” manager Joe Girardi said after Wednesday’s game. “I think it’s important that we give him consistent at-bats (this season), maybe a little bit more than he’s had in the past, like we did last year, and I think he becomes much more productive if we do that.

“J.T. is going to catch a lot but you can’t run him into the ground. Andrew needs to play, too.”

Knapp, who had a two-run double in Wednesday’s win, will continue to get plenty of at-bats early in spring training as Realmuto recovers from a broken right thumb. Realmuto has been in a cast for nearly two weeks and is scheduled to have an X-ray at the end of this week, according to Girardi. That will help team medical officials determine whether Realmuto is on course to open the season on time. At the time of the injury, Realmuto expressed confidence that he would be ready for the April 1 opener and, at the moment, there’s no reason to believe he won’t be. But if it turns out that he needs a little extra time, Knapp will step in.

“We all have the utmost confidence in him,” Eflin said.

One way to achieve the two-pronged goal of getting Knapp some at-bats every week and not running Realmuto into the ground would be to pair Knapp with a particular pitcher, like, for instance, Eflin. The two have an excellent rapport that dates to 2015 when they were at Double A Reading together.

“Sometimes I feel like he knows me better than myself,” Eflin said.

Steve Carlton had his Tim McCarver. Greg Maddux had his Eddie Perez.

Maybe Eflin and Knapp will become a thing.

Girardi is a “fan” of the personal catcher concept.

“I think it’s easier for both the pitcher and the catcher if you consistently catch the same guy,” he said. “But you do have to mix it up in case someone gets hurt or you’re in the playoffs so everybody is comfortable with each other.”

Girardi said he would evaluate an Eflin-Knapp pairing. Surely, Girardi already knows that no catcher has caught Eflin more in the majors than Knapp, who has been behind the plate for 158 2/3 innings with the right-hander. Realmuto has been behind the plate for 127 2/3 innings with Eflin. Eflin’s ERA with Knapp is 4.08. It’s 4.37 with Realmuto.

Eflin became of fan Knapp during that 2015 season in Reading. Knapp played 55 games for Reading that season and hit .360 with 11 homers, 56 RBIs and a 1.050 OPS. He won the Paul Owens Award as Phillies minor-league player of the year.

“Going back to Double A, he was the best hitter I’d ever seen in pro ball,” Eflin said. “He was lights out in Double A and that came with consistently seeing pitches. For him to get consistent reps this spring is huge. A lot of times during the year he’ll go four or five days without seeing live pitching and that’s a tough job.

“Everyone knows his offense can be there from both sides of the plate, but the great thing about Knapp is he cares more about the pitch-calling and defensive part of 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 and he’s absolutely rocked that leadership role.”

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