Andrew Knapp welcomes role as backup catcher, thinks he can help Detroit Tigers in 2023

Detroit Free Press

A well-respected backup catcher in Triple-A Sacramento was paying close attention when Scott Harris left the San Francisco Giants and joined the Detroit Tigers in September as president of baseball operations.

“I thought Detroit would be a good fit for me,” the catcher said.

Two months earlier, Harris signed switch-hitting catcher Andrew Knapp to a minor-league contract for the first time. He hit .276 with eight home runs in 34 games for the Sacramento River Cats, an affiliate of the Giants, to finish the season.

“Scott is this prodigy, if you will,” Knapp said. “He’s only a couple years older than I am, and he’s killing it. For him to see what I did last year, and then offer me a job with his new organization, I feel good about that.”

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In December 2022, Harris signed Knapp — a 2013 second-round draft pick out of Cal — to another minor-league contract. This time, he picked him up to play for the Tigers.

Knapp, 32, received a non-roster invitation to spring training in Lakeland, Florida. He will compete with Jake Rogers and others to be the backup catcher on the Opening Day roster behind starter Eric Haase.

There are set to be eight catchers in big-league camp: Knapp, Haase, Rogers, Donny Sands, Mario Feliciano, Michael Papierski, Dillon Dingler and Julio E. Rodriguez. Three of them — Haase, Rogers and Sands — are members of the 40-man roster.

But Knapp commands the most MLB experience.

Knapp has hit .209 with 13 home runs, 103 walks (11.8% walk rate), 274 strikeouts (31.4% strikeout rate) in 325 games for the Philadelphia Phillies (2017-21), Pittsburgh Pirates (2022), Seattle Mariners (2022) and Giants (2022).

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The switch-hitter is far better hitting from the left side of the plate; he owns a .213 batting average with 12 homers against righties and a .198 batting average with one homer against lefties.

Both Haase and Rogers, a pair of right-handed hitters, prefer to face lefties.

“Coming into camp, I have my eyes set on making that roster,” Knapp said. “With my experiences throughout my career in the role of a backup catcher, I can bring a lot to this team. I understand that I need to win a job and prove I have value. It’s not about putting too much pressure on myself, but I want to have a really good camp.”

‘I’ve thought about my future’

Knapp opened his career with the Phillies, from the 2013 draft through the 2021 season, then played in four different organizations last season: the Cincinnati Reds, Pirates, Mariners and Giants.

The journey felt stressful in the moment.

“Looking back, I feel pretty fortunate to have gone through something like that,” Knapp said. “I don’t feel as nervous about joining a new organization. I learned how to navigate that.”

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He estimates he caught roughly 100 new pitchers throughout spring training and the regular season, from pre-game bullpens to in-game situations. The new experience as a journeyman taught him valuable lessons about communication, relationships and trust.

Knapp looks forward to catching as many bullpens as possible in spring training.

“I think you can learn a lot about a guy based on how they handle their bullpens and what they’re working on,” Knapp said. “Along with that, it’s just talking to these guys and figuring out their mindset as far as how they like to attack a lineup. Everyone is different, so it’s almost like being a psychiatrist or something.”

Defensively, Knapp leans on game management and scouting reports to help his pitchers against opposing lineups. He is not an elite defender, but he understands the nuances of the game. His interactions between the pitching staff, pitching coach and manager are considered exceptional.

Knapp wants to be a manager in his post-playing career.

It wouldn’t be surprising if Knapp formed a strong relationship with Tigers manager A.J. Hinch in spring training. (Another bonus: New catching coach Tim Federowicz managed Knapp with the Mariners’ Triple-A squad last season.)

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Hinch played seven MLB seasons, primarily as a backup catcher, before settling into the front office and manager’s chair. He is entering his 10th season as a manager and his third season leading the Tigers.

“I’ve thought about my future,” Knapp said. “I would really enjoy pursuing a managing career if that’s an opportunity I ever get. For him to be a former catcher, I’d love to learn as much as I can from him.”

But the playing chapter of his baseball career is still being written. This season, Knapp is determined to help the Tigers with his performance on the field and mentorship off the field.

“I’m all about winning and the team,” Knapp said. “It’s all about keeping that team mentality throughout the whole entire season and creating that culture where we’re going to grind every single day, try to win every single day and hold each other accountable in that sense.”

‘How I approach that role’

Learning to be a backup catcher wasn’t easy.

Early in his career, the Phillies prioritized playing time for Knapp in the minor leagues. He would often catch five or six days per week and serve as the designated hitter one day per week.

“And then you get to the big leagues,” Knapp said.

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After two years, the Phillies traded for All-Star catcher J.T. Realmuto ahead of the 2019 season. Realizing his backup role, Knapp said he needed to “figure out how to survive” at the highest level. He turned his focus to scouting reports, and when he didn’t play, he would imagine calling pitches while sitting on the bench.

“The challenge was offensively because I was used to getting everyday at-bats,” Knapp said. “I ended up finding a pretty good routine for myself in the cage during the game to be ready for pinch-hit opportunities.”

Without consistent plate appearances, Knapp has changed his swing and approach several times throughout his career. A new adjustment occurred in July 2022 when the Mariners cut him before the All-Star break.

He spent nearly two weeks with his father in Granite Bay, California — his hometown just north of Sacramento —before the Giants signed him.

Together, they worked on the swing.

Knapp reverted to “swing thoughts” from college and the lower levels of the minor leagues. He felt taller and more athletic in his stance, then hit .419 with four homers in eight games for Triple-A Sacramento.

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Since Knapp felt comfortable, he hit in the batting cage throughout the entire offseason rather than taking a break until Thanksgiving. He feels like he is carrying positive momentum into camp with the Tigers.

Soon, Knapp will begin learning a new pitching staff and competing for a job on the Opening Day roster.

A backup job, that is.

“You can’t really fake it until you’re going through it,” Knapp said. “You have to figure out what works for you and what you value as far as who you are as a player. I wasn’t ever going to be J.T. Realmuto. So it was like, ‘How can I seamlessly fill in when I get an opportunity?’ That’s how I approach that role.”

Contact Evan Petzold at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold.

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