Knizner preps to be more than Yadi's backup

February 19th, 2021

Hunkered down as the pandemic worsened over the winter, did what many around the world did. He delved deeper into hobbies. He started binging some TV.

Knizner’s watchlist came from catching/bullpen coach Jamie Pogue. Absent were such shows as Peaky Blinders and The Crown. Instead he had a laundry list of late-innings baseball. His assignment? Simulate how he would have worked with the pitchers to call pitches in those situations.

He’d watch twice. Once as a casual fan, then again as an analytical sponge, the goal to sharpen his catching instincts by seeing what worked well -- and what didn’t -- between pitcher and catcher.

“Almost as if I’m looking at it as a manager,” Knizner said on Friday. “How would I manage that game?”

That’s part of the natural progression the Cardinals hoped their catcher of tomorrow would make this offseason, and one they have seen continue into Spring Training. With his role still undefined, Knizner is bracing for a future that ranges from starting the year in the Minors to splitting starting duties with Yadier Molina on the big league roster.

And so far the returns are positive.

“Kiz has really done a nice job,” manager Mike Shildt said. “He’s off to a good start to camp, he’s in a good place physically and mentally.”

Both of those sharpened aspects are mostly Knizner’s doing, but especially the mental portion. He's the one who requested the film homework from Pogue. He checked in with his pitchers over the offseason to gauge how their bullpens were progressing. He finds comfort immersing himself in the expanding role that numbers and data have in the game -- an interest that’s doubly important for the catching role.

“I studied engineering in college, so I like numbers," Knizner said. “I now have the system on my computer at home, so I’m able to watch film for hours a day and really try to learn those hitters that we face. Along with the pitchers, too. I’ll watch the opposing pitcher. That’s a real big part of what I do.”

Knizner also likes looking at scouting reports. There’s still almost six weeks until Opening Day, but his mental notebook consists of notes on the Reds and Marlins, St. Louis’ first two opponents this season.

Although he has made only 17 Major League starts -- mostly because Molina and Matt Wieters have blocked his path the past few years -- he has a comfortable working relationship with the pitching staff.

“I like the word 'familiarity,'” Shildt said. “It’s a positive familiarity.”

What the Cardinals don’t want to happen is for Knizner to simply fill a roster spot. There’s less opportunity for development just watching Molina, and Molina has expressed a willingness to do whatever is best, as determined by Shildt and the coaching staff.

President of baseball operations John Mozeliak has said that balancing development and Molina’s time is the focus for 2021.

“Yadi has to understand where he's at in his own career, and balance that with us trying to create that succession plan or pipeline of the next person that's going to get that catching role,” Mozeliak said. “We've got to be very cognizant of trying to find those at-bats, trying to find game experience that is at the Major League level for someone like Kiz.”

Knizner is not alone in his hopes of making the roster. The club added Ali Sánchez -- who profiles as a "defense first" backstop -- in a trade with the Mets and signed Tyler Heineman to a Minor League deal.

All three of them remain behind Molina in the pecking order. The elder statesman, re-signed to a one-year deal and set to turn 39 in July, has embraced his mentor role, speaking to the strengths of the younger catchers on the roster this offseason, and he has already been captured working alongside them in camp.

“I think there's just inherent respect between all of us. I think this is a complete unit, and it's not just one person,” Heineman said.

Even if neither Heineman nor Sánchez makes the Major League roster, the Cards see value in having their veteran presence at the Triple-A level, where they can share their Major League experience with the pitching staff and serve as a next-man-up should someone ahead on the depth chart fall injured.

There is a little bit of bad news on the Cardinals’ catching front. Julio Rodriguez, the club’s No. 15 prospect per MLB Pipeline, has sustained a wrist injury, Mozeliak said, which is why he was not included on the list of non-roster invitees despite being positioned to start the year at (most likely) Triple-A.

Rodriguez will report to camp for evaluation in the coming days, but the club believes it’s an injury to the hamate bone and that it’ll require surgery.

“That's unfortunate, but that is a solvable problem,” Mozeliak said, “and usually one players bounce back from.”