ALLENTOWN, Pa. — Starting pitching has been one of the Phillies' greatest strengths in 2016, in large part to the emergence of budding stars like Aaron Nola, Jerad Eickhoff and Vince Velasquez. And the next wave of prospects is already right on their heels at Triple A in Zach Eflin, Jake Thompson, Mark Appel and Alec Asher.
Then there's the prospect charged with handling the impressive staff at Lehigh Valley. A second-round draft pick in 2013, Andrew Knapp isn't merely getting an education behind the plate and at the dish. The 24-year-old is becoming acquainted with a collection of pitchers he may very well wind up working with if and when he eventually reaches the major leagues.
"It's been nice being able to work with these guys and you can create a relationship, kind of go deeper into how they like to pitch and what they like to do in certain situations," Knapp said Thursday. "I think after the first couple starts, we really started firing on all cylinders."
How much Knapp's familiarity with the Phillies' incoming talent will help at the next level remains to be seen, but it can't hurt with the big question surrounding his development being how he'll mature as a catcher defensively. He didn't play the position full-time during three seasons at the University of California, where he saw action at first base and right field as well, leaving the Phillies with a bit of a project behind the plate.
"[Retired major-league catcher/IronPigs bench coach John Mizerock] and I have been working pretty much every day defensively, blocking balls, throwing, receiving," Knapp said. "A lot of stuff we've been doing too has just been watching film, going into the video room and watching previous games, just watching me throw, watching me catch and block and stuff. I'm kind of a visual guy, so that's been able to help, being able to see myself on TV and make adjustments that way."
Lehigh Valley manager Dave Brundage is impressed with the hard work Knapp has put in, but is also realistic about what areas must continue to develop.
"His defense is a little bit behind his bat, but he's learning," Brundage said. "He doesn't have the experience behind the plate like most catchers do, so he's gonna make mistakes and I've let him know I don't care about the mistakes that we're gonna make, it's just learning from the mistakes that we do.
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"His receiving has improved immensely. I think he's getting more comfortable, and that's the confidence level, where he's just unsure of himself. Blocking balls, he's been better. Some of the tougher blocks to his right and things like that is what he's been working on. His throwing to second base is a work in progress, and it's not for lack of work ethic, he's out here every day working on it."
One area where Knapp is demonstrating growth is in how he handles the staff, especially as he's learned their tendencies and that of the opponents' hitters. The opportunity to build a rapport with such talented pitchers who are executing the game he's calling surely must be a confidence boost.
"The other thing we've been hammering is pitch calling," Knapp said. "Being able to manage the pitching staff and going out and having a game plan based on the scouting reports and what not."
"I think it all kind of goes hand in hand," Brundage said. "How comfortable you are back there with the confidence and everything like that. With the staff he's got going, he's worked very well. He's sticking to game plans. He and Mizerock have worked night and day on calling games and just being a good influence on his pitchers, understanding that he's back there and he's the leader of them."
If Knapp isn't cutting it as a catcher, the Phillies might go out of their way to find a home for him anyway, even if it means sacrificing some defense behind the plate for offense. While his swing has been slow to take off in 2016, the switch-hitter has shown the ability to bat for both average and power, last season posting a .360 average with 11 home runs and 56 runs batted in over just 55 games at Double A Reading.
So far this year, he's hitting only .238 with five homers and 17 RBIs in 30 outings after moving up to Triple A. The quick jump to Lehigh was necessary in part because of the Phillies' acquisition of Jorge Alfaro, another top catching prospect now at Reading. Regardless, Knapp insists any early struggles were the result of a slump he's since snapped, and not problems adjusting to more refined pitching at a higher level.
"The pitching isn't much different," Knapp said. "It's just a little more tightened up, a little more polished. You have a lot of guys who have pitched in the big leagues, so they know how to go about facing hitters.
"I went through a little bit of a slump about two weeks ago. I was just chasing a lot of bad pitches instead of last year, what gave me a lot of success in Double A was I was selective. I've been doing that a lot better as of late, just getting better pitches to hit and getting in hitters' counts, and then that's when you drive the ball."
The patient approach seems to be paying off. Knapp's last start snapped an eight-game hitting streak, during which the catcher went 8 for 25 (.320) with two home runs and four RBI while also drawing four walks.
While Knapp needs to remain consistent at the plate, how he develops behind it may prove the ultimate test of whether or where he sticks and if a promotion is not in the too-distant future. The Phillies were fortunate last week when catcher Cameron Rupp escaped a brutal home-plate collision without serious injury. However, it's scenarios like those — or a potential midseason Carlos Ruiz trade — that could result in Knapp's call to the big leagues at virtually any point now.
Knapp understands there's always plenty of room for improvement, but he's confident in where he's eventually headed.
"I think I'm ready for that call," Knapp said.
"That's just the way the game is, you've got to be ready. That's kind of what I've been doing this season is just being able to prepare myself for when that call happens, so if it happens this week or it happens months down the line, I'll be ready."