One to Watch: Andrew Knizner

(Thanks to Brian Walton/The Cardinal Nation for allowing us to use his photo of Knizner)

Andrew Knizner certainly wasn’t a complete unknown at North Carolina State, but very few people foresaw him being where he is now. After hitting .330/.373/.450 in 2014, he was named as a reserve on the Freshman All-America team at third base, a list that also included future first-round draft choice, Will Craig.

Encouraging early on was Knizner’s ability to demonstrate good bat-to-ball skills, striking out only 21 times in 231 plate appearances that year. While promising, however, he was clearly not without his flaws, evidenced by his drawing of only four walks all year and slugging a modest .450. Absurdly, he was hit by 12 pitches, triple his number of walks drawn, to keep his on-base percentage afloat, but his plate discipline clearly required some refinement. Most concerning, however, was his .918 fielding percentage at third base, an untenable mark for an infielder. Ironically, his initial defensive struggles, coupled with his team-first attitude, may have kickstarted a promising professional career.

According to a May 2015 piece from The Raleigh News & Observer, it was in the Cape Cod League, where Knizner was assigned after his freshman year as a reward for his solid season, that he was asked about his willingness to transition to catcher to replace the outgoing Brett Austin, a fourth-round draft choice that year now in Double-A in the Chicago White Sox system. Despite justifiable surprise – Knizner was a shortstop in high school with little experience anywhere besides the left side of the infield – Knizner was all-ears, willing to embrace the increased rigors, both physical and mental, of his new position.

On the surface, Knizner’s offensive game appeared to take a step back that year, although, he continued to make strides at the plate. While still aggressive, he demonstrated a more advanced approach, cutting his strikeout-to-walk ratio from 5.25 in his freshman year to only 1.50 in his sophomore year. Despite some predictable growing pains defensively (allowed 16 passed balls his sophomore year), Knizner demonstrated enough aptitude at the position to impress the Wolfpack coaching staff, recording a higher caught-stealing rate in his first crack at catcher than his predecessor had the year before.

That faith was rewarded in his junior season when Knizner cut his passed ball total nearly in half while setting career highs in plate appearances and walk rate. (His strikeout rate ticked up somewhat, but not to an unsustainable rate). Despite his defensive improvements, scouts were still sufficiently skeptical about his ability to remain behind the plate, and he ranked as Baseball America’s 257th best overall draft prospect after his junior year.

St. Louis snagged him with very little fanfare in the seventh round of 2016’s MLB Draft.

Just over a year later, scouts are ignoring Knizner no more, increasingly confident in his ability to stay behind the plate and impressed with some unexpected power strides that he has made as a professional. Knizner’s plus arm has been on display throughout his minor league career, as he has successfully cut down 35 of 77 (45%) of attempted base stealers while continuing to progress as a receiver. After recording nine passed balls in his half-season of Rookie Ball after the 2016 draft, he was charged with only three in 665 innings at two stops in 2017. Toss in an impressive performance in the 2017 Arizona Fall League, a league in which many catchers struggle due to the physical toll of playing the position through an extended season, and Knizner’s prospect arrow is now pointing firmly upwards, even if mainstream lists have not yet reflected it.

While MLB.com still ranks Knizner 27th among Cardinals farmhands, he is all but guaranteed to rank much higher in the next update, having ameliorated many of the defensive concerns surrounding him and raked to the tune of .324/.371/.462 in his first crack at Double-A.

Fangraphs’ Eric Longenhagen recently indicated that he sees only “marginal” differences between Knizner and Carson Kelly, the presumptive heir apparent to Yadier Molina in St. Louis whom MLB.com ranked as the 31st best prospect in all of baseball. While Knizner’s defensive improvement is the most significant change to his profile, his offensive production as a professional dwarfs anything he did in college.

In three stops along the way in his professional career, Knizner has run isolated power marks of .173, .201, and .137 each of which was higher than he managed in any season in college. The righty struck out in only 11.4 percent of his professional plate appearances, once again displaying his advanced bat-to-ball skills. While still an aggressive hitter, one who is likely to always run low walk rates, Knizner has spoken recently about being a bit more selective offensively, zeroing in on pitches with which he can do damage to all-fields.

This has also been reflected in the numbers. Knizner became increasingly more spray-oriented in his Double-A stint, and while that may depress his power numbers, that should prove a worthwhile adjustment in the long-run as he continues to face more advanced pitching and defenses.

There may not be many lessons for teams to learn from Knizner’s  rapid ascent from seventh-round draft choice to the doorstep of the majors and top prospect lists. As he himself acknowledged, making the transition to catcher is grueling – both mentally and physically – and many players never develop defensively in the way that he has. Nor could many have foreseen his exceptional year-and-a-half offensively as he has torn his way through the lower-levels of the minors.

Knizner’s strong makeup and willingness to embrace personal uncertainty for the good of his team has complimented his physical tools and allowed him to reach extremely lofty personal heights. He still has work remaining and he holds only a small – albeit excellent – sample of work at the Double-A level. Concerns about his plate discipline and his defense will likely loom over him until he has a consistent track record of major-league success. Knizner’s rise from 226th overall pick to relevance in just over a year has been remarkable and helped to quiet some of those doubters.

Knizner would undoubtedly be selected much higher, possibly in the first round, if teams were to conduct a re-draft tomorrow.

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