When the Cardinals acquired Max Schrock, the first thing I did was find as much YouTube video of him as I could. I found a lot of tape from the Arizona Fall League, and I compared him to Daniel Descalso on Prospect To Be Named Later. That wasn’t what stuck out to me the most, though. It was this frame by Carson Kelly.
It’s absolutely beautiful. Kelly is set up on the inside part of the plate against the left-handed hitting Schrock. The pitch tails to the pitchers arm side, away from Schrock. It’s among the most difficult pitches for any catcher to frame, especially if it has plus velocity and/or movement.
Kelly does three things extremely well in this GIF. First, he doesn’t move his shoulders. That’s important because shoulder or body movement can give the umpire the perception that the pitch is farther off the plate than it actually is.
Second, he works his glove around the ball using what catchers call a “quarter-turn.” Basically, there are two ways to frame the pitch at the catcher’s left knee. Option A requires the catcher to get his elbow completely outside the ball. However, if the ball is too far outside, it’s easy for the shoulders, hips, or torso to move and give the umpire the perception that the ball is off the plate. It’s also easy to catch the ball off the heel of the mitt and get “thumbed”. Instead, Kelly trusts his hands and catches the ball in a more natural fashion.
Receiving the pitch the way Kelly did above requires enough forearm strength to prevent the pitch from carrying the glove off the plate. Kelly does this very well. He doesn’t try to yank it back over the plate, either. He simply presents the ball to the umpire and allows him to see that is, in fact, a strike.
Now, let’s talk about how an all-time great, Yadier Molina, receives a similar pitch.
With Yadi, there is a little bit of head and shoulder movement, but that’s due to the fact that he’s looking it into the glove, not reaching for it. The quarter-turn here is magnificent. The pitch is an 86 mile-per-hour slider right at his left knee. With the kind of movement Carlos Martinez has on his slider, it’s a hard enough pitch to catch, let alone frame well. The shape of the pitch, however, allows Molina to get his glove around the ball and pull it back towards the plate. In this GIF, Molina does all three things correctly and gets the call.
When you compare Kelly to Molina, you start to see why his defense excites the organization. It’s elite.
Now, let’s take a look at Andrew Knizner handling a similar pitch.
This time, Knizner meets two of the three criteria. He successfully limits his shoulder movement (which has been a problem for him in the past) and executes a quarter-turn. The problem, however, is that Knizner allows the ball to carry his glove right after he catches it. Because of this, he doesn’t get a called strike. That’s not a complete indictment of Knizner’s receiving, however. Sandy Alcantara, the pitcher in the clip, throws in the upper 90’s. The harder the pitch is coming, the more difficult it is to “stick it.”
The fact that Knizner met two of the three criteria is a step in the right direction. When I watched him this summer, it was common to see him lose strikes because of shoulder movement. Usually, that occurred on pitches on the pitcher’s glove side, but it’s a step in the right direction regardless.
While it’s important to recognize Knizner’s improvement defensively, it’s also important to recognize that Carson Kelly is still the superior defender. I know how well Knizner hit at Double-A and in the Arizona Fall League. I’m excited too, but the eagerness to write off Kelly because of his lack of offensive production in the big leagues (which I would attribute to lack of plate appearances, not lack of ability) has been aggravating.
Knizner has raked in the minors, and his defense is improving. Kelly’s defense is elite, and he was improving as a hitter until he stopped getting plate appearances when he was promoted. Both can be true at once. Not long ago, it didn’t look like there was anyone in the organization to succeed Yadi behind the plate.
Now, there are two.
Thanks for reading.