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The instant impact of J.T. Realmuto

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Here’s what Thursday’s big splash (ha ha) brings to the table

Miami Marlins v Philadelphia Phillies Photo by Drew Hallowell/Getty Images

As one of the world’s foremost Jorge Alfaro fans, days like Thursday are bittersweet. After spending plenty of time philosophizing over his potential and analyzing ways he could improve and actually reach that potential, seeing him shipped out in a trade comes as a bit of a bummer. Now, if he’s going to realize those dreams of being an All-Star, he’ll likely do it for the Marlins instead of the Phillies.

But that’s because the guy coming back from Miami in exchange for Alfaro (plus top prospect Sixto Sanchez, left-handed pitcher Will Stewart, and international slot money) is none other than Jacob Tyler Realmuto. His friends call him J.T. You may have heard of him from his All-Star x Silver Slugger-winning 2018 season, his best yet in a four-year stretch of consistent offensive improvement. Yep, that guy’s on the Phillies now.

So, with a grateful eye toward the past — Jerad Eickhoff and Nick Williams are now the only two remaining players from the six-player Cole Hamels haul in 2015 — let’s check out the present. And, boy, it’s shaping up to be a pretty good present. Realmuto represents an instant upgrade for 2019 (and, probably, 2020) in a number of ways. Let’s count them!

No. 1: The Bat

As hard as Alfaro could hit the ball when he made contact, contact itself was an issue. It likely wasn’t going to be super-great this season, either, mostly because things that severely rough take longer to smooth over.

Realmuto brings an offensive profile to the table that seems like it resembles what 95th-percentile projections Alfaro might have brought, with below-average walk rates and 20-homer pop. But Realmuto is far, far better in a couple of key areas at the plate that have propelled him into the discussion of baseball’s best catcher.

Naturally, the first aspect is contact. Although he doesn’t draw a ton of walks, he also doesn’t let the Ks pile up, either. That, in today’s game, is becoming a more valuable skill by the year.

Realmuto Plate Discipline

Season O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing% O-Contact% Z-Contact% Contact% Zone% SwStr%
Season O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing% O-Contact% Z-Contact% Contact% Zone% SwStr%
2016 32.50% 66.40% 48.10% 70.70% 89.10% 82.40% 46.00% 8.50%
2016 30.30% 66.70% 46.50% 63.90% 86.30% 78.20% 44.60% 10.10%
2017 32.50% 65.40% 48.30% 69.10% 89.30% 82.20% 48.00% 8.50%
2017 29.90% 66.70% 46.50% 62.90% 85.50% 77.50% 45.00% 10.40%
2018 29.90% 67.80% 47.00% 63.90% 86.90% 78.90% 45.20% 9.90%
2018 30.90% 67.30% 46.60% 62.80% 85.50% 77.00% 43.00% 10.70%
FanGraphs

Note: For those unfamiliar with FanGraphs shorthand, O-Swing and O-Contact refer to swings at pitches out of the standard strike zone, Z-Swing and Z-Contact refer to pitches in the zone, and SwStr% refers to whiffs as a percentage of all pitches faced.

You can see that, even though Realmuto’s swinging strikes went up year-over-year from 2017 to 2018, they’re still below league average. And they arrive as a function of more discerning swings; check out the dip in out-of-zone swing rates, and how the overall dip in Contact% is far lower than the dip in y-o-y out-of-zone swings and contact. What’s that tell us? Mostly, that Realmuto is reserving his swings for better pitches. He’s still missing a fair bit of those OOZ pitches, but at least he’s done less damage to himself by keeping those swings more in check. And, where it matters, nearly every one of those rates is better-than-average.

Even closer to the surface, the numbers are pretty impressive for a catcher. Over the last three seasons, Realmuto has hit .286/.338/.454 (for a 118 OPS+) with 49 homers, 187 RBI, 92 doubles, and 23 steals in 31 attempts. All of those numbers are at or near the top among all catchers in those last three years, and no one’s particularly close to the 23 steals (Yadier Molina is, apparently, second, with 16 in 25 tries). The guy carries a stick.

No. 2: The Glove

For all the teasing we had with Alfaro’s improvements as a receiver from 2017 to 2018, and his insanely strong arm, the total defense package wasn’t quite assembled for him yet. Part of that was the challenge of dealing with the crazy movement of guys like Jake Arrieta and Seranthony Dominguez, but just as much was certainly due to his own growing pains as a defender.

Now, the Phillies have a more fully-formed defensive profile behind the plate they’ll expect to appear in 120-plus games. And, though Realmuto’s arm isn’t quite as ferocious as Alfaro’s, he compensates.

Realmuto’s thrown out 74 runners in 212 stolen base attempts in the last three years — each year sporting a well-above-average CS% of its own — and now that the word has gotten out about his skill there, attempts are dwindling a bit: From 0.64 SB attempts per 9 defensive innings in 2016 and 2017 to 0.52 in 2018. The passed balls and wild pitches — not something you can always blame the catcher exclusively for, mind you — were also far more manageable than Alfaro’s.

And with arm strength taken into consideration, Realmuto still had a better average pop time (the time from mitt pop to mitt pop at home plate down to second base) than any other catcher. He was number one! Alfaro may have a stronger throwing arm, but Realmuto’s receiving and transfer make up for that difference in arm strength. Although it’s worth mentioning: Realmuto also has the second-strongest arm, by average MPH. Ho-hum.

Here’s one example. On April 27, against the Rockies, Realmuto eliminated David Dahl on a solid rope of a throw.

Look at that transfer. LOOK AT IT! He has to wait on Jose Ureña’s slider to finish dipping across the zone, then swaps the ball from his mitt to his right hand in an absolute flash. The placement is perfection, too. Top it all off with Dahl being no slouch of a runner and, well, I think this part of the equation won’t be one to worry about too much.

No. 3: The Legs

What separates Realmuto further from your garden variety catcher is his speed and base running ability. This is a guy who features the rare-in-backstops ability to steal bases more than once or twice a year, and even add extra bases by advancing on singles and doubles.

You saw a few paragraphs above that he’s got 23 steals in 31 tries in the past three seasons. Those numbers have decreased — from 12, to 8, to 3 — and as he ages, he’s unlikely to spike those totals back up. But the threat is real, and we shouldn’t be shocked to see J.T. take off on a couple steal attempts again this year.

But even if he’s not thieving, the dude’s still gonna run around the bases. And he’s good at that, too! Though far from a perfect stat, Baseball Reference tracks players on the bases, and how far they advance on a given hit. In the last two years, Realmuto’s been good about going first-to-third and second-to-home for a middle infielder, let alone a catcher. The imperfection arises here when considering that this stat doesn’t account for any runner(s) ahead of the guy on base, who may be slower and stop on third base, preventing the trailing runner from potentially going farther. Nor does it consider what skill level of hitter might be following the runner (i.e., a pitcher following up an 8-hole N.L. hitter). Keep that in mind as we discuss the following.

In 2017, Realmuto went first-to-third 14 times on 30 singles hit while he was on first base. In 2018, he went first-to-third 13 times on 23 singles. In percentages, that’s 47 percent in 2017 and 57 percent in 2018. The league averages in those years for all runners: 28 percent and 30 percent, respectively. Add on to that his ability to score from first on a double half the time, and we have ourselves an athlete.

Check out the highlight below. With one out and Realmuto on first, Starlin Castro hits a line drive double off the left field wall in Atlanta’s SunTrust Park. Ronald Acuña fields it pretty well after it takes an odd carom, but a decent chunk of time passes between contact and fielding.

Still, that’s no ordinary catcher on the bases. Realmuto reads it well enough with one out to know that he can take off, and he crosses home plate rather comfortably from first on the double. There’s no play at the plate or relay from Dansby Swanson.

Let’s time this out, for a small, one-highlight sample. We see, toward the end of the clip at around 39 seconds, how Realmuto takes off once Castro hits the ball. It takes a little more than five-and-a-half seconds to go from contact to Acuña’s glove, and Realmuto is halfway to third by then. He reads it well, he runs it well, and he nets a run for his team in a spot where other catchers might fall short. One example, but a telling one.

In keeping with the theme of their offseason, the Phillies moved from the potential and “maybes” of Jorge Alfaro to the higher-probability performance of J.T. Realmuto. This is a player whose impact should be felt instantly. What the team does with his contract situation — he’s set to be a free agent after 2020 — remains to be seen, but for now? Get ready to see a difference.