The Phillies acquired J.T. Realmuto in February of 2019 in exchange for top prospect Sixto Sanchez, and young catcher Jorge Alfaro. They expected to have him for at least the two full seasons before he hit free agency, and doubtlessly hoped they could sign him to a contract extension that would keep him in a Phillies uniform longer.
The recent agreement between MLB and the Players Association regarding the 2020 season includes the provision that players will continue to accrue service time for a full season, no matter how much of the season ends up being played. That would mean Realmuto would become a free agent after 2020, on schedule, and would make losing him to free agency all the more disappointing.
Given that there is a transactions freeze currently, an extension won’t be possible for at least a while longer. Assuming negotiations for an extension will resume at some point, the terms typically speculated have aggregated around five years, and $20-25 million per year, or $100-$125 million total for 2021-2025.
Over the past three years, Realmuto has quite arguably been the best catcher in baseball, with Yasmani Grandal as his only real competition:
This isn’t a boom period for catchers, generally. The 15.0 WAR for the highest total in a three-year period is below average, but not by much. However having the third highest total as low as 9.1 WAR is fairly rare. Over the last 50+ years, it only happened for the three-year windows ending in 1987 through ‘92.
Given that he’s been this good over his age 26-28 seasons, what can we expect from him over a five-year extension, covering his 30-34 seasons?
One way to get a sense for that is to look back at catchers who have been similarly successful at 26-28, and see how they did at 30-34.
Ranking all catchers in MLB history by the WAR they produced in their 26-28 seasons gives us this list (fangraphs.com):
Before we go further, Jonathan Lucroy in a virtual tie for 2nd most all-time? Realmuto at 15th all-time is not too shabby, though.
For purposes of this exercise, we’ll consider everyone within 2 WAR of JTR, indicated by the red box, so those who produced between 13 and 17 WAR from age 26 to 28.
Removing Realmuto himself, as well as Yasmani Grandal (only 1 season in the 30-34 range), and the two guys from the 1800s, leaves this list of 11:
Two notes on this group’s age 30-34 seasons:
- we’ll include Joe Mauer even though he wasn’t a catcher for most of that period
- Thurman Munson was tragically killed in August of his age 32 season, so for him we’ll extrapolate a total through age 34
The result is below, and Realmuto’s peers on the 26-28 list provide a range of outcomes for a catcher’s age 30-34 seasons:
An average WAR produced of 14.2, or 2.8 WAR per season over the five years. The median is 12.1 (Lance Parrish), at 2.4 WAR per year.
The average value per WAR in 2019 was pegged at $8 million. We don’t know where that will go after this season’s disruption, let alone the next CBA, so let’s say for argument’s sake that it stays at $8M per WAR for the next five years.
If Realmuto were to produce 14.2 WAR, that would be worth about $113 million, which is in the ballpark of contract values that have been speculated for him.
Could he do better than this? Is he a better athlete than most catchers, or better able to keep himself healthy and productive? Possibly. Could he do worse than this? Also possible. But this kind of range is a reasonable scenario.
That kind of production would probably not be anywhere near “best catcher in baseball” territory, nor should we expect that for a catcher in that age bracket.
But it would still be very good. Over the last five years, 14.2 WAR would have ranked 4th highest among all MLB catchers.
The other thing to note about the above list is that, probably not surprisingly, none of the 11 catchers hit better at 30-34, than they did at 26-28. One matched his wRC+ (Molina, at 105), while the other 10 declined by anywhere from 2 to 30 points.
Overall, their aggregate wRC+ declined by 13 1⁄2 points, from an average of 125.1, to 111.6. Considering that Realmuto’s wRC+ has been 113 over the last three years, while he would certainly be able to play first base down the road, and will most likely also have the option to DH, if he falls off by a similar amount he will be a league average hitter at positions that typically demand more than that.
One might be wondering at this point about those seven catchers who accumulated more than 17 WAR at age 26-28 (above the red box in the second table). The results for them aren’t that different, with an average of 14.5 WAR at 30-34 (extrapolating Posey and Lucroy).
All of this is not to say by any means that the Phillies should not try to extend Realmuto, but it is fairly important that he remain behind the plate and continue providing very good defense.