On Monday evening, J.T. Realmuto was announced as a finalist for the National League Silver Slugger Award.
All things considered, the Silver Slugger finalists aren’t that newsworthy. Announcing Silver Slugger “finalists” is a brand new concept, and it was a completely arbitrary decision that MLB chose to name four finalists at each position. More NL position players were named Sliver Slugger finalists than were named All-Stars this season, which just seems silly. Furthermore, being a “finalist” really just means that Realmuto was one of the top four vote-getters at his position, it doesn’t mean he was named as one of four nominees voters can choose between.
It’s also not very important news because his chances of winning are slim to none. Will Smith of the Dodgers almost surely has this one in the bag.
That being said, I’m still glad Realmuto was named a finalist, because it highlights some key points about his offensive play and his 2021 season.
- Regardless of whether or not he had a down year, Realmuto was still a top-tier player.
- He’s still a great hitter for a catcher...
- ...even if he isn’t a great hitter overall.
- His ability to play almost every day is his biggest offensive asset.
- If you consider durability and baserunning, there’s a case that Realmuto was the most valuable offensive catcher in the National League.
Let’s take a closer look.
Regardless of whether or not he had a down year, Realmuto was still a top-tier player.
Plenty of fans, writers, and TV personalities thought Realmuto was having a down year in 2021. Many pointed to his .782 OPS, which was his lowest since 2016.
Realmuto’s defenders might have responded that his .782 OPS and 108 wRC+ were actually right in line with his career averages (.783 OPS, 109 wRC+).
In response, his detractors could have argued that his career averages include his first couple of seasons, before he was an above average hitter. If you just compare his 2021 season to his previous three seasons, the seasons which earned him the BCIB title, then he was having a down year. From 2018-2020, he had an .825 OPS and a 118 wRC+.
But in response to that, one could point out that Realmuto’s 107 wRC+ in 2019, his first season in Philadelphia, is essentially the same as his 108 wRC+ from this season. How can you call his 2021 season a down year when he’s hitting just as well as he did in 2019?
So did Realmuto have a down year in 2021? That’s still up for debate. But what’s crystal clear is that Realmuto was still a top-tier offensive catcher this past season. Let me explain.
Look at where this pitch was that J.T. Realmuto hit for a walk-off homer. He knew it was at least a sac fly off the bat, thus the fist pump. pic.twitter.com/F5Bn1oOMdh— Todd Zolecki (@ToddZolecki) July 18, 2021
He’s still a great hitter for a catcher
Realmuto’s numbers (.782 OPS, 108 wRC+) look pedestrian when compared with catchers like Will Smith (.860 OPS, 130 wRC+), Buster Posey (.889 OPS, 140 wRC+), Salvador Pérez (.859 OPS, 127 wRC+), Yasmani Grandal (.939 OPS, 159 wRC+), and Mike Zunino (.860 OPS, 134 wRC+).
But after those five All-Star-caliber players, Realmuto was as good or better than anybody else at the position.
Realmuto was second among MLB catchers in hits, fourth in runs scored, and third in RBI. His OPS ranked seventh among catchers with at least 300 PA, but fifth among catchers with at least 400 PA, and fourth among catchers with at least 450 PA. His wRC+ ranked just eighth (min. 300 PA), but his total weighted runs created ranked fourth. He was one of only two catchers in the majors to qualify for the batting title.
In other words, I’m comfortable saying Realmuto was – at worst – the sixth-best offensive catcher in baseball last season. For comparison’s sake, the sixth-best hitting first baseman by wRC+ was reigning MVP Freddie Freeman.
To put it another way, the average NL first baseman in 2021 had a 112 wRC+. Freddie Freeman had a 135 wRC+, which means that Freddie Freeman hit about 23% better than an average NL first baseman. The average NL catcher had an 88 wRC+ and Realmuto had a 108 wRC+, meaning Realmuto hit about 20% better than an average NL catcher. In other words, J.T. Realmuto was essentially the Freddie Freeman of catchers in 2021.
That’s a pretty good comp.
...even if he isn’t a great hitter overall
Evidently, the offensive standard is much lower at catcher than at first base, because catcher is such a demanding defensive position. Even a generational talent like Buster Posey only has a career .831 OPS, 129 OPS+, and 129 wRC+. For comparison, Rhys Hoskins has a career .862 OPS, 126 OPS+, and 126 wRC+.
That means that J.T. Realmuto doesn’t need to hit like a cleanup hitter in order to be a top-tier offensive catcher, and yet the Phillies have relied on Realmuto to be their clean-up hitter for the past two seasons.
I think this is the biggest reason that so many people saw 2021 as a down year for Realmuto. We have this sense of him as an elite offensive player, but he’s really just an elite offensive player for a catcher. The Phillies lineup wasn’t deep enough this season, and they found themselves relying on Realmuto to be their second-best hitter for much of the season, but that’s just not who he is. Realmuto’s Silver Slugger nomination serves as a reminder that while he might have been an inadequate clean-up hitter, that wasn’t really his fault.
Jacob. Took-the-lead. Realmuto. pic.twitter.com/hSpdLg3VMH— Philadelphia Phillies (@Phillies) August 3, 2021
His ability to play almost every day is his biggest offensive asset
J.T. Realmuto is an elite defensive catcher, an excellent baserunner for a catcher, and a strong hitter for a catcher as well, but the thing that made him the BCIB was always his durability. After all, every game that Realmuto plays behind the dish is a game that Andrew Knapp doesn’t.
Realmuto proved that to be the case once again in 2021. He was the only NL catcher to qualify for the batting title, and you could argue that that statistic – and that statistic alone – is enough to make him a Silver Slugger finalist.
His rate stats may not have been eye-popping, but because he played so often, he was still able to provide a ton of offensive value for the Phillies. He was a top-five catcher in almost every major counting stat, from RBI to wRC.
As an aside, it’s also quite possible that Realmuto was sacrificing higher rate stats in order to play more often. His numbers were down in the second half this season (.808 OPS in the first half, .754 OPS in the second half). His numbers also got worse deeper into games (.807 OPS in innings 1-3, .765 OPS in innings 4-6, .727 OPS in innings 7-9). Realmuto was wearing down as the season went on and as games went on, and perhaps with more days off that wouldn’t have been so much of an issue.
Is there a case for Realmuto to win the Silver Slugger?
Let me get this out of the way immediately: I think Will Smith will win the Silver Slugger, and I think he deserves it as well. However, I also genuinely think there is a case to be made for Realmuto.
Will Smith, the presumptive winner, finished the season with 81 weighted runs created. Realmuto finished with 74, which means that Realmuto provided about 7 fewer runs with his bat than Smith did. But the Silver Slugger Award, as defined by MLB.com, doesn’t just recognize “hitting”. It recognizes “the best offensive players at each position in each league”. In other words, if the award is truly to recognize “offensive” greatness, then baserunning must also be a component.
J.T. Realmuto is an elite baserunner, while Will Smith grades out below average. Using the Base Running metric at FanGraphs (BsR), Realmuto was worth 6.5 more runs on the bases than Smith. When you consider runs created on the base paths in addition to wRC, the gap between Smith and Realmuto starts to close.
Many people will argue that baserunning shouldn’t be included in the Silver Slugger conversation. But although it is called the Silver “Slugger,” it is almost always defined as an award for offense, not “hitting.” Moreover, baserunning is already a component of what we traditionally think of as hitting. Fast players have higher batting averages because they can beat out more ground balls. Smart baserunners have higher slugging percentages because they can stretch more singles into double and more doubles into triples. It’s impossible to ever completely separate hitting and baserunning, so why should we try to separate them at all?
Baserunning metrics should be taken with a grain of salt, since runs produced on the bases are harder to quantify than runs produced at the plate. Nevertheless, baserunning should still be a factor in Silver Slugger voting, and if it is, Realmuto and Smith are a lot closer in value than you might have thought.