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Let’s have a chat about J.T. Realmuto

Pump the brakes a bit, but there are some concerns for worry

MLB: New York Mets at Philadelphia Phillies Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

I’ll bet you think this is going to be all about that play from yesterday.

That’s a surprisingly bad play by Realmuto, one that could have cost his team the game, but thankfully did not. The takes from fans, though, after the game, and over the past few days, might have been worse than that play.

Let’s restore a bit of sanity here. J.T. Realmuto is still one of the top catchers in the game right now. He makes his team better when he is playing. His place at the top of the catcher heap may have been usurped by someone like Will Smith or maybe Adley Rutschman soon, but that doesn’t mean a whole lot to a growing portion of the fanbase. For them, the sooner Realmuto is gone, the better.

Now, there is no real way to sugarcoat it: Realmuto isn’t having a good season at the plate. Defensively, he’s still one of the top catchers in the game, and his baserunning, outside of that very public brain cramp, has been quite good for them this year (his 1.4 baserunning runs is in the top 30 of all MLB). But that’s not the stuff people want to hear about. They want to talk about his struggles at the plate and how they are making the team worse. And yes, there is quite a bit to worry about, but before you continue to clamor for the team to jettison him onto another team, let’s look at where it has gone wrong and see if there is any evidence that it can be righted.

The first thing I’d point out is the fact that since he has joined the Phillies, he has been a notoriously slow starter. I used this chart a week ago and it still applies now.

Realmuto OPS by month

Year March/April May June July August Sept./October
Year March/April May June July August Sept./October
2018 1.092 0.827 0.907 0.859 0.631 0.759
2019 0.791 0.729 0.726 0.815 0.949 0.920
2020 n/a n/a n/a 0.538 0.928 0.764
2021 0.932 0.768 0.693 0.732 0.884 0.713

Thus far in 2022, his OPS in April was .689 and currently, prior to Sunday’s game, it was at .512 for the month of May. That’s not just bad, that unacceptable, almost non playable. However, before we make the permanent switch to Garrett Stubbs, it’s worth noting that his past performance has shown that he will pick it up as the season continues, something that seem antithetical to the theory that catchers get worse as the season wears on due to all the demands physically behind the plate. While this season doesn’t exactly inspire confidence that he will get better, we can at least assume, relatively confidently, that he will. Yet even with that promise of better days ahead, there are some trends that have emerged in these two months that have been worrisome and need to get corrected.

The first is what Realmuto is seeing when he is up to the plate. Over the years, he has excelled at hitting the fastball.

Pitchers being what they are, and teams burying themselves into the data as deeply as they do in order to gain the advantage, they have clearly noticed this trend and started doing the obvious: if a guy is beating you with fastballs, simply stop throwing them to him. It’s what you and I would do and what we would expect the Phillies to do were they in the same situation. This year, the adjustment has happened.

That’s right, the trend of throwing him fewer fastballs and more breaking/offspeed stuff has not only continued this year, but it has also accelerated. The big issue is not that they’re throwing him more breaking pitches, it’s that so far, Realmuto has not adjusted back. That wOBA number you see if the first chart works better if it also includes some numbers. While he’s actually improved against pitches labeled “offspeed”, it’s the “breaking” stuff that has taken a real tumble.

2021 vs. breaking pitches: .296 wOBA
2022 vs. breaking pitches: .217 wOBA

That’s an issue, particularly as pitchers keep throwing him more and more breaking stuff.

Now, the next thing we can look at is specifically which pitches he’s struggling with, to see if there is one that has really been giving him fits. Digging a little deeper, we can see that yes, there is one pitch that teams seem to have honed in on.

You can see that over the past two years, teams have paid particular attention to Realmuto’s inability to adjust to the slider. That jump in slider usage against him is extreme when compared to how pitchers attack him on the regular. And why not? Over the past few years, he has really started to swing and miss more at the slider and has become the pitch with which he has the lowest batting average against in 2022.

There are other things to worry about with Realmuto at the plate, particularly when his exit velocities are so down. Can some of that be explained away by the change in the ball? I guess it’s possible but even still, your exit velocity is going to go down when you can barely make good contact with the pitches the teams are throwing you in the first place.

What makes this concerning is a combination of time and age. The team is almost out of May, so the excuses of “it’s still early” are largely running out. Players have seen many, many pitches to this point, so it’s getting harder to justify slow starts with that line of thinking. Realmuto is also starting get a tad older, raising the possibility that the decline phase of his career has begun and crucial parts of hitting - eye, bat speed - could start to slip.

At the risk of sounding like a Realmuto apologist, my money would be set on his picking up his game and that right soon. His past history is too long and too littered with examples of his hitting success to believe this version of Realmuto at the plate is the new norm. It’s likely that if we are able to see these trends happening with Realmuto, the team has seen them, is aware and has started working on a solution to these issues in conjunction with Realmuto. Should we concerned? Until he starts to show improvement at the plate, yes, concern is real and valid. If this is still how he is hitting in another month, then the team will be presented with a very real problem. For now, we’ll just have to trust that he’ll snap out of his current funk and we’ll get the .273/.329/.447 version of Realmuto that his career line suggests he is.