Baseball is one of those sports where you know that the proverbial “passing of the torch” and you can almost see exactly when it’s happening. An aging infielder who starts to cede his position to the younger, more talented prospect. The starting pitcher whose appearances aren’t as long anymore suddenly gets released. It’s difficult to watch sometimes, but it is part of the game.
J.T. Realmuto is not the #BCIB anymore. The torch has been passed on to someone else, that player subject to debate (Smith, Rutschman, etc.). There were enough signs in his game last year that makes one wonder if Realmuto is even in the top ten as a catcher, but I’m still not sure we can bet against him returning to a loftier status.
2023 stats: 540 PA, .252/.310/.452, 20 HR, 63 RBI, 6.5 BB%, 25.6 K%, 102 wRC+, 1.5 fWAR
Let’s start with his defense, the primary job of a catcher. Realmuto still has one of the strongest throwing arms for a catcher in the game, his pop time to second four hundredths of a second (1.83 sec) ahead of second place (1.87 sec). It may not be the best when considering the velocity, but being tied for seventh at 86.7 miles per hour isn’t exactly slouching. If we move to blocking, Realmuto is one of the best here as well. There were aspects of the job where he fell off considerably (we’ll get to them), but these are the areas where he’s still among the elite defensively.
With the bat, one positive we can take from 2023 is that he still hits for the expected power, his .452 slugging percentage third among qualified catchers. Stretch those parameters back to those catchers with at least 200 plate appearances, he drops in the rankings, but the overall total slugging percentage is still a solid job by him. Though there were struggles this year, which we’ll get to, he’s still able to do damage at the plate, still producing at an above average level.
It looks like all those games played, couple with the fact that he’ll be 33 years old when the season starts, is finally catching up with Realmuto.
If one were to look at his Fangraphs/Baseball Reference landing page, you probably wouldn’t be shocked to learn that he posted his:
- worst walk rate since 2017
- worst strikeout rate since his 11 game debut in 2014
- lowest wRC+ since his rookie season in 2015
- fewest fWAR since that same rookie season
- worst season by runs via Baseball Savant
- worst framing season of his career
In short, last season was a large step backwards for Realmuto. A lot of the defensive metrics are ones that can rebound pretty easily, so it’s not hard to see him bouncing back in 2024 behind the plate. It’s the offensive numbers that are....offensive.
But we’re smart enough to dig beyond the surface level numbers. We know that teams look at other metrics as well - what are his chase rates, is he swinging and missing more often, etc. Here, we can look at more data and come away a bit more relieved that maybe his dropoff in production in 2023 isn’t exactly a portend of doom.
His whiff rate wasn’t horribly out of whack with the past few years (though the upward trend is discouraging):
His chase rate isn’t one that will sound off alarm bells either:
He’s still hitting the ball with relative authority....
...and if anything, the notion that he’s getting tired as the season goes on is turned on its head a bit by seeing that last year, he hit the ball harder as he season wore on, something that was rather unexpected to find.
It doesn’t explain a lot of what went wrong for Realmuto other than to say he just didn’t hit well at all. It can’t be explained away by bad luck (.307 BABIP is close to what he did last year). The only thing we can say - he wasn’t that good.
This is where the fun begins.
Signing J.T. Realmuto to a contract extension was the correct move by the franchise. Being able to field a playoff team means having players be at, or near, the top of their position and Realmuto is. Not re-signing him would have been a step backwards when considering the alternatives at the time (whither James McCann...).
Of course, signing a catcher of any age and health means taking a risk that the final years of a catcher’s career are going to be hairy. There was evidence 10 years ago that a catcher’s aging is in fact a curve, not his falling off of a sudden cliff, but I’d wonder what that evidence looks like now. Still, if a player is as good as Realmuto and the alternatives are as bad as they were, it’s still a deal you make.
However, as was discussed last year, it’s probably time for the Phillies to lessen the playing time for Realmuto and give more to the backup catcher. It also might mean upgrading the backup catcher, but that’s another discussion. It’s likely that the team will continue with its status quo of letting Realmuto more or less catch as much as he wants, but at some point, Rob Thomson needs to step in and think about the bigger picture. We don’t know if Realmuto will be more productive with more time off, but it’s getting awfully close to putting the idea into practice, if it isn’t that time already.