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Could J.T. Realmuto become the greatest catcher in Phillies history?

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J.T. Realmuto is the best catcher in baseball right now. What would it take for him to become the best catcher the Phillies have ever had?

Philadelphia Phillies v Miami Marlins Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

Okay, maybe I’m getting a little ahead of myself here. J.T. has only been in Philadelphia for two years, and he has a long way to go before he can be considered a franchise great. But it’s spring training, the time of year when everyone gets prematurely excited about all things baseball. Besides, given the recent news about his broken thumb, we need to project some positive thoughts about J.T. into the universe.

So could J.T. Realmuto become the BCIFH? (That stands for Best Catcher in Franchise History, of course.) Yes. Absolutely. And that isn’t just wildly optimistic speculation. Not only is J.T. Realmuto an incredible talent, but the Phillies haven’t had many truly great catchers in their history. Barring a trade, a sharp decline, or a catastrophic injury, Realmuto will almost certainly be in the conversation for BCIFH by the end of his contract.

The Competition

The way I see it, there are five catchers who are currently in the running for the coveted title of BCIFH.

Jack Clements

The Case for Clements: WAR hero
The Case Against Clements: Born in the Civil War era

Clements leads all Phillies catchers in both fWAR and bWAR, and he certainly deserves credit for that. However, he played during the 19th century, so it’s hard to compare him to modern-day players. (Fun fact: He’s the only left-handed catcher to have ever caught more than 1000 MLB games!)

Darren Daulton

The Case for Daulton: Superstar seasons
The Case Against Daulton: Subpar seasons

Daulton’s 1992 season is the best single-season performance by a catcher in Phillies history. The thing is, Daulton only had three above-average seasons in his entire career. He was a beloved figure among Phillies fans and his teammates, but multiple DUIs and a domestic violence charge tarnished his reputation in the eyes of many.

Carlos Ruiz

The Case for Ruiz: A beloved player with some incredible achievements...
The Case Against Ruiz: ...but he was never a true “star” player.

Ruiz reached the playoffs with the Phillies more than any other catcher, and he played an important role in their 2008 World Series victory. He caught four no-hitters, and he received constant praise from the pitching staff too. However, if you asked anyone other than Roy Halladay, he was never really considered a top catcher in the game.

Bob Boone

The Case for Boone: 358 caught stealing
The Case Against Boone: .370 slugging percentage

Bob Boone was an incredible defensive player, a terrific game-caller, and he helped the 1980 Phillies win a World Series. On the flip side, his mediocre offense brought down his overall value in all but a few seasons. He also played the second half of his career with the Angels, where he won most of his Gold Gloves. He’s the only player on this list to have spent a significant chunk of his career with another team.

Mike Lieberthal

The Case for Lieberthal: 1174 games, 1137 hits, 150 home runs, 19.6 WARP
The Case Against Lieberthal: 0 playoff appearances

Lieberthal caught more games for the Phillies than anyone else on this list, but he just missed out on making the playoffs with the team (he came up in 1994 and left after 2006). He was on the team for a long time and was a consistently valuable player, so he leads Phillies catchers in a handful of important statistical categories. On the other hand, he was never an exceptional player and he never played for an exceptional Phillies team.

How Realmuto Stacks Up

In his two years as a Phillie, J.T. Realmuto has played at a superstar level and put up excellent WAR totals to prove it. The coaching staff admires him, the pitching staff respects him, and the fans love him. He’s a five-tool player, and he’s going to be in Philly for at least five more seasons. Yes, it’s early days, but from a quick look at the competition, it’s clear that J.T. is already forcing his way into contention for BCIFH. Now let’s taker a closer look at how he’s doing in some key categories.

Note: All statistics and award totals only account for the time these catchers spent with the Phillies.

WAR

How J.T. is doing: 7.5 fWAR, 5.8 bWAR, 6.4 WARP
The competition: Clements (25.9 fWAR, 24.9 bWAR), Daulton (24.4 fWAR, 22.5 bWAR), Lieberthal (19.6 WARP)

WAR isn’t the be-all and end-all (especially for catchers) but it’s still an extremely useful metric in this discussion. It’s the best tool we have to aggregate the on-field contributions of a player in every aspect of the game. Any way you slice it, the player with the highest WAR automatically has a case for BCIFH. Well… except for the fact that Jack Clements played for the Phillies from 1884-1897, back when baseball looked like this:

Jack Clements Catching A Ball
Clements is the first catcher to ever wear a chest protector, if you needed another example of just how long ago he played.

The sport was so different back then that it isn’t really possible to compare players from that era to this one. Darren Daulton is the modern-day fWAR and bWAR leader, and Daulton’s WAR totals are so close to Clements’ that, era notwithstanding, the two of them are pretty much equal atop those leaderboards.

To pass Daulton, J.T. Realmuto needs to be worth ~17 wins over the rest of his Phillies career. That’s a high number for a catcher who turns 30 in March, but it’s well within the realm of possibility. Tim Britton of The Athletic projected Realmuto’s future value, and he concluded that Realmuto could be worth 10-12 WAR over the next four years and 12-16 WAR over the next six. Our own Stephen Souden put together a similar analysis, and he estimated that Realmuto would be worth about 12-13 WAR over the next six seasons. Estimates like these are fiftieth percentile projections, so a player is just as likely to outperform them as he is to underperform them. This means that while it’s not likely J.T. Realmuto will be worth 17 more wins over the rest of his Phillies career, it’s definitely possible (and it would certainly help if he can stick around for a couple more years after his contract expires).

I should mention that the pandemic-shortened season probably cost J.T. about 2-3 wins. We can’t just give him credit for those wins that he didn’t earn, but if he retires with 2-3 fewer WAR than Daulton, it’s worth remembering. It’s also worth noting that Daulton was worth 1.8 WAR playing right field for the Phillies in 1997. This exercise gets way too confusing if we try to subtract all the value that these catchers put up while playing other positions or pinch-hitting. However, since Daulton was no longer a catcher after 1995, WAR from then on out probably shouldn’t count. If we credit Realmuto for 2-3 extra WAR he might have compiled in 2020 and detract 1.8 WAR from Daulton’s total, then Realmuto only needs 12-13 fWAR and bWAR to pass Daulton. Funnily enough, that’s the precise total that both Tim Britton and Steven Souden came to in their projection pieces. Interesting…

WARP, Baseball Prospectus’ version of WAR, is not cited as often as fWAR and bWAR, but many people actually consider it to be the superior measurement of catcher value. Fittingly, WARP does the best job of representing just how close the competition for BCIFH truly is. The top six Phillies catchers are all within 2.5 wins of one another, and that doesn’t even include Jack Clements (WARP leaderboards only go back to 1923). Daulton (18.4), Boone (18.2), Ruiz (17.3), Andy Seminick (17.9), and Stan Lopata (18.6) are all just a hair behind leader Mike Lieberthal (19.6). For J.T. to pass Lieberthal, he needs 13.2 more WARP over the rest of his Phillies career. According to Britton’s and Souden’s projections, that’s very doable.

Traditional Counting Stats

How J.T. is doing: 194 hits, 36 home runs, 125 runs scored, 115 RBI
The competition: Lieberthal (1137 hits, 150 HR), Clements (536 runs scored, 636 RBI)

WAR is more accurate as a measurement of a player’s value, but the traditional counting stats still count for something (yes, okay, pun intended). Leading in one of these categories demonstrates a combination of skill and longevity and provides a player with an immediate claim to fame in the team record books.

Realmuto needs 943 hits, 114 home runs, 411 runs, and 521 RBI to pass the current leaders in each of these categories. Over five years, that’s an average line of 189 H, 23 HR, 82 R, and 104 RBI per season. That’s a tall order for Realmuto, especially in terms of hits. If J.T. is going to lead in any of these categories, he’ll have to be the Phillies catcher for more than the next five years. To take the lead, here’s what he’d need to average in each of those statistical categories over the next six, seven, and eight years:

  • Six years: 157 hits, 19 HR, 69 runs, 87 RBI
  • Seven years: 135 hits, 16 HR, 59 runs, 74 RBI
  • Eight years: 118 hits, 14 HR, 51 runs, 65 RBI

Awards

How J.T. is doing: 1x All-Star, 1x Gold Glove, 1x Silver Slugger, All-MLB First Team (2019), All-MLB Second Team (2020)
The competition: Boone (3x All-Star, 2x Gold Glove), Daulton (3x All-Star, 1x Silver Slugger)

No Phillies catchers have ever won a ton of awards. This is partially because Hall of Famers like Mike Piazza and Johnny Bench kept getting in the way, but mostly because the Phillies have never had a catcher who enjoyed a sustained run of dominance.

For that reason, Realmuto is already doing very well for himself in this category. He’s the only Phillies catcher to have won both a Silver Slugger and a Gold Glove. This speaks to his all-around talent, his good reputation across the league, and the incredible season he put up in 2019. While he lost out on the chance to be an All-Star again in 2020, he has made the All-MLB team in both seasons that the honor has existed. If Realmuto can add a couple more All-Star appearances to his resume, and maybe snag another trophy or two, he’s in a very good position to lead in the “awards” category of the BCIFH competition.

Team Accomplishments

How J.T. is doing: N/A
The competition: Ruiz (World Series champion, 2x NL Champion, 5x NL East Champion)

By no fault of his own, Realmuto isn’t doing so well in this area. It’s not totally fair to hold that against him, but it would certainly help his case for BCIFH if he had some playoff success. Winning seasons are the most important seasons in any team’s history, and the players who played an integral role of those seasons become important parts of team history themselves. Three of Realmuto’s main competitors – Bob Boone, Darren Daulton, and Carlos Ruiz – reached the postseason (and the World Series) with the Phillies.

Other Achievements

How J.T. is doing: Signed the biggest free-agent deal ever for a catcher (5 years, $115.5 million)
The competition: Ruiz (Caught four no-hitters. Four!)

Okay, yes, I mainly included this category so I could mention Carlos Ruiz’s four no-hitters. Three other catchers in this discussion – Darren Daulton, Mike Lieberthal, and Jack Clements – also caught no-hitters for the Phillies.

J.T. Realmuto’s record contract is very impressive, but some cool on-field achievements would certainly help his candidacy for BCIFH. (Maybe if I fantasize for long enough about a J.T. Realmuto walk-off home run against the Braves to win the NL East, I can will it into existence.)

Longevity

How J.T. is doing: 2 seasons, 196 games, 1706 innings caught
The competition: Darren Daulton (played for Phillies from 1983-1997), Mike Lieberthal (caught 9661.2 innings for the Phillies), Bob Boone (spent half his career in the American League, but still caught ten seasons and 9034 innings in Philadelphia)

This is one area in which Realmuto probably won’t catch up to the all-time greats. Darren Daulton was with the Phillies for parts of fourteen seasons, and J.T. will be lucky if he can play ten. He’s at an obvious disadvantage here, since everyone else in this conversation started their career in Philadelphia. On the flip side, he could help his case if he finishes his career with the Phillies. Clements, Boone, Daulton, Lieberthal, and Ruiz all finished their careers with other teams.

Luckily for Realmuto, he’s very durable and catches a ton of innings. He may end up with the shortest Phillies tenure of anyone in this discussion, but his games played and innings totals hopefully won’t be too far behind everyone else’s.

Reputation with teammates and throughout the game

How J.T. is doing: He’s QB1 and the BCIB
The competition: Ruiz, Dalton, and Boone all had pretty great reputations in the clubhouse too.

This category is particularly important, because a catcher’s relationship with the pitching staff can significantly affect the team’s on-field performance. By all accounts, Realmuto is admired and well-respected by his coaches, pitching staff, and teammates. For a more in-depth discussion of Realmuto’s intangible qualities, you should read philaurdelphia’s most recent article, in which she evaluates leadership on the 2021 Phillies.

Reputation with the fans and off the field

How J.T. is doing: He’s a quiet guy, but his incredible talent has made him a fan favorite.
The competition: Darren Daulton was a legend in Philadelphia, and World Series winners Carlos Ruiz and Bob Boone will always hold a special place in Phillies fans’ hearts.

Look no further than the #SignJT campaign for proof that the fans love J.T. Realmuto. That being said, he’s a pretty quiet guy most of the time. He certainly isn’t going to lose any points in this category, but showing off a little more of his personality and engaging more with his fans couldn’t hurt. More tweets like this would really help:

Where does this leave us?

J.T. Realmuto has a reasonable chance to lead all Phillies catchers in fWAR, bWAR, and WARP. If he sticks around a little longer than his current contract, he could take the lead in a handful of traditional stats too. He’s already among the most decorated catchers in Phillies history, and he still has plenty of time to add to his trophy case. He’s been the best catcher in baseball for the past five seasons, and he isn’t showing any sign of slowing down. It won’t be long before everyone starts talking about his chances to become the BCIFH (don’t forget who coined the term!).

In the grand scheme of things, J.T. Realmuto’s quest to become the best catcher in franchise history might not seem that important. All of the catchers I’ve discussed were great players, and maybe there’s no need to argue over which one might have been slightly better than all the others. But, then again, this matters to me because it’s something I can root for. Regardless of how the Phillies finish this season, we might be watching J.T. Realmuto make team history. And I think there’s something pretty cool about that.

C’mon, how else was I supposed to end this?