If the Phillies Finally Make the Playoffs, They’ll Have J.T. Realmuto to Thank

© Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

In 2018, a Philadelphia Phillies team made up mostly of homegrown players ran out of gas down the stretch. Rookie manager Gabe Kapler’s club held first place into the second week of August, then (to use the scientific term) crapped the bed. After an 8-20 September, Philadelphia ended the season in third place, two games under .500 and 10 games adrift of the first-place Braves.

So they went out that offseason and got some reinforcements: Bryce Harper, obviously, but also one Jacob Tyler “J.T.” Realmuto, one of the best catchers in baseball. The same thing happened in 2019, so the Phillies cashiered Kapler and replaced him with Joe Girardi, and lavished a nine-figure contract on Zack Wheeler. In 2020, they once again fumbled an easy path to the playoffs, so ownership cleared out the front office. In 2021 it happened once more: Hot start, followed by months of stepping on banana peels, and wobbling to a record in the neighborhood of .500.

The Phillies, despite not having made the playoffs in a decade, have been in win-now mode for four or five years, and with each brigade of reinforcements (most recently Kyle Schwarber and Nick Castellanos), Realmuto gets taken more and more for granted. He’s now one of six Phillies on a contract worth $70 million or more, and just another foot soldier in a lineup that features the reigning National League MVP, this year’s NL home run leader, and two recent first-round picks.

But Realmuto is the primary reason the great annual bed-encrappening has not befallen Philadelphia this year.

Not only has Realmuto been the Phillies’ best player by WAR this season (6.2, and to give you a sense of by how much, Harper and Rhys Hoskins are tied for second among position players at 2.4), he’s carried the offense since the All-Star Break.

Realmuto has had his current reputation as one of the best two-way catchers in baseball for years, and he deserves it. But he’s never been a put-the-team-on-his-back-type player. He’s an elite defender and a great all-around athlete for his position, but as a hitter, he’s just good. He walks enough, but not so much that he’ll tickle a .400 OBP. He hits for power, but it’s 20-homer, 30-doubles power. In each of the past six seasons, he’s batted between .263 and .278, posted an OBP between .328 and .349, and slugged between .439 and .493. He’s the model of consistency, but merely an above-average hitter.

That’s been borne out by his occasional cameos at first base and DH; Realmuto’s bat is usually strong enough to warrant staying in the lineup when he’s not catching, and since he’s on a $115 million contract, maybe he could transition to first full-time. (A noisy plurality of Phillies fans want to trade Hoskins, for reasons I’m not sure I understand.)

The thing is, Realmuto hits like a first baseman, but only an average one at best. His value is tied up entirely in his ability to catch; not only is his defense exceptional, but his offensive production, pedestrian for a corner guy, is eye-popping for someone who’s able to wear the armor 130 times a year:

J.T. Realmuto vs. League, 2021
Realmuto .263 .343 .439 108
League Avg. C .228 .304 .391 89
League Avg. 1B .254 .334 .443 110
League Avg. DH .248 .321 .455 110

Realmuto’s been worth every penny of his contract so far, and then some. He’s been the best catcher in baseball this year — and I say that as an early fan of both Sean Murphy and Will Smith, and as someone with near-messianic faith in Adley Rutschman. But for a player with a big reputation and a big contract, playing in a big, high-pressure market, he’s been in a bit of an awkward position: He’s as good as advertised, but not in a blindingly obvious way. Ballplayers are like jokes — the more you have to explain them, the less appealing they are on a gut level.

At least, that was the case until this year’s All-Star break.

Last year, it was Harper who carried the Phillies to, well, not the playoffs but close enough to the playoffs that missing out on postseason play was moderately annoying. This year, Harper broke his thumb in June, came back in August, and has hit .204/.321/.355 since his return. Hoskins, Jean Segura, and Schwarber have all been good on the aggregate, but they’ve had their ups and downs. Castellanos, who has yet to find his footing in Philadelphia, is just coming back from three weeks off with a strained oblique. The Phillies have had to rely on key clutch hits from the likes of Matt Vierling, Nick Maton, and Bryson Stott to stay ahead of the Brewers in the Wild Card race.

Realmuto has been carrying most of the rest of the load. Since the break, he has the second-highest WAR of any position player in baseball, behind only Aaron Judge. He’s found an extra notch of power in the past two months, which means that line about him only hitting like an average first baseman can be updated:

J.T. Realmuto vs. League, 2022 2nd Half
Realmuto .316 .380 .610 172
League Avg. C .234 .302 .378 93
League Avg. 1B .238 .310 .401 101
League Avg. DH .239 .313 .403 102

And he’s still doing all the normal stuff well. This season, he’s not only caught almost 10% more innings than any other catcher in the league, he’s second to Jose Trevino in defensive runs above average. This despite being only about a scratch framer; Realmuto is credited with fewer framing runs than any of the other top 16 defensive catchers. He has, however, caught a league-leading 42% of would-be basestealers. (Once robots replace umpires the way they have cashiers, Realmuto is going to look like Johnny Bench.)

His offensive annus mirabilis doesn’t stop at the plate; Realmuto, always a comparatively good basestealer for a catcher, is 18-for-18 in stolen bases. The only Phillies player ever to have a perfect basestealing season in that many attempts is Chase Utley, who was 23-for-23 in 2009. In other words, Realmuto has been an MVP-caliber hitter, an exceptional defender at an up-the-middle position, and a perfect high-volume basestealer. Does that make him the best of Harper and Utley rolled into one player? Well, for the past two and a half months…yeah, it does.

Michael is a writer at FanGraphs. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Ringer and D1Baseball, and his work has appeared at Grantland, Baseball Prospectus, The Atlantic, ESPN.com, and various ill-remembered Phillies blogs. Follow him on Twitter, if you must, @MichaelBaumann.

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1 year ago

Glad to see this very article. Seems like Realmuto has been a big part of the Phillies offense post-break, and sure enough he’s all over the second-half leaderboards.

Might get him some 3rd place MVP votes in the NL 😉