In recent memory alone, the conduct of Marlins owners has been defined largely by questionable judgment, from the purchase of a team whose payroll they could not afford to the alleged pocketing of revenue-sharing monies that should have been put towards improving the on-field product. They have claimed to be based in the British Virgin Islands in hopes of taking a court case to arbitration and even sued season ticket-holders and vendors.
Legal aficionado Sheryl Ring addressed the absurdity of what the Marlins are doing:
That’s right: the Marlins obtained a judgment against a season ticket holder using as leverage the fact that his attorney suffered a heart attack. They then attempted to take away a building he owns to collect on that judgment — and all because he didn’t want to renew his season tickets.
Because, consider: the Marlins haven’t sued just their fans; they’ve also sued ballpark concession vendors who, due to low attendance, were unable to stay in business and thus renew their contracts or pay the $2 million entry fee charged by the team.
What makes that tactic strange is that those lawsuits include claims against companies that have filed for bankruptcy protection, which means that the team is engaged in expensive litigation against entities that may have little or no ability to pay back the amount the team says it’s owed.
You could say that the Marlins are conducting a peculiar type of experiment: what happens when a team alienates its fans to such a degree that no one is left to watch.
As images like the following reveal, the experiment appears to be working.
At first pitch at Marlins Park and there's no one visible on camera pic.twitter.com/VAexk6bTyH
— Pravid Dice (@HPJoker) June 28, 2018
While the prospect of new ownership allowed a downtrodden fanbase to daydream about the possibilities of a club free from the influence of Jeffrey Loria, the first offseason of the Jeter/Sherman ownership group represented yet another disappointing installment in a familiar, disheartening line of winters that have come to demarcate Marlins baseball. This particular one was highlighted by the dismantling of a promising young core, including the jettisoning of Giancarlo Stanton to the Yankees, Christian Yelich to the Brewers, and Marcell Ozuna to the Cardinals. The trio combined to post 16.4 WAR in 2017.
The Marlins were heavily criticized for holding onto J.T. Realmuto, a then-26-year-old All-Star catcher coming off two three-plus-win seasons who had expressed a desire to be traded. That decision is looking like a good one at this moment, however, as the speediest catcher in the league (boasting an impressive 28.5 feet per second) has increased his power output in addition to becoming increasingly accustomed to the defensive responsibilities of a catcher.
Slashing .306/.359/.544 for a .903 OPS and a 145 wRC+, Realmuto’s 3.2 WAR nearly bests his full-season marks from each of the last two seasons — in fewer than half the games played. He leads all catchers in WAR, wRC+, wOBA, AVG, and SLG; he is second in ISO, trailing Gary Sanchez by four points, and the only one to record more than a run from baserunning (min. 200 PA).
With Realmuto now projected for roughly a five-win campaign, perhaps it is time to think of him not just as one of the best catchers in baseball but also one of the best players.
For a backstop with a bat a smidge above average entering the season (career 101 wRC+ from 2014 to -17), such a meteoric rise is remarkable — and, some would say, unsustainable. Though a .351 BABIP hints at some likely regression to the mean, a .384 wOBA is staunchly backed up with a .383 xwOBA.
Take a look at Realmuto’s company on the batting leaderboards:
|Mookie Betts||Red Sox||308||.331||0.68||194|
|J.D. Martinez||Red Sox||357||.314||1.43||176|
While fortune might play a role in Realmuto’s success this year, the sort of improvement he’s demonstrated also suggests a fundamental change of some kind, whether that’s a change in his swing, philosophy, or both. Let’s take a look at his swing.
First, a Realmuto home run from 2017:
And then one from from 2018:
In 2017 and before that, Realmuto utilized an extremely open, upright stance within the batter’s box. While the camera angle in the second clip obscures some of the effect, the stance appears to have becoming slightly less open and slightly more relaxed this year.
More notable, though, appears to be the swing. The location of the pitches in these two clips is roughly the same. The path of the bat seems to be different, however. Look at where Realmuto finishes in 2017:
And then in 2018:
The right arm in the top image is nearly parallel to the ground; in the second clip, however, it’s something closer to 45 degrees, suggesting greater loft in the swing.
While a pair of video clips may seem like anecdotal evidence, the data supports the hypothesis — notably, that Realmuto has made an effort to embrace the upward direction.
|Season||Average Launch Angle|
That 12.9-degree average launch angle is significant for multiple reasons. It points to the notion that Realmuto is closer to the ideal launch angle of 19-26 degrees, and while hitters will never get there consistently (as one would almost never make outs, that being the case) the more important point is that the slick-hitting catcher has turned a good chunk of his ground balls into line drives, which are much more challenging to defend and which become hits a much greater percentage of the time.
Here we can see exactly that: about 5% of the Marlins backstop’s ground balls have been moved to the air, which has helped balls in play get above infielders. Furthermore, approximately 10% more of his batted balls are hard hit (95+ mph of exit velocity), trading medium-hit ground balls for hard-hit line drives. Perhaps the most fascinating note is that fly-ball production has stayed constant, pointing to a slight tweak in process. A revamped approach is reinforced by underlying plate-discipline metrics.
Realmuto is swinging less outside the zone and more inside the zone, signs of improved selectivity at the plate. Interestingly enough, he’s making less contact overall; it should be noted that his strikeout rate increased by a percentage point, so even though he’s swinging more inside the zone and making less contact, it’s not a foregone conclusion that he’s up there hacking more often. If anything, it would imply the opposite. Miami’s best player left in Miami is increasingly picky about the pitches at which he decides to offer, he’s hitting them harder and higher, and that’s a worry for his NL East rivals for games to come.
At a time when the Fish are beginning to uncover a few notable pieces at the beginning stages of their rebuild, J.T. Realmuto is the most exciting one of all.
A finance student in the lovable armpit of Orange County, Rahul Setty spends his time following the Angels, writing for Halos Heaven, and derives joy from Mike Trout's on-base percentage which is, thankfully, always high. You can reach him on Twitter @RahulSetty_.