The Argument for J.T. Realmuto as Baseball’s Best Catcher

It feels like, any minute now, J.T. Realmuto will officially be on the move. He might even get officially traded while I’m busy writing this article. According to the latest reports, Realmuto is likely to be dealt to the Phillies, in exchange for a package including Sixto Sanchez and Jorge Alfaro (plus more). I don’t know what might be left for the teams to overcome. Again, press releases seem almost inevitable. With Sanchez as the centerpiece, the Marlins ought to be satisfied.

If and when this reaches a resolution, it’ll mark the end of a drawn-out sweepstakes. Realmuto always seemed like baseball’s most probable trade candidate. As much as the Marlins have wanted to keep him around, a contract extension requires interest from both parties, and Realmuto has wanted out. So a trade was going to happen. A trade involving some manner of top prospect was going to happen. What we didn’t know was where Realmuto would ultimately end up. He’s now linked to the Phillies. He’s been linked to the Reds. He’s been linked to the Braves, and the Padres, and the Dodgers, and the Rays, and even more teams on top of that. A whole lot of baseball has wanted J.T. Realmuto.

So let’s talk about that for a few minutes. For many of you, this will be simple review. But, why has Realmuto been in such demand? It’s because he might well be the best catcher in the game.

Catchers are understandably difficult to measure. I mean, we can measure the hitting part, and we can measure the baserunning part. We can measure the playing time, and we can measure some of the defensive stuff. The defensive numbers are estimates, however, and then there are all of those alleged leadership intangibles. I’m going to leave that latter bit to the teams. Let’s address everything else.

We’ll start with a table of three-year WAR per 600 plate appearances. Now, our catcher WAR at FanGraphs doesn’t try much to fold in defense. And so, into the WAR equation, I’ll insert defensive measurements from Baseball Prospectus. These include framing, blocking, throwing, and so on. Here are the top ten backstops since 2016:

2016 – 2018, With Framing
Catcher PA WAR/600 2019 Age
Tyler Flowers 991 6.6 33
Yasmani Grandal 1457 6.5 30
Austin Barnes 537 6.1 29
Buster Posey 1630 5.1 32
Gary Sanchez 1128 4.7 26
Austin Hedges 769 4.5 26
Mike Zunino 1032 4.5 28
J.T. Realmuto 1655 4.5 28
Roberto Perez 642 3.9 30
Wilson Ramos 1163 3.8 31
Defensive numbers from Baseball Prospectus.

Realmuto shows up in eighth place. Or, more accurately, he’s tied for sixth. That’s good, but there’s a difference between sixth (or eighth) and first. Working in Realmuto’s favor is that he’s relatively young. He’s younger than four of the catchers in front of him. Also working in Realmuto’s favor is that, over the past three years, he leads all catchers in plate appearances. Realmuto’s been durable. But then, as well, there’s the pitch-framing thing. Pitch-framing is a major reason why Flowers, Grandal, and Barnes end up with numbers so high. I don’t doubt that pitch-framing exists, and that it can be significant. We’ve covered that before. But now look at a table of the same information again, only this time with pitch-framing removed from the math:

2016 – 2018, Without Framing
Catcher PA WAR/600 2019 Age
J.T. Realmuto 1655 4.6 28
Gary Sanchez 1128 4.1 26
Buster Posey 1630 3.8 32
Robinson Chirinos 905 3.7 35
Yasmani Grandal 1457 3.6 30
Willson Contreras 1255 3.6 27
Austin Barnes 537 3.5 29
Mike Zunino 1032 3.2 28
Wilson Ramos 1163 3.2 31
Kurt Suzuki 1070 3.1 35
Defensive numbers from Baseball Prospectus.

When you get rid of the framing component, Realmuto moves all the way up to first. Again, pitch-framing can’t just be outright ignored. It is a skill, and there are differences between catchers. Those differences add up to runs. But, according to Baseball Prospectus, the three-year difference in framing runs between Grandal and Realmuto is 73.5. How willing should we be to believe in a gap of almost eight wins? How well do we believe the math is isolating the catchers from their pitching staffs?

Simply put, accurate pitchers are easier to receive than wild pitchers. And while we don’t have that great a grasp on command, over the past three years, the Dodgers’ pitching staff ranks fourth in baseball in WAR. The Marlins’ pitching staff ranks 29th. I don’t think it’s a stretch to suggest that Realmuto hasn’t been catching the best pitchers around. Odds are, with better pitchers, he’d have better numbers. I’ll also note that, in 2016, in framing runs, Realmuto finished 37 behind the guy in first place. In 2017, he finished 27 behind the guy in first place. In 2018, he finished 16 behind the guy in first place. The gaps have been tightening anyway.

Realmuto probably isn’t the best receiver in either league. We can’t ignore that entirely. But based on everything we know other than framing, Realmuto’s been the best catcher over the past three years. He’s still young enough that he shouldn’t decline yet. Whether Realmuto belongs at No. 1 depends on how much stock you put in framing metrics, but teams behave with a certain amount of skepticism. The numbers themselves are possibly, if not probably exaggerated, and teams think they can improve pitch-framing anyhow. Consider the fact that Grandal had to settle for a one-year contract worth $18 million. The league doesn’t think of him as a six-win player.

So Realmuto has been good, and he’s been durable. He’s still in his 20s. Thanks to Statcast, we know he’s the fastest catcher around. Thanks to Statcast, we know he has the fastest pop time to second base. Are you willing to believe he might be even further underrated?

Historically, Realmuto has just been killed by Marlins Park. Something about it just hasn’t agreed with him. He’s been a far better hitter on the road, according to results, and according to expected results. Over the course of baseball history, almost no one has ever had such a dramatic home-field disadvantage. Because it’s not perfectly understood, we can’t just look at Realmuto’s numbers away from Miami and call it there, but, consider the following. Realmuto ranks fifth among catchers in three-year wRC+, at 115. But he ranks first among catchers in three-year *road* wRC+, at 137. His three-year road wRC+ ranks him in the 93rd percentile among all players. Maybe this comparison will help:

Three-year road wRC+:

I was surprised to see Machado’s number. I don’t know what to make of that yet. But, his isn’t the point that matters here. Realmuto has a park factor built into his calculations, but that’s the same park factor that every Marlins hitter has gotten. It’s possible that Realmuto’s personal park factor ought to be more severe. Marlins Park might make it harder for him to perform than everyone else. So Realmuto could disproportionately benefit from doing his hitting elsewhere. That’s already been true for a while.

Realmuto is a young catcher who stays on the field, and, when he’s on the field, he can catch, he can throw, he can hit, and he can run. He might not leave Miami and win the MVP in the way that Christian Yelich did, but, playing for the Marlins has meant Realmuto hasn’t drawn enough attention. He is an excellent regular player — quite possibly the best regular in either league at his position — and getting him would make an impact comparable to getting Bryce Harper or Manny Machado. Maybe not in the immediate headlines, but more on the field. And it’s what happens on the field that matters the most.

We hoped you liked reading The Argument for J.T. Realmuto as Baseball’s Best Catcher by Jeff Sullivan!

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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Seuss2004
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Seuss2004

It’s so amazing that in the Steamer projections, 3 of the top 4 position players on the Phillies (Realmuto, Segura, McCutchen) are offseason acquisitions … and the Harper/Machado dance is still ongoing.

DBA455
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Member
DBA455

To save anyone else curious the trouble of looking it up:

Gary Sanchez, 3yr road wRC+: 134

The idea of the Yankees “including” him in a deal for Realmulto always seemed silly. Passed balls notwithstanding, why swap him for a slightly older, more expensive version of himself?

therealryan1
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Member
therealryan1

I think the idea came from the fact that people view JTR as a much more viable long term answer defensively behind the plate. Sanchez may be a DH before long, and the Yanks will already have a logjam there, especially if they were in on Machado.

mwallach
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mwallach

its almost like he is a really good player, but yankees fans still want him shot out of cannon for some reason

SenorGato
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SenorGato

Send him to the Cubs, Sanchez is a badass player

EonADS
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EonADS

And one with less team control, at that. Sanchez still has four years of control before free agency. Realmuto has two.

Also, does anybody else think that Sanchez might actually block well if he did a Russell Martin and got down on a knee instead of squatting? Most of his problems seem to come from a complete inability to get his body down fast enough.

The Guru
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The Guru

id trade gary sanchez in a heart beat. Because people would overpay for him like crazy. He may be the worst defensive catcher in the game. Its so bad i cant watch sometimes. I fear for his safety some times.

mwallach
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mwallach

c’mon now, you know that isnt true right? you have to? i hope

Jon
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Jon

It’s almost as if you didn’t read the charts that are in this very article, which show he’s one of the best catchers in baseball even once defense and his horribly unlucky 2018 are considered.

sadtrombone
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sadtrombone

It never made sense. Sanchez’s mistakes are high profile, but this guy has the highest offensive upside of any catcher in major league baseball and whose plate production isn’t that bad. And he’s got a great arm, and he’s an adequate framer. You don’t give up on guys like this.

Pepper Martin
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Pepper Martin

As a Yankee fan, the Yankee fandom’s hatred for Sanchez just makes no sense to me. His 2018 issues notwithstanding, you’re talking about a guy who can reasonably be projected to hit 40 homers with .280/.350/.530 production with excellent skills at controlling the running game, good pitch framing, and more passed balls than you’d like. And four years of team control. Like… why in the world would you want to get rid of such a player? Who else can put a middle-of-the-order bat out there from the catcher position?

Pepper Martin
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Pepper Martin

His BABIP was .197 last year! Like… what in the world?

Jon
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Jon

I’m a Yankee fan too – and I can understand the hatred, even if I don’t agree with it, for a number of reasons:

1) The game where he pretty much did cost them the win by jogging to first on a grounder (though it was later revealed that he had a bad hamstring). I think there was also a game where an opposing runner scored from second on wild pitch or passed ball because he was slow getting to the ball.

2) He is really slow, and that’s just a big turnoff to some people.

3) The passed balls just look really ugly. The framing more than offsets it, but you don’t really notice framing. You really do notice the passed balls.

4) I’d guess that the majority of Yankee fans don’t even know what BABIP is, let alone be able to see that his 2018 was just absurdly unlucky from a balls in play standpoint. Thus they think was just legitimately awful at the plate.

mwallach
Member
mwallach

They do the same thing to stanton too! this team has a really bad fanbase (im a yankees fan but i dislike the majority of fellow fans)