There’s a Hole in J.T. Realmuto’s Tool Box

J.T. Realmuto

I don’t think J.T. Realmuto ever got enough credit for his remarkable season in 2022. It was easily the finest performance of his career. With 22 home runs, 21 stolen bases, and a 128 wRC+, in addition to his typical Gold Glove defense and trademark durability, he produced a personal-best 6.5 WAR, claimed All-MLB First Team honors for the second time and finished seventh in a stacked NL MVP race.

What made his 2022 season so impressive were the demographics of it all. We’re not talking about a center fielder in his 20s; Realmuto’s 6.5 WAR was the highest for a regular catcher age 31 or older since Javy Lopez in 2003. As a matter of fact, only four catchers have ever put up more WAR in a single season after their 31st birthday: Lopez, Gary Carter, Roy Campanella, and Josh Gibson.

Top 10 Catcher Seasons (Age 31 and Older)
Catcher Season Age G wRC+ WAR
Josh Gibson 1943 31 69 251 8.1
Roy Campanella 1953 31 144 154 7.7
Javy Lopez 2003 32 129 170 6.8
Gary Carter 1985 31 149 139 6.7
J.T. Realmuto 2022 31 139 128 6.5
Yogi Berra 1956 31 140 139 6.4
Russell Martin 2014 31 111 140 6.2
Jorge Posada 2003 31 142 145 6.0
Elston Howard 1964 35 150 129 6.0
Elston Howard 1963 34 135 142 5.9

That same year, Realmuto also became the first backstop to qualify for the batting title in seven consecutive seasons since Jason Kendall in 2009. Only seven other catchers have accomplished that particular feat in the divisional era (1969-present): Jorge Posada, Mike Piazza, Carter, Lance Parrish, Ted Simmons, Johnny Bench, and Thurman Munson.

Realmuto’s 2022 campaign wasn’t just the best of his career; it was one of the most extraordinary seasons by an older catcher in recent memory. I don’t think he ever got enough credit for it — and consequently, I don’t think enough people realize just how disappointing his follow-up performance turned out to be.

On the surface, Realmuto was solid if unspectacular in 2023. He knocked 20 home runs, swiped 16 bases, and led all catchers in games played behind the dish, finishing as a finalist for the Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards. But his 1.5 WAR was his lowest total since 2015; he finished 21st on the catcher leaderboard, tucked in between backups Victor Caratini and Freddy Fermin.

So what went wrong? The short answer is pretty much everything. His wRC+ declined by 26 points, the 13th-largest drop-off among qualified batters, though at least his 102 wRC+ was still significantly above average for a catcher. Moreover, he continued hitting for moderate power (.200 ISO, .208 xISO), and although his walk rate dropped and his strikeout rose, his underlying plate discipline numbers were stable. Meanwhile, the other aspects of his game suffered even more than his bat. No player saw a larger year-over-year drop-off in baserunning value (min. 100 PA) or fielding value (min. 400 innings). I feel like that fact bears repeating: By not one, but two central components of the game, Realmuto lost more ground than any other player in baseball. Take a look:

J.T. Realmuto’s Steep Drop-Off
Season Baserunning (BsR) Defensive Runs Above Average (Def)
2022 6.6 18.0
2023 -1.5 3.4
Difference -8.1 -14.6

Running and fielding metrics generally don’t stabilize as quickly as hitting stats, so they’re prone to wider swings from year to year. Still, for a player as consistently excellent as Realmuto, a swing this big warrants a closer look.

Since his rookie season in 2015, Realmuto’s baserunning value had never dipped below zero. From 2018 to ’22, he put up an average of 6.67 BsR per 162 games, and his total in that time ranked third in baseball, trailing only José Ramírez and Trea Turner. Then all of a sudden in 2023, he turned into a liability on the basepaths. Were this any other 32-year-old catcher, it would be easy to explain his negative numbers as an effect of age-related decline. But Realmuto hasn’t lost a step:

Real Fast
Season Sprint Speed (ft/s) Sprint Speed Percentile HP to 1B (sec) 90-ft Split (sec)
2022 28.7 86th 4.35 3.97
2023 28.7 84th 4.36 3.94

As his five triples and 16 stolen bases — both tops among catchers — attest, Realmuto was no slowpoke in 2023. Overaggressiveness wasn’t an issue either: His 76% stolen base success rate was perfectly respectable. The problem seems to have been the polar opposite: an overabundance of caution. According to Baseball Reference, he recorded a career-worst extra-bases taken percentage (XBT%) of just 30% in 2023; league average was 42%, and he averaged 57% during his first four seasons in Philadelphia. Similarly, Baseball Savant tells us he attempted to advance in only 36% of opportunities, his lowest rate since 2016. His advancement attempt rate above average, also per Savant, was the lowest of his career. And while stolen base attempts around the league were up by nearly 33%, he attempted one fewer steal than he did the year before.

Realmuto and his legs have yet to reckon with Father Time, but his age could be affecting his numbers all the same. As he enters his mid-30s, perhaps he is exercising more caution to preserve his legs, prevent injury, and prolong his catching career. If it works, it’s more than a reasonable trade-off. He is one of the best running catchers the game has ever seen, but that doesn’t mean much if he isn’t actually, you know, catching.

About that catching, though. Realmuto ranks fifth among active catchers in career defensive value (Def); since his breakout 2018 season, he ranks third. But in just one season, he went from a deserving Gold Glove winner to an underserving Gold Glove finalist, the kind who makes you question whether Gold Gloves mean anything at all. These aren’t the numbers of an aging veteran struggling to hold his own behind the plate, though:

He’s Still Got It
Pop Time Caught Stealing Above Average Block Above Average Innings Caught
100th percentile 74th percentile 96th percentile 1142 (1st)
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

Instead, his defensive woes were concentrated in one particular area: pitch framing. Realmuto was worth -12.2 framing runs this past season, the third-worst mark in baseball. His dreadful framing performance dragged down his WAR more than anything else. But it wasn’t so long ago that framing was just another one of his many strengths. From 2019 to ’21, he racked up 18.8 framing runs, the fourth-most in baseball. Then in 2022, his framing numbers dropped significantly, from 8.6 FRM the year prior to 1.1. And this past season, his FRM dropped again, by nearly as twice as much. That’s not just a hiccup; it’s a pattern, and a concerning one at that.

Like any other skill, framing has an aging curve. Still, I’m struggling to chalk this up to the natural aging process. Realmuto moves and throws like an elite athlete. His sprint speed, arm strength, pop time, maximum exit velocity, and best speed have yet to show any sign of decline. His athleticism is unquestionable. And his durability is a tool in and of itself. He set a new career high with 1,142 defensive innings in 2023, the most by a catcher since Martín Maldonado in 2017. And while he had a down year overall, he didn’t show any signs of wear and tear as the season went on. In fact, his numbers were practically identical in the first and second halves. On top of that, he was excellent in the playoffs, starting all 13 of the Phillies’ games and crushing seven extra-base hits in 52 PA. That just doesn’t sound like a catcher on the verge of breaking down.

Unfortunately, I don’t have an alternate answer for why Realmuto’s framing fell off a cliff. The most likely explanation is a bit of aging, a bit of bad luck, a bit of random variance, and perhaps some de-emphasis on framing in the Phillies organization. They had a dedicated receiving coach when Realmuto first arrived in 2019; that coach, Craig Driver, worked closely with Realmuto on his framing skills. Driver left the organization after the 2019 season, and his fellow catching coach, Bob Stumpo, took a promotion to join the player development staff ahead of the 2022 campaign. It’s possible Realmuto is struggling without the support system he once had. For what it’s worth, former Phillies catchers Jorge Alfaro and Andrew Knapp also improved their framing under Driver, and current backup catcher Garrett Stubbs has been a terrible framer the past two years.

When Realmuto signed with the Phillies, he sparked plenty of conversation about the aging curve for catchers. His detractors claimed he wouldn’t maintain his star level of performance long enough to justify his contract; many thought he’d be playing first base or the outfield before the deal was up.

After three years, it’s clear the doubters were wrong. Realmuto’s deal was a bargain for Philadelphia, and he looks as hardy and healthy as the day he first donned red pinstripes. That being said, as the veteran catcher comes off the worst season of his career, it’s possible the cynics got something right. If he can’t improve his baserunning and framing numbers, the back end of his deal could be marred by a steep decline after all.

Leo is a writer for FanGraphs and MLB Trade Rumors as well as an editor for Just Baseball. His work has also been featured at Baseball Prospectus, Pitcher List, and SB Nation. You can follow him on Twitter @morgensternmlb.

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5 months ago

One thing that I have always considered when there is some negative variance that doesn’t seem to have a cause is off the field stuff. Might of had a rough year mentally and it carried over.