Will The Realmuto Please Stand Up
Travis d’Arnaud, Christian Vazquez, Josmil Pinto, and Caleb Joseph were the only rookie-eligible catchers to log significant plate appearances for their respective clubs in 2014. The first three were prospects who also spent a chunk of the season in Triple-A and Joseph was a former organizational top ten prospect who was veering towards minor league journeyman status before being pressed in to action when Matt Wieters was injured. Without looking backwards beyond 2014, my hunch is that the reliance on rookie catchers in 2015 only one month removed from Opening Day is uncommon.
Blake Swihart went from catcher of the future to catcher of the present when he was called up in early May to replace an ineffective Ryan Hanigan, himself replacing an injured Christian Vazquez. Kevin Plawecki became unblocked in Queens when d’Arnaud suffered his annual freak injury. Plawecki will likely head back to Vegas when d’Arnaud is ready but he’s holding his own in the meantime. Christian Bethancourt is in an even split with AJ Pierzynski and will continue to play regularly despite being really bad at half of the game. Roberto Perez, who is not a guy I made up, sits atop the Cleveland depth chart while Yan Gomes recovers from an April knee injury. Several others are currently backups and are one play away from regular playing time – Andrew Susac in San Francisco, James McCann in Detroit, JR Murphy in New York.
With the exception of Bethancourt, who is playing because of a combination of plus defense, a lack of alternatives on a rebuilding team, and a prayer that his bat will develop, each of those rookies were forced into action by injury. The script in Miami is unique, as the front office suddenly decided it was J.T. Realmuto’s time despite having a healthy, somewhat viable catcher on its roster and under contract through 2016.
The 24-year-old Realmuto’s stock rose quickly following a breakout 2014 Double-A campaign in which he hit .299/.369/.461 with eight home runs and 18 steals. He also had 128 runs plus RBI in just 97 games, which would have made for a monster season if there was such a thing as Double-A fantasy baseball. His performance was a vast improvement over the full season he spent in Jacksonville in 2013, when he hit .239/.310/.353. Realmuto made it to Miami for two cups of coffee in 2014 – one in June and one in September – but there’s not much instructive in a small handful of starts and a few pinch hitting appearances.
Realmuto unexpectedly got the call to south Florida in the second week of this season and has been the Marlins’ primary catcher since. Dan Jennings and the rest of the organization apparently liked what it saw because they gave Jarrod Saltalamacchia his walking papers despite owing him 14 million over the next two years. Without a doubt, the Marlins had buyer’s remorse about a contract that looked bad as soon as it was signed and looked worse after his poor 2014, but this was a surprising move that accelerated Realmuto’s schedule.
Realmuto has been overmatched in the big leagues so far, slashing .213/.238/.320 and walking in only three of his 81 plate appearances. He’s swinging at almost half of the pitches he sees, roughly four percent more than league average. His minor league track record indicates that he will be more patient in time but for now Realmuto’s aggressiveness is limiting his ability to be productive.
On the encouraging side, his batting average is depressed by a .254 BABIP and his 85.1 percent contact rate is ninth best among the 25 catchers that have at least 70 plate appearances. Looking a little deeper under the hood, there is further reason for optimism if we study his batted ball mix. Here is a spray chart of his 2014 Double-A extra base hits, courtesy of mlbfarm.com:
Nearly all of the homers are to the pull side but there are doubles and triples hit to all fields. Now here is his 2015 spray chart, thanks to Brooks Baseball:
It’s startling how infrequently Realmuto is pulling the ball. According to FanGraphs batted ball data, the 28.1 percent of the time he’s pulling the ball is the 12th lowest mark in baseball and as you can see from chart, nearly all of those pulls are infield outs. Why all the balls back up the middle and to the opposite field?
Realmuto is being pitched heavily on the outer half of the plate or off the plate away and he’s doing a good job of hitting the ball where it’s pitched. Realmuto is not just dropping the bat on the ball when pitched away, he’s hitting it with pretty good authority. His 25.4 percent line drive rate is well above the major league average of 21.2 percent. He’ll have a hard time adding much to your home run total unless he starts taking advantage of some of those pitches down the middle and on the inside half of the plate, but the average is destined to climb as some of those liners begin to drop and the BABIP corrects.
The former quarterback and shortstop is a premium athlete for the position. Given that background, it’s probably no surprise that his arm is plus. Realmuto has learned the other parts of the position quickly and has received praise from both manager Mike Redmond and members of the pitching staff for his game-calling ability, impressive for a backstop of his age and experience level. There is no question he is going to stay behind the plate and should be the Marlins catcher for the better part of the next decade.
I’d certainly take Swihart and Plawecki over him in the long term but Realmuto should be a solid, if unspectacular option in the future. I expect that he’ll outlearn the rest of the 2015 class of rookie catchers over the remainder of this season and should be functional in a backup role for your fantasy team.