Miami Marlins: Is J.T. Realmuto the Catcher of the Future?

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At this point, catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia being designated for assignment and being released isn’t breaking news.

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The focus is now on catching prospect J.T. Realmuto. Ready or not, he is being forced into the starter’s role for a team that is hoping to fight its way into the playoffs (at least until Jeff Mathis returns). He has 800+ plate appearances at Double-A and has already had his first cup of coffee, so turning to him is logical. What should we expect from him?

Let’s start with his tools. The ones that stand out are his solid average hit and fielding tools and plus arm. Right now, he has average speed, which is plenty for a catcher. His power is his weakest tool, with it potentially being a 40 grade (out of 80). The reason for this is his swing, which is short and level. While not conducive for hitting for power, it is good for hitting line drives and, when combined with good plate discipline, is what leads to his solid average hit tool. I will address this point at a later time.

Being a former shortstop, he comes equipped with a great arm and athleticism. That athleticism allows him leeway behind the plate, but after 400+ games there he’s learned the ins and outs of the position, although he still probably has ways to go. He’s definitely going to stay behind the plate and he’ll probably be a little above average there. Based off his scouting report, he looks like he can be an average player at a premium position with the possibility for a little more.

Do his numbers agree with the scouting report? In his first three years of professional baseball, he had minor strikeout problems, posting three straight seasons of 20%+ K rates. He drastically cut those rates as he moved up the system but struggled in his first tour of MLB action, posting a 26.7% K rate last season. He’s cut that in half this season, posting a 13.3% K rate and after 60 plate appearances, that is starting to stabilize.

Basically, it’s not just a small sample size thing and that appears to be indicative of his talent level. We know he makes use of that good hit tool and his strong contact abilities, also evidenced by his above average 85.7% contact rate.

However, Realmuto has not produced at all so far. With his hit tool, one would expect his BABIP to be at least around the league average rate (usually around .300). Considering his good contact abilities and ability to avoid strikeouts, his stats would get a boost from since he is consistently putting the ball in play. Yet, his BABIP sits well below average at .260.

With the advent of Statcast, we can now analyze batted ball data, and nothing about his batted ball profile suggests he should be hitting at the level he has been thus far. His 88.65 average exit speed is basically even with Kyle Seager and Robinson Cano. His average batted ball distance of 174.73 feet is also better than both hitters. Given Realmuto’s swing and power projections, we know that fly balls are not going to be a big part of his game. It’s possible this is the reason for his suppressed BABIP.

However, his batted ball profile, in terms of % of balls in play that are line drives, fly balls, and groundballs, is basically league average. While none of these rates have stabilized yet, he currently boasts an infield fly ball rate this about half the league average. If Realmuto can continue to show the ability to not give away free outs and make quality contact, by avoiding strike outs and popups, then his future will be a long and bright one

But let’s go back and review the information above. Realmuto’s distribution of types of balls in play is pretty much average, and he actually makes better contact on fly balls than the average hitter. This alone is probably a recipe for a slightly better than average BABIP. How does exit speed factor into this? The average hitter has made “hard contact” on 28.3% of his balls in play. Realmuto currently sits at 31.9%. He’s making hard contact more often than average, so it’s definitely just a case of bad lucks and small sample size. His BABIP is due for positive regression and we might even see him put up above average rates.

The one drawback of hitters who post very low strikeout rates is that they usually post low walk rates. This is because they tend to put the ball in play early on in at bats. Realmuto, however, always drew praise for his plate discipline coming up the system. He always posted strong rates, including an average BB rate around 9% in AA. 60 plate appearances isn’t enough to draw any conclusions on his 3.3% BB rate, but he is swinging more often than the average hitter.

As he becomes more selective, we should see that rate jump up to something close to league average. An above average BABIP, combined with more balls in play and better quality of contact, and a league average walk rate provides an above average, yet very safe, offensive profile.

What about his defense? We’ll start with the easiest question to answer: his pitch framing. So far, Realmuto has received 1539 pitches, which is more than enough as far as sample sizes go. He has lost his pitchers 13 strikes, resulting in a loss 1.8 runs. Full time starting catchers will see something between 8000-10,000 pitches over a season, so extrapolated Realmuto’s framing would (over 8000 pitches) result in a loss of 67 strikes and would make his receiving worth 9.36 runs below average, approximately one win.

While this is not good, it is a clear step up from Saltalamacchia, whose framing was worth 24.4 runs below average last season.

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As for the rest of his defense, the jury is still out. We know Realmuto is an athletic catcher with a strong arm, meaning he should rate as average to above average in terms of blocking pitches, fielding bunts, and throwing out runners/limiting stolen base attempts. We don’t have much information on these aspects of his game yet, but so far this season he has been worth 3 DRS and Fielding Bible currently credits him with 2 runs saved.

If Realmuto’s framing continues to be worth about -10 runs, naturally that would mean he would need to be worth an accumulated 10 runs above average at everything else to be an average defensive catcher. That would mean he would need to grade as excellent at both blocking pitches and throwing out and limiting base stealers.

He has the tools to be a good defensive catcher, but unless he improves his framing even grading out as average seems like a stretch.

The important thing to remember is that whatever production he provides is always more valuable since he is a catcher. Full time catchers usually get around 450 plate appearances, which provides a positional adjustment of a little more than 9 runs to their WAR. This allows for a lot of wiggle room. Let’s say that positional adjustment washes out his below average framing.

If he realizes his potential of being an above average contributor as a hitter and defender, which is certainly very reasonable, he could easily be worth 3 wins. For reference, the Marlins have not had a catcher provide at least 3 wins since Ivan Rodriguez‘ 4.5 WAR in 2003. Outside of him, Charles Johnson is the only ever catcher to have a season worth at least 3 wins, with Johnson accomplishing the feat 3 times.

So can J.T. Realmuto be the catcher of the future for this organization?

He’s a safe bet to be at least a backup catcher, given his hit tool, athleticism behind the plate, and strong arm. If he realizes his upside, he has the chance to be a very good catcher for many years, which the Marlins have been unable to stake claim to since Charles Johnson. If he can improve his receiving, he could even be better.

We’re still figuring out what kind of player Realmuto is, but the picture is slowly coming into focus. In his young career, Realmuto seems to have had a fit of bad luck. However, the future holds a lot of promise for him. Not only can he be the catcher of the future, he has the chance to go down as the best catcher to play for this organization.

Next: Saltalamacchia Released

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