Bryce Harper has two photos of J.T. Realmuto tacked onto the side of his locker inside the Phillies clubhouse. He has a souvenir soda cup at home plastered with Realmuto’s face. Harper, just like any Phillies fan, has a favorite player. And Realmuto, he says, is his.
It is easy to see what draws Harper’s admiration. Realmuto leads all catchers in Wins Above Replacement, has thrown out 10 more would-be basestealers than the next-closest catcher, and plays nearly every day. But, just like the rest of the Phillies’ lineup, Realmuto’s offensive production has left something to be desired.
The Phillies acquired him from Miami in the offseason because of what he does both behind the plate and at it. Yet he ranks 15th in slugging percentage (.457), eighth in homers (15) and ninth in batting average (.273) among all catchers.
Harper’s favorite player has shown at times this season how much better he can make the Phillies lineup, which ranks 20th in the majors in batting average, 16th in on-base percentage, 22nd in slugging percentage, 22nd in homers, and 18th in runs. The lineup — one bulked up this winter with four All-Stars — has not produced the way the Phillies dreamed it would.
But they still find themselves in the first week of August with a share of a wild-card berth. If the Phillies are to reach the postseason, it will have to be their lineup that carries them. And if the middle of the order — Rhys Hoskins, Harper, and Realmuto — can catch fire together for two months, that could be enough for the Phillies to emerge from the crowd.
They are 12-3 this season when Realmuto homers and 27-10 when he has just one extra-base hit. He homered four times in a seven-game stretch at the end of July and has a .851 OPS since July 1. His power numbers have dipped despite moving away from pitcher-friendly Marlins Park. But his stretch last week provides hope. If the Phillies are going to reach the playoffs, it’s hard to imagine them doing it without a streaking Realmuto.
“You look at teams and how good teams are built,” Harper said. “It usually starts through the middle. Your catcher. Your shortstop. Your center fielder. You look at all of the teams that have won the last couple years, for a long time, they’ve always had a really good catcher. J.T. comes to work every single day, and he wants to be the best.
"He’ll take a ball off the shin, and he’s still in there the next day. He’ll play seven in a row and [manager Gabe Kapler] will say, ‘Hey, let’s give you an off day.’ And [Realmuto] says no because he knows we’re a better team when he’s in the lineup.”
Harper has long been drawn to catchers because he once was one. He was not surprised in June 2010 to hear then-commissioner Bud Selig announce that the Nationals had drafted Harper with the No. 1 pick. But he said it came “out of nowhere” to hear Selig describe Harper as an outfielder.
Harper had been a catcher his entire life, including the one year he spent before the draft at the College of Southern Nevada. That was the position he expected to play in the majors. But his catching career ended as soon as Selig said he was an outfielder. The Nationals wanted to move Harper to the majors as quickly as possible — he debuted 22 months later — and they did not want to risk injuring him behind the plate. So Harper moved to right field.
“I never played the outfield at all,” Harper said. “It was definitely a shock. [Catching] is something that I loved to do. I really enjoyed it. If I could go back and have an opportunity to catch, I would definitely love to do that.”
No longer a catcher, Harper began to admire the players who played his favorite position in the major leagues. He knew what it took to catch, and the ones who did it right caught his eye. It did not take long for Harper to notice Realmuto.
The Marlins drafted Realmuto a day after the Nationals drafted Harper. Like Harper, Realmuto was drafted at a foreign position; the Marlins transitioned the high school shortstop to minor-league catcher. He reached the majors two years after Harper and played against Harper’s Nationals 19 times a season while the two were NL East rivals. Harper was a fan right away.
“First, it was a catch-throw kind of thing. He’s always been able to do that. The way he is behind the plate, his reactions and the way he works back there, blocking with no guys on and two outs, you don’t see that a lot,” Harper said. “He just does it every day. He can take a ball off the freaking hand or leg, and he’s still in there the next day.”
Harper picked Realmuto’s brain about catching when they were opponents and seemed to plead last season for the Nationals to trade for his favorite player in July. But he would have to wait a little bit longer to call him his teammate. Realmuto landed with the Phillies in early February. Harper signed three weeks later.
“He’s very impressive off the field, as well. He’s a family man. Unbelievable dad and husband. Just a great person. It’s an honor to play with him each day and learn something each day. It’s a lot of fun,” Harper said. “Every guy wants to play every single day. We don’t want days off. When you see a guy like J.T. grinding for seven, eight days in a row, you’re sitting there saying, ‘Well if he’s grinding, I can grind too.' ”
Realmuto said earlier this season that he tries to deflect such compliments.
“I try not to pay too much attention to that because I don’t think I’m where I want to be as a player yet,” he said. “I feel like there are still areas I can improve, so that’s what I’m focused on. I want to get better and solidify myself in that group. Even if I’m not the best catcher in baseball, I’m proud to be in the conversation about the top three to five in the league because there are some great catchers. Buster Posey and [Yadier] Molina, those guys have been doing it for a long time.”
The final two months of the season will be defined by how the team hits, not how the pitchers pitch. The Phillies will have to hit their way to October. And Harper and his favorite player — who have adjoining lockers in the home clubhouse in South Philly — will play a major role in the season’s outcome.
“We all have All-Star ability. Of course, we’ve underachieved the last four months or so as hitters, as pitchers, as a team,” Harper said. “But we’re still where we could be in the playoffs. I think we’re going to take advantage of the next two months and do what we can as a team.”