It is a title that was given to him by others, and J.T. Realmuto does not think too much about it. Not that he minds being called “the best catcher in baseball,” but he is far too humble to boast about it or even confirm the idea.
Besides, he’s too busy in the video room these days and, no, we do not mean the one where the Phillies reportedly held controversial in-game sessions of Fortnite late last season.
“I am in there quite a bit, especially the first day of a series,” Realmuto said before a game recently at Citizens Bank Park. “I usually spend an hour or two every day trying to go over our starters and our bullpen guys. But C.Y. [pitching coach Chris Young] does a great job of putting things together. He has made my job a lot easier.”
While Realmuto will not declare that he is the best catcher in baseball, it is clear that he believes in order to be the best at his position you have to do a lot more than simply hit the baseball, something he did remarkably well in his final three seasons with the Miami Marlins. It is dirty work behind home plate and it also requires a high baseball IQ and a degree of amateur psychology in order to keep the confidence high among the men on the mound.
“Handling the staff is number one,” Realmuto said. “All the physical things are great and everyone sees the physical things. They are very important, don’t get me wrong. But having a plan and having an approach and knowing your pitcher on the mound and the batter at the plate are vital. The guys on the mound have to have confidence in you that you know what you are doing. That’s the top of the list for me.”
The Phillies’ pitching staff has not been among the best in baseball in the early days of this season, but the starters who have done well (Zach Eflin, Jake Arrieta, and Vince Velasquez) have gushed about Realmuto’s ability to run a game. And manager Gabe Kapler has made it clear that he believes his pitchers should have the utmost trust in Realmuto.
“When you have someone like him, you can definitely lean on him to help you get through some things,” Velasquez said after a solid first start of the season.
No one admires good catchers more than guys who used to catch, and Phillies broadcaster Ben Davis and third-base coach Dusty Wathan do believe that Realmuto has emerged as the best in the business.
“He is a presence in the clubhouse, because of the way he prepares for a ballgame,” Wathan said. “There is an aura about him. He’s a very confident, calm, and quiet leader with a passion to win. He’s just one of those guys that people follow and pitchers trust. And then you see him athletically on the field – he can run, throw, and get into stances not many guys can get into. It’s so cool to see a guy back there doing the things he can do.”
Davis said Realmuto has exceeded his expectations of what he expected when the catcher first came into the league.
“I think over the last year and a half he has become the best catcher in baseball,” Davis said. “When he first came up I thought he had some tools and I liked what I saw, but I didn’t think he was going to be this. I like the way he communicates with the pitchers and that’s always key, but he also … presents the ball to the umpire very well. What really caught me off guard was his arm strength and how quickly he gets to his feet. He’s very flexible behind the plate. He’s a great athlete and fundamentally sound.”
Realmuto, through the Phillies’ first 11 games, threw out three of seven runners attempting to steal. A year ago, he threw out 21 of 55, compared with 21 of 80 by former Phillies catcher Jorge Alfaro. Only Martin Maldonado (18) and Yadier Molina (27) allowed fewer stolen bases than Realmuto (34) among catchers who played 100 games last season.
In consecutive one-run wins over Minnesota and Washington, Realmuto helped save runs with textbook tags at home plate on throws from outfielder Andrew McCutchen and shortstop Jean Segura. In the old days – like six years ago – catchers could block the plate and initiate contact with runners, but that was outlawed in 2014 as a safety precaution.
Realmuto, an outstanding youth wrestler from a well-known wrestling family, still kind of misses the old physical way, but he has perfected the new kinder and gentler technique.
“The technique I use now is way different than what I would have used four or five years ago,” he said. “Now you have to stay out in front of the plate a little bit more, and as soon as I get to the ball I try to get to the plate as quick as I can. Things have definitely changed. I didn’t mind the old rule. I thought it was an intriguing part of the game. I thought it was cool. This kind of took the physicality out of it, but I know it also protects players from injury.”
Elite wrestlers are notoriously tough and tend to make good catchers. Darren Daulton was a wrestler, too. Realmuto stopped wrestling once he got to high school, but it remains in his blood. He has three uncles who won NCAA Division I titles, including John Smith, who also won six world and Olympic titles. He is the coach at Oklahoma State.
Phillies managing partner John Middleton is a former college wrestler and remains an avid fan, so it’s hard to imagine his letting Realmuto get away as a free agent after the 2021 season.
“In spring training I talked about [wrestling] with him quite a bit,” Realmuto said. “I let him know who some of my uncles were and he knew them from wrestling. Growing up, it was the most important sport to me just because it filled so many of the characteristics that you want in a good athlete – strength, mental toughness, balance. It’s unbelievable how tough that sport is, so I think it made me better in every other sport that I’ve played.”
To many onlookers it has made him the best catcher in baseball.
“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,” Realmuto 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 Molina, those guys have been doing it for a long time.”