CLEARWATER, Fla. - The Phillies, as their postseason hopes faded last summer and their season slipped away, cycled through seven leadoff hitters after Andrew McCutchen underwent knee surgery. The lineup was underachieving, and manager Gabe Kapler was desperate to find a spark, even sliding Bryce Harper into the top spot.
But the daring Kapler never tried batting J.T. Realmuto first, even though Realmuto led off more than any other catcher over the previous three seasons. Perhaps that was even too much for Kapler, who printed his players’ T-shirts with “Be Bold” across the chest.
“Gabe never once asked me at all last year,” Realmuto said Thursday. “I don’t know if it was on his radar at all. But he never bothered to come to me.”
Enter Joe Girardi. The new Phillies manager, hired to replace the fired Kapler, approached Realmuto earlier this spring to gauge his interest in batting leadoff in Grapefruit League games. The Phillies know that McCutchen will not be ready to start the season, forcing them to find the solution to the quandary that sunk them last summer.
Realmuto batted first in Thursday’s 5-3 win over Toronto, the third time he led off a game this spring. Girardi told him they wanted to see how it worked. At the very least, it would allow Realmuto to get extra at-bats while catching about four innings.
“I’m not a natural leadoff hitter by any means,” said Realmuto, who homered leading off against the Pirates on Wednesday. “But, to be honest, whatever lineup Joe thinks the best lineup is, I’m pretty comfortable with hitting anywhere he asks me to. I’ve done it in the past. I don’t think it’s a whole lot of at-bats, but I’ve had some success there. If he thinks that’s the best lineup, I’m all for it.”
Since 2010, just three catchers - Realmuto, Mitch Garver, and John Jaso - have batted leadoff at least 20 times in a season. It’s even rarer to find a Phillies catcher who has led off. When Andrew Knapp batted first for two games in 2018, it was the first time since 1904 that a Phillies catcher led off.
“Who was that?” Girardi asked.
Well, it was Frank Roth, who was arrested on the field that April, after leading off a game in Brooklyn. He hit the second pitch of the game and was promptly handcuffed and walked off the diamond by a New York police captain and four detectives, because baseball games were en outlawed prohibited on Sundays. The Dodgers pitcher and catcher were also arrested before the game resumed. Perhaps that’s why the Phillies have been tentative to bat a catcher leadoff ever since.
“No, I don’t think that’s why,” Realmuto said.
“I don’t think they typically fit the mold of a leadoff hitter, right,” said Girardi, a major-league catcher for 15 seasons who never batted leadoff. “There are three types of catchers. There’s defensive catchers, there’s offensive catchers that are average catchers, and then there are guys that do both. And that’s J.T. J.T. is outstanding defensively and offensively, so we have a gem. But there aren’t too many of those packages. A lot of the really good hitting catchers aren’t necessarily the fastest people, and they kind of clog the bases. He can run.”
McCutchen led off 59 of the first 60 games last season. With McCutchen at the top of the lineup, the Phillies had a 33-27 first-place record, scored the third-most first-inning runs in the National League, and had the fourth-highest first-inning OPS. The hardest run to score, Girardi says, is the first one. And the Phillies were able to do that.
Without McCutchen, they went 48-54, finished in fourth place, and scored the fourth-lowest first-inning runs in the NL. Their first-inning OPS without McCutchen was the ninth-best in the NL, dropping from .804 to .777.
“When you lose a guy like that, it hurts our whole lineup,” Bryce Harper said. “He’s our guy at the top and gets everything going and gets everyone started.”
Realmuto batted leadoff 40 times for Miami between 2016 and 2018. It was a small sample-size, but he hit .341 with a .856 OPS in 186 plate appearances. When leading off an inning last season, he hit .281 with a .824 OPS. His .355 on-base percentage when leading off an inning was the second-highest on the team among hitters who did it at least 40 times, trailing only McCutchen.
Realmuto said he believes catchers don’t usually bat leadoff because of their lack of speed. There are not a lot of catchers who are good or even average baserunners, he said. A manager does not want to draw up a lineup with a catcher who will clog the bases.
But Realmuto is not your average catcher. He has the fastest home-plate-to-first-base time (4.22 seconds) among all catchers, according to MLB’s Statcast data, and his sprint speed -- a measurement of feet per second -- is in the 13th percentile for all baserunners. Realmuto was a state-champion quarterback who ran his high-school team to victory and comes from a family of Olympic wrestlers. In other words, Realmuto is an athlete.
“In my opinion, base running is preparation and being on your toes,” Realmuto said. “You have to anticipate plays. You can’t just be reactionary on the base paths. You have to think ahead of the game. You have to think about all of the scenarios that could happen.
"For example, if you’re standing on first base, you shouldn’t just be standing there, getting your lead, and getting ready to go to second. You have to be begging for them to hit a ball into the gap, so you can take a chance and score from first or go first to third. All of that stuff is a mindset and more than just being fast.”
Realmuto is not the only option to bat first as the team waits on McCutchen. Scott Kingery, Roman Quinn, and Adam Haseley would also fit there. But Haseley and Quinn might platoon in the outfield, and the Phillies would likely want a set leadoff hitter. Kingery batted leadoff 26 times last season and hit just .197 with a .599 OPS.
Harper will not be leading off, Girardi said. But it could be Realmuto batting first in Miami on opening day, an option that was perhaps even too bold for Kapler to try. If so, the Phillies have to hope it goes better than it did for Frank Roth.