Let’s get this out of the way: Only the Phillies know the extent of J.T. Realmuto’s right shoulder injury.
In the age of COVID-19, with major-league clubhouses closed to reporters, the teams control the flow of information more than ever. If second baseman Jean Segura hadn’t spilled a bean last Saturday night by disclosing that “J.T. is dealing with a shoulder problem” (then realizing what he said and trying to minimize it), there wouldn’t have been much of a hint.
Realmuto played it off the next day as “normal everyday wear and tear.” Manager Joe Girardi, always careful to guard any morsel that could dull a competitive edge, dismissed it as nothing more than the late-season pains experienced by all players, especially a catcher who has crouched behind the plate for more than 800 innings.
Nothing to see here, they said.
Maybe that’s the case. But a team’s actions are usually more transparent than words. And it was telling that before Realmuto rolled his ankle last Sunday and missed two games in Washington, the Phillies said they planned to give him time at first base with Rhys Hoskins out for the season, even though backup catcher Andrew Knapp is on the COVID-19 restricted list.
Girardi explained that it will make it easier to keep Realmuto’s bat in the lineup every day. But being a catcher didn’t prevent him from starting 34 of the first 39 games after the All-Star break or 32 of the last 37 games before it.
Realmuto plays more than just about any backstop in baseball, one of the biggest selling points for the Phillies’ bringing him back this past offseason with a five-year, $115.5 million contract, the largest ever for a free-agent catcher. He has caught 5,392 innings since 2016, second to Cardinals icon Yadier Molina (5,469⅓ through Wednesday).
As an executive from a rival team put it last winter, “A big part of his value is the volume of games he can catch in a long season. His greatest asset is his durability.”
The executive also noted that Realmuto, who turned 30 in March, would lose value if he had to move to another position.
Realmuto is a .276 hitter with a .454 slugging percentage and .786 OPS since debuting for the Marlins in 2014. Over that time, National League catchers have combined to bat .246 and slug .393 with a .712 OPS. NL first basemen have been far more productive: .263 average, .465 slugging, .812 OPS. Realmuto’s OPS since joining the Phillies is 15% better than league average. Hoskins, by comparison, is 23% better than average during that span.
“He’s a good offensive player, not a great offensive player,” the executive said of Realmuto. “But a good offensive player at catcher for 140 games a year is incredibly valuable, particularly when he throws as well as he does and defends as well as he does. If all of a sudden he’s playing first, he probably doesn’t hit enough to play first base.”
Indeed, Realmuto isn’t Mike Piazza, a Hall of Fame hitter. When the Mets took a seven-year, $91 million plunge for a 30-year-old Piazza in 1998, they knew they could always move him to first base and retain most of his value.
Joe Mauer is the cautionary tale here. From 2008 to 2010 (ages 25-27), he averaged 116 starts behind the plate, finished in the top 10 in MVP voting three times (winning it in 2009), and racked up 12.4 WAR. But after his eight-year, $184 million extension with the Minnesota Twins took effect in 2011, he never caught more than 75 games in a season because of injuries and compiled 18.3 WAR through 2018, mostly as a first baseman.
It’s premature to suggest Realmuto will follow that path. In making a long-term commitment to him, the Phillies cited his unique athleticism for a catcher as a reason to believe he will be a safe bet to stay healthy and behind the plate for the majority of the contract.
But if Realmuto’s shoulder really is a problem —and Segura suggested “the way he’s throwing the baseball is not the same J.T. that we all know” — it will mark the third year in a row that he has dealt with a late-season injury. In 2019, he missed the last eight games with a knee injury. He missed 11 games last September with a strained hip flexor.
At a minimum, the Phillies must consider using Knapp or 22-year-old Rafael Marchan more often next season and beyond. Marchan started five games in a row behind the plate through Thursday and played well in five consecutive victories. He hit a game-tying two-run homer Tuesday night in Washington and worked a seven-pitch walk in the Phillies’ four-run eighth inning Thursday.
Realmuto has started 72.9% of the Phillies’ games behind the plate since being acquired in a trade with the Marlins before the 2019 season. An extra day off from catching each week would help keep him healthier. Perhaps the designated hitter will come to the NL next season. That would be another way to lighten his workload and keep him in the lineup.
Catchers tend not to age well. There are exceptions, such as Molina and Iván Rodríguez. But entering this season, only 47 catchers got 500 or more plate appearances while playing at least 75% of their games behind the plate in their age-30 season, according to Baseball-Reference.com. That group whittled to 41 catchers at age 31, 29 at age 32, 18 at age 33, 19 at age 34, and 12 at age 35.
Realmuto has acknowledged the challenge of defying those trends. He has cited his late start to catching (he was an infielder in high school) and his training regimen, including his nutrition, as reasons he believes he will be able to do it.
“I’ve worked with certain doctors and trainers to try to keep my body in the best shape that I can, to perform as long as I can,” he said after signing his contract. “Athletically, I’m a little more advanced than most catchers are. I just think my athleticism will take me a long ways. As long as I continue to work hard and continue to keep my body in shape and continue to come into the season as ready as I can, I don’t see why I wouldn’t be able to last a little longer than other catchers.”
Maybe he will. Maybe this really is nothing more than “wear and tear.” Or maybe Realmuto’s staying power as a workhorse catcher is being tested sooner than the Phillies figured.