J.T. Realmuto has been behind the plate for 84 more innings — nearly 9½ more games — than any other big-league catcher this year. In isolation, though, that isn’t what stands out about the Phillies’ backstop.
The most impressive aspect of Realmuto's season is this: Somehow, he has actually gotten stronger since the All-Star break.
It doesn’t often work that way for catchers. If anything, the toll of the position tends to grind them down late in the season. Even the great Pudge Rodriguez had a .749 career OPS in the second half compared with an .835 mark in the first.
But Realmuto has been considerably more productive in August and September, batting .294 with 11 homers and a .974 OPS in 153 at-bats compared with .270 with 14 homers and a .765 OPS in 367 at-bats through the end of July, all while continuing to throw out base stealers at a major-league-leading 44% clip.
The secret to his seemingly boundless energy: playing in games that matter.
"Just being a part of this playoff race, that gives you some extra adrenaline that I haven't had in the past," said Realmuto, who spent the first five years of his career with losing Miami Marlins teams. "[It] kind of makes me forget I'm tired once the game starts. That's been a big plus for me."
But the lights are finally flickering on the Phillies' fading wild-card chances. Odds are they will be turned out during the 10-day, 11-game road trip that begins Tuesday night in Atlanta against the Braves, who can clinch their second consecutive division title this week.
And once the Phillies are eliminated, the questions will arise about the future, from manager Gabe Kapler's job security to the offseason pursuit of badly needed upgrades to the pitching staff. One of the biggest topics will surely be a contract extension for Realmuto, who is under club control for one more season before being eligible for free agency.
There appears to be mutual interest in a multi-year deal. The Phillies, after all, didn't trade prized pitching prospect Sixto Sanchez and young catcher Jorge Alfaro to Miami for only two seasons of Realmuto. For his part, Realmuto has indicated throughout the season that he's encouraged by the direction of the team and open to sticking around for a while.
The question, then, becomes what will it take to get a deal done. And that’s where it gets complicated because there aren’t many comparable contract extensions for a 28-year-old, two-time All-Star catcher who has steadily improved his numbers every year that he has played in the big leagues.
Former Minnesota Twins star Joe Mauer signed the largest extension for a catcher before the 2010 season, setting the bar for both overall ($184 million) and average annual value ($23 million over eight seasons). But he was about to turn 27 and coming off back-to-back batting titles and an American League MVP award. Mauer also represents a cautionary tale for super-long deals for catchers. Three years into the contract, he was already being transitioned to first base.
Buster Posey received the longest deal ever for a catcher with a nine-year, $167 million extension before the 2013 season. But in addition to being the face of the San Francisco Giants during their run of three World Series championships, he was 26 and also a newly crowned MVP.
Posey’s average annual value ($18.55 million) was lower than Mauer’s, but as one league source noted, Posey was entering only his first year of arbitration eligibility. Players who sign extensions closer to free agency typically can expect a higher annual salary. Mauer was going into his third year of arbitration.
Realmuto will be at that stage, too, so it’s conceivable that agent Jeff Berry could seek an annual salary that falls between Mauer and Posey, possibly in the range of the $20 million per year that St. Louis Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina received in 2017 at age 34. The length of contract could wind up being similar to Molina’s first extension, a five-year, $75 million deal before the 2012 season. Molina was 29 then; Realmuto will turn 29 in March.
The Phillies have committed about $110 million next season to nine players (Bryce Harper, Jake Arrieta, Andrew McCutchen, Jean Segura, David Robertson, Aaron Nola, Odubel Herrera, Jay Bruce, and Scott Kingery). Their only significant raise in arbitration would be Realmuto, who might stand to double his $5.9 million salary from this year, and they could save money by trading or non-tendering third baseman Maikel Franco and second baseman Cesar Hernandez.
The Phillies could buy out Realmuto’s final year of arbitration and lock him up for four more seasons while still maintaining the payroll flexibility to revamp their pitching staff. A five-year, $100 million contract wouldn’t seem out of the question, especially for a player who would be receiving MVP consideration if the Phillies were going to make the playoffs.
“He has [been] for us,” Kapler said of Realmuto’s MVP chops. “I don’t think there’s a Phillies player, staff member, front-office member, or fan who wouldn’t say the same thing.”
It figures, then, that contract talks will be soon to follow.