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A phone call from Joe Girardi helped J.T. Realmuto fix his swing and return to his All-Star self

The catcher struggled to hit for power after injuring his wrist at the end of April. Even when the injury healed, his swing was still compromised. Joe Girardi nudged him to see what was wrong.

Phillies catcher J.T. Realmuto  hits a home run against the San Diego Padres on July 4.
Phillies catcher J.T. Realmuto hits a home run against the San Diego Padres on July 4.Read moreMONICA HERNDON / Staff Photographer

CHICAGO — Joe Girardi called J.T. Realmuto last week and asked the catcher to take a look at a video of his swing. He didn’t tell Realmuto what was wrong, instead nudging the hitter to find out.

“I always think sometimes for people it’s better when they come to the realization,” Girardi said. “So you just say ‘Check something out.’ A lot of times, players know themselves better than we’ll ever know them.”

And there it was. Realmuto had altered his swing after injuring his left wrist in April, falling unknowingly into a habit that was drastically decreasing his ability to hit for power. Realmuto, who went on the injured list in May, had just 11 extra-base hits over his next 149 plate appearances.

“Something had creeped into my swing that I didn’t even realize. Joe helped me get through it,” Realmuto said. “With the wrist injury, you lose your length in your swing. That was something that I went through because I was cutting my swing off and the barrel wasn’t staying in the zone long at all. That was making me swing and miss more, hit more ground balls, and not have the same power that I should be playing with.”

Realmuto’s soft-contact rate doubled in May and his strikeout rate ballooned from 19.5% in April to 32.7% in May. His WRC+ — an advanced metric that quantifies how many runs a player creates — was 154 in April and just 91 in June. Realmuto was named an All-Star last week, but his struggles at the plate were not quite star worthy.

Then Girardi called. Realmuto adjusted his swing and entered Thursday’s series finale at Wrigley Field with five hits — two of which were for extra bases — in his last four games. It’s a small sample size, but Realmuto is starting to look like himself at the plate.

“It’s been a few weeks, but I’m starting to feel more comfortable,” Realmuto said. “Just some things that I was overcompensating for with my wrist created bad habits, and once you take enough at-bats with those habits, it’s hard to reverse that. I’ve been working pretty hard with [hitting coach] Joe Dillon and [assistant hitting coach] Pedro Guerrero in the cage, starting to see some results now, starting to see the ball better. So hopefully that slump is behind me.”

Realmuto will travel next week to Denver for his third All-Star Game after being voted onto the National League team as a result of the player voting. He wasn’t producing at the plate, but his track record as baseball’s best catcher and his reputation has earned him the respect of his fellow players. A rough stretch did not change that.

“I think that’s more important than anything when your peers respect you,” Girardi said. “I think you’d probably say the same thing about your business. If you got voted into the Hall of Fame by your peers, that means more than if I was to put you in. They know what you go through on a daily basis. I think that’s in all walks of life and I think it means a lot.”

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Realmuto’s wrist injury occurred on April 29 on a wild pitch in St. Louis, but the pain was manageable for a few weeks. He missed two games after the injury but it did not require a trip to the injured list. But the discomfort worsened when his wrist stiffened while he was away from the team for a day with an illness. He went on the injured list and missed 11 games.

Realmuto was slugging .507 before the injury but just .396 since returning on May 29 from the injured list. His OPS in April was .932 and in June it was just .693. Realmuto was back from the injured list, but his swing was compromised.

“I think sometimes when guys get banged up, they’ll do things to play to protect themselves and it gets them in bad habits,” Girardi said. “You have to break them of those bad habits and sometimes it’s not as easy as you think. Even though they’ve maybe been doing them for only two or three weeks, it still becomes a habit that you have to break.”

Realmuto, according to FanGraphs’ Wins Above Replacement measurement, has been the most valuable Phillies player for the last three seasons. As he showed in April, his bat can carry the lineup.

But for May and June, Realmuto was either injured or unproductive. His injury cost him more than just 11 games. It changed his swing and sapped his power. He just didn’t know it until the manager gave him a nudge.

“We’re starting to see J.T.,” Girardi said. “He was swinging the bat really good before he hurt that wrist and we’ll get him back for sure.”