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The Phillies’ J.T. Realmuto is dominating the bases unlike any other player in baseball

He's a perfect base stealer, and he throws them out better than anyone. Inside the remarkable season of the Phillies "unique" catcher.

The Phillies' J.T. Realmuto has been behind the plate for 97 more innings than any other catcher this season entering the weekend.
The Phillies' J.T. Realmuto has been behind the plate for 97 more innings than any other catcher this season entering the weekend.Read moreYONG KIM / Staff Photographer

When Bryce Harper grows up, he wants to be J.T. Realmuto.

“I talk to my dad about it all the time like, ‘Dude, this guy is incredible,’” Harper said the other day before the Phillies played in Miami. “As a catcher myself when I was a kid and all the way through to college, I wanted to be a big-league catcher. That’s the type of guy I wanted to be like. Just like him.”

None of this was new. Harper has been president of the Realmuto Admiration Society for years. He led the “Re-Sign J.T.” brigade in 2020. But even his fandom is reaching a fever pitch. Because although Realmuto won’t take the National League MVP crown from Harper (St. Louis’ Paul Goldschmidt is the runaway favorite), the star catcher is most certainly the Phillies’ most valuable player as they close in on their first postseason berth since 2011.

» READ MORE: Who’s the Phillies’ MVP? J.T. Realmuto heads the list, but there are other worthy choices

And Realmuto would hold another distinction, if it actually existed: He’s king of the bases.

There’s no way to fully quantify it, but Realmuto dominates the bases more than any player in baseball. Cases could surely be made for others. Mookie Betts, for instance. Or Shohei Ohtani when he pitches and hits in the same game. Maybe Trea Turner, another Harper favorite. But consider this:

  1. Through Thursday, Realmuto threw out 27 of 64 base stealers, a 42.2% success rate that leads the majors. League average is 24%.

  2. He was 17-for-17 in steal attempts, the most steals in a season for a catcher since Russell Martin in 2008 (18) and the third-most by any player without getting caught since Major League Baseball began tracking such things in 1951.

  3. Realmuto had advanced more than one base on a single, and more than two bases on a double, 54% of the time. League average is 40%.

“When we think about J.T. when we’re game-planning for a series against the Phillies, there’s a lot of different ways in which he impacts the game,” San Francisco Giants manager Gabe Kapler said this week. “There are not that many players that you have to think about from so many different angles. If any.”

Now, factor in that Realmuto is a catcher — 31 years old, to boot — who was behind the plate for 97 more innings than any other catcher this season entering the weekend. And that he recovered from a dismal start that raised some eyebrows within the sport about the start of a potential decline to bat .314/.380/.604 with 14 homers in his last 58 games through Thursday. You have a player that Kapler describes as “unique.” Kyle Schwarber, the other former catcher on the Phillies’ roster besides Harper, calls Realmuto the team’s “backbone.”

Label him whatever you want, but in the absence of an elite base-stealing talent — nobody has swiped at least 50 bags in a season since 2017 — there isn’t a player who makes a bigger impact on a game in 90-foot increments.

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“I’ve always been a guy who really pays attention to my baserunning,” Realmuto said. “It’s something that doesn’t necessarily get in the papers, but it wins ballgames. And it can lose ballgames, too, if you’re not a good baserunner. So, I take a lot of pride in that.

“And then obviously throwing guys out is something that I’ve always loved to do.”

Realmuto smiled devilishly at that last part, almost as though he was keeping a secret. Two of them, actually. How to defy the aging curve at baseball’s most demanding position. And how to control a game with his arms and legs.

‘Just not going to run’

Schwarber was a catcher until the Chicago Cubs drafted him fourth overall in 2014 and moved him to the outfield. Realmuto was a shortstop through high school before the Miami Marlins took him in the third round in 2010 and put him behind the plate.

It’s clear to Schwarber that they ended up where they belonged.

“Playing against him when he was in Miami, you always approached it that he was an athlete and you didn’t want to run on him,” Schwarber said. “But to see how he’s improved his receiving, the way that he can block, and how he controls the running game. His arm, it’s strong. It’s on point every single time.”

None of this is new. Realmuto nabbed base stealers at a 34.9% clip from 2016-18 with the Marlins, then led the league at 47% in 2019, his first season with the Phillies.

The trick: gifted athleticism.

Realmuto has a strong arm. But his feet and body control enable him to get rid of the ball faster than any catcher in the league. On average, there are 1.82 seconds between a pitch hitting Realmuto’s mitt and the ball reaching the infielder at second base, according to Statcast. No other catcher is averaging better than 1.89 seconds.

He’s quicker than anybody, and you know he’s not going to miss. So you almost start to shut your running game down.

Gabe Kapler, Giants manager

And Realmuto is somehow getting faster with age. His recorded “pop time,” as it’s called, was 1.83 seconds last season, 1.88 seconds in 2019, and 1.9 seconds in 2018.

“It’s to the point where you’re just not going to run,” Kapler said. “With most pitchers’ time to the plate and his pop time, you just can’t. He’s quicker than anybody, and you know he’s not going to miss. So you almost start to shut your running game down.”

To wit: In three games against the Phillies earlier this month, the Giants didn’t attempt to steal.

Even with pitchers who are slow to the plate, Realmuto acts as a deterrent. Take Noah Syndergaard. In 15 starts for the Los Angeles Angels, opponents were 25-for-26 in steal attempts against him; in eight starts for the Phillies, working with Realmuto, they’re 5-for-7.

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“It’s just something that I’ve naturally been good at since I started catching,” Realmuto said. “I try to continue to work. Our pitching staff does a great job of giving me a chance, and our middle infielders, if you ask me, are some of the best taggers in the game. But I definitely take pride in throwing guys out.”

Oh, and another thing: Through Thursday, Realmuto allowed only two passed balls, fewer than 33 catchers. When he’s behind the plate, advancing on the bases against the Phillies almost always involves getting hits.

“He’s able to keep everything in front of him,” Schwarber said. “Especially with some of the arms that we have that are throwing really, really hard, with really hard offspeed, the way that he can keep those in front of him, the way that he can block. I think the hardest pitch in baseball to block is the changeup, and the way that he can block some of those changeups are really good.”

Running man

All it took was a look. Not even. Really just a peek.

With two out in the third inning on Aug. 22 at Citizens Bank Park, Realmuto broke from first base on Nick Castellanos’ line drive to right field and noticed after a few strides that the first step to the ball by Cincinnati’s Jake Fraley was slow. Realmuto accelerated around second base, picked up third-base coach Dusty Wathan and never stopped, prompting John Kruk to shout, “Oh my gosh,” on the telecast.

“Realmuto always goes first to third, but he read the [lousy] relay and just kept going to score easily,” said an evaluator from a National League team who was at the game. “That’s how good of a baserunner he is.”

You almost forget that Realmuto is, you know, a catcher.

“We always joke with him that we’ve got the two fastest catchers in the league and he’s second behind Stubby [backup catcher Garrett Stubbs],” Schwarber said, laughing. “But to have a guy who’s able to, one, be a stolen-base threat, but two, also be a very aggressive baserunner and take the extra base when he can, it’s a good example for all of us if you can take that extra 90 feet.”

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Realmuto does it more often than even Harper (48%), whose daredevil style on the bases prompts jokes among teammates that he wears an “invisible cloak” to avoid being called out.

It isn’t that Realmuto is the Phillies’ fastest runner, although he’s faster than most catchers. He has good instincts, according to Harper, and a knack for knowing when to take chances.

Realmuto said he learned from former Marlins teammate Juan Pierre. He also credits his work with Phillies coach Paco Figueroa, who oversees the team’s baserunning.

“Juan Pierre was the first one I saw where, all he talked about was taking the extra base, being a good teammate,” Realmuto said. “Because baserunning is all about being unselfish and wanting to take that extra base for the next guy. Even when it’s not a glamorous thing to do or it doesn’t get in the box score, it rewards the team when you do it well.”

It’s difficult to measure baserunning prowess. In trying to recall a better baserunning season for a catcher, a National League scout referenced Iván Rodríguez’s 1999 MVP season, when he stole 25 bases but got caught 12 times. Rodríguez did take an extra base 51% of the time.

According to a statistic developed by Fangraphs, Realmuto has the three best baserunning seasons ever by a catcher, topped by this season.

I love watching him catch. I love watching him run the bases. I just love watching it all.

Bryce Harper on Realmuto

“You can’t put a numeric value on a player like him,” Schwarber said.

Harper doesn’t need one. Never has.

“He’s going out and doing things on both sides of the ball that nobody’s done in years,” Harper said. “It’s incredible. I mean, it really is. I love watching him catch. I love watching him run the bases. I just love watching it all.”

» READ MORE: Aaron Nola has seen it all with the Phillies — except the playoffs. After eight years, he wants in on the fun.