When the Phillies acquired J.T Realmuto in February 2019, the best catcher in baseball, as declared by former general manager Matt Klentak, said in his introductory press conference that there were a lot of areas of his game that he wants to improve. He mentioned that he wanted to cultivate trust with his pitchers. That eventually came with time but from an individual standpoint, Realmuto went to work on the one aspect of his game that wasn’t on par with the rest of his elite skillset: his pitch framing abilities.
While Realmuto came to Philadelphia with the reputation of being one of the more defensively sound catchers in baseball, he had struggled with presenting borderline pitches as strikes. Blocking and controlling the run game is important for any catcher but good framing skills are the most vital because of the sheer volume of framing opportunities that come about and the added value good receiving catchers can provide in the form of runs saved.
No catcher in baseball can transfer the ball from his glove to second base faster than Realmuto. It’s the biggest reason why he ranked No. 1 by a wide margin in throwing runs in 2019 (Buster Posey came in second with 1.6).
However, Realmuto’s efforts in throwing out runners saved the Phillies just under five runs. By Baseball Prospectus’ estimations, Realmuto’s framing netted more than twice as many runs saved, despite being above average at best in that department in 2019.
It’s no wonder Realmuto came into his first spring training as a Phillie with an eagerness to improve his framing skills.
Before arriving in Miami, Realmuto had been a below-average receiver for most of his career. Out of 32 catchers who spent at least 2,000 innings behind the plate from 2015 to 2018, Realmuto ranked 24th in framing runs according to FanGraphs (-24.1). His final year in Miami was the only season in that time frame in which Realmuto’s strike rate, the percentage of called strikes on pitches just outside of the strike zone as measured by Statcast, was above league average.
It’s not as if Realmuto completely ignored framing during his time in Miami. He recognized that his pre-pitch setup was flawed as early as spring training 2016.
“[Before] I would be in the right position, and then move my glove and put myself in a bad position, which made me late to pitches,” Realmuto told Joe Frisaro of MLB.com in March 2016.
Unfortunately for Realmuto, he put up his worst numbers as a framer in 2016 and the problems he mentioned just before his first full season as a big leaguer persisted throughout his tenure as a Marlin. To be fair, Realmuto only began catching shortly after the Marlins drafted him in 2010 so some leeway should be afforded.
Realmuto improved considerably in 2018 but some bad habits were still evident. Sometimes he failed to properly position his body before the pitch and at other times, his glove carried the pitch below the strike zone.
Realmuto was pleasantly surprised when he arrived in Clearwater that spring to find three dedicated catching coaches. As Matt Gelb of The Athletic documented in 2018, the Phillies assembled a data-driven catching program in hopes to drastically improve on the defensive side. From 2015 to 2017, Phillies catchers ranked 30th in FanGraphs’ framing runs metric (-51.1). While quantifying the art of presenting isn’t an exact science, most metrics out there agree that the Phillies were one of the worst framing teams in baseball from the beginning of the Statcast era to the implementation of the team’s receiving program.
Phillies backstops improved immensely in 2018. They ranked 10th in Baseball Prospectus framing runs (8.9), which is significant since they ranked last in MLB the previous season (-21.7). Jorge Alfaro ranked fifth among all catchers with 12.3 framing runs in 6,302 opportunities and while he struggled immensely as a blocker (-2.4 blocking runs in 3,537 opportunities), the Marlins were intrigued enough with his upside as a framer to take him in a deal for Realmuto.
Luckily for the Phillies, Realmuto proved to be a fast learner. Second-year receiving coach Craig Driver went to work in spring training, instructing Realmuto to set up lower and attack the ball.
As a result, Realmuto began setting up much lower and eliminating the subtle body movements that put him in a bad position to present the pitch as cleanly as he could. He seems to have a better idea of where the ball is going to go and that’s shown in the minimal effort needed to manipulate his glove at the last second. It’s impossible to compile a playlist of pitches in the strike zone that were called a ball due to Realmuto’s poor framing since 2019 because there aren’t many to choose from.
Statcast credited Realmuto with 8 runs extra strikes and a 50.4% strike rate, which puts him in the 68th percentile among catchers in 2019. He jumped the ranking in 2020, landing in the 95th percentile with 3 runs extra strike and a 51.9% strike rate. Baseball Prospectus and FanGraphs weren’t as high as Statcast was on Realmuto’s framing in 2020 as the two sites ranked him 14th and 10th in framing runs according to their respective models.
With a small sample size, it’s hard to tell whether Realmuto significantly improved or regressed as a framer in 2020. Driver, who was widely considered the mastermind behind Alfaro and Realmuto’s framing improvement, left the Phillies to take the job as the Cubs’ first base and catching coach after the 2019 season. Both Wilson Contreras and Victor Caratini saw their framing numbers improve drastically in the shortened 2020 season.
The Phillies hired one of their former prospects in 28-year-old Greg Brodzinski to replace Driver. Stumpo, the Phillies blocking coach, remains in the organization along with Dusty Wathan, who oversees the Phillies catching program.
While the Phillies have invested a lot of time and energy into developing and coaching their catchers, it’s unclear whether they will fork over more than $100 million for Realmuto. Signing the best catcher in baseball does come with concerns of how well he’ll age through the length of a potential deal.
While it’s unlikely he’ll lead the league in average pop-time time to second base each year or be among the best blockers for the next five seasons, there’s room for Realmuto to grow as a framer. As his athleticism declines, the Phillies have the resources to transform Realmuto into a framer that could save the team 20-30 runs year in and year out. With a team that seems to be perpetually in the playoff bubble, that could be the difference between October baseball and another extended offseason.
Perhaps that’s exactly where the upside in a superstar catcher in his 30s lies.
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