WASHINGTON – Wherever he goes, it seems, J.T. Realmuto’s athletic achievements aren’t so much registered on a stat sheet as they are steeped in folklore.
As a high school quarterback in Oklahoma, his exploits were so staggering – 45 touchdowns on the strength of his right arm and legs his senior season – that a future major league teammate considered him legend as much as peer.
As a young catcher with the Miami Marlins, his athleticism belied his position: He was the club’s best baserunner, manager Don Mattingly mused, even a tick better than future MVP Christian Yelich.
Now, as a Philadelphia Phillie, Realmuto has in just three months imbued in the star-studded club a sense that he can be their rock, a catcher both wildly talented and selfless, almost impervious to wear and tear.
“His toughness,” says Phillies manager Gabe Kapler, “is already legendary.”
Realmuto has started 62 of the Phillies’ 71 games, including a recent streak of 14 in a row, and is on pace to start 142 games, a plateau only four catchers – Yadier Molina, Salvador Perez, Russell Martin and Jason Kendall – have reached since 2000. This, despite what Kapler describes as a litany of “foul tips taken off the mask, off the foot, off the hand, off the wrist. Sometimes, those are direct shots. And he’s always waving off the trainers.”
Saturday, Realmuto finally took a blow he could not withstand – a foul off the bat of Atlanta’s Freddie Freeman that struck Realmuto, as delicately described in media reports, between the legs.
Freeman immediately checked on Realmuto, who stayed in the game but exited an inning later, feeling nauseous.
He sat out Sunday’s game and was slated to sit Monday and Tuesday at Nationals Park, but then the baseball gods broke from their seasonal narrative and smiled on the Phillies: Rain washed out a pair of games, allowing Realmuto to mend.
The Phillies haven’t been so fortunate much of this season. Outfielder Andrew McCutchen, arguably their most important player thanks to his consistent, elite on-base skills, is out for the year after tearing his left ACL.
Nearly an entire bullpen worth of arms – Seranthony Dominguez, Tommy Hunter, David Robertson, Adam Morgan – are shelved with injuries.
Bryce Harper, their $330 million investment, started hot, tapered off for several weeks and has found a groove again.
Realmuto’s acquisition cost from the Marlins was not so much owner John Middleton’s self-proclaimed “stupid money”– just elite pitching prospect Sixto Sanchez, Class A lefty Will Stewart and a serviceable catcher in Jorge Alfaro.
Realmuto, 28, buoyed the Phillies’ expectations. Harper’s signing sent them into the stratosphere.
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Now, at 39-32, and 2 ½ games behind Atlanta in the NL East, the Phillies are solid but something short of a powerhouse. Yet the nameplates on the lockers – Harper, Arrieta, Nola, Segura, Hoskins – are a gentle reminder that the stakes are high, the upside significant.
“You never know how long you’ll get to play this game,” says Realmuto, 28. “I’m not a rookie anymore, just trying to make my way. I want a chance to win, a chance to get to the playoffs.
“There’s a lot of opportunity in this clubhouse. Obviously, we haven’t played our best baseball yet. We feel like our best baseball is yet to come, especially once we get healthy. There’s just tons of talent in this room, lots of trust in these guys.”
That flows both ways.
Realmuto has been productive enough – he’s batting .277 with a .785 OPS, and his 10 homers put him well on pace to top his career high of 20. Both modern metrics and ancient baseball values are kinder.
He leads all major league catchers – and Phillies position players – with 2.5 Wins Above Replacement. Realmuto’s homework on opposing hitters – and the manner in which he presents it to his pitchers – has had no small impact on the staff.
In a wider sense, his show-don’t-tell vibe has resonated even more.
“What he brings to the table every single day is something that inspires a lot of people to work harder,” says starter Zach Eflin, who has cut his ERA from 4.36 to 2.81 this season. “He puts in a tremendous amount of homework to make our lives easier.
“He’s not too vocal at all, but watching him run out of the dugout, go to his catcher’s position, you can sense the confidence. You can feel it. It’s infectious. I think that’s a huge part of the success for our pitchers this season – how much of a rock he’s been for us behind the plate. It’s the confidence he instills in you – the belief that you are as good as you think.”
Says Kapler: “He cares about the work he does for our pitching staff and coaching staff as much as he does his own at-bats. Everybody knows that offense really gets players paid. To have somebody be as selfless as he’s been and put his staff first, his teammates first – he’s really the total package that way.”
Eflin cites a moment in his most recent start where he had not thrown his curveball all game, yet around pitch No. 60, he felt it was the right time. He even began gripping the ball in his glove.
“Next thing you know,” Eflin says, “J.T. puts down the two fingers. When you’re on the same page, you don’t have to think as hard on the mound, which makes your job a lot easier.”
If that sounds like a quarterback mentality, it’s certainly no accident. Realmuto’s first love was always baseball, but by his senior season at Carl Albert High in Midwest City, Okla., he was a gridiron force. Realmuto threw 20 touchdown passes, rushed for 25 more TDs and amassed 3,350 yards of total offense.
“His last year in high school,” says Marlins third baseman Brian Anderson, who attended nearby Deer Creek High in Edmond, “he was kind of becoming a legend because of the insane numbers he was putting up. It was ridiculous.
“He was a big deal there, and I remembered watching him play our football team, and just absolutely crush us.”
Realmuto’s new love – “Friday nights are still my favorite part of high school,” he says – suddenly became serious. Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Missouri and Arkansas beckoned him for on-campus visits.
Eventually, Realmuto told his Big 12 and SEC suitors he was baseball-bound, and good call: He’ll earn $5.9 million this season. He kept a close eye on free agency last winter, particularly catcher Yasmani Grandal, who received a one-year deal when many observers projected a lengthy, lucrative pact.
Realmuto is due to hit the market at 30, which is suddenly old by baseball standards. He also isn’t averse to avoiding that fate should the Phillies want to discuss a lengthy extension.
“Right now, obviously, for players, (free agency) is not heading in the best direction,” he says. “You keep that in the back of your mind. I’m definitely not opposed (to an extension). I like it here, my family loves it here.
“I feel like if they made the right offer and God willing we were able to accept an extension, that’d be great. But it’s not something I’m seeking out or feel like I have to do. I just want to show up and play and have fun.”
It’s little surprise Realmuto’s catching muse is Molina, with whom he became friendly last fall on a MLB squad that played exhibitions in Japan. Now in his 16th year, Molina caught at least 136 games in eight of his 14 full seasons.
“He’s posted every day, for how many years now?” says Realmuto. “I’ve always looked up to him as a catcher, and how he plays the game, and the respect he has among his peers.
“I want to play every day. I want to be there for my teammates. I love to play. I take a lot of pride in that.”
That’s why Kapler essentially gives Realmuto a blank check – allowing the catcher to dictate when he needs a day off. Most of the time.
“Most catchers are not physically capable of playing every day,” says Kapler. “If there’s one guy to bet on to play 150 games behind the plate, it’d be J.T. I have to stay very disciplined in keeping the long view in mind.
“Because he always gives us our best chance to win.”