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The other reason teams want J.T. Realmuto

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He’s the talk of Winter Meetings, or one of them. He’s more than just a good backstop.

MLB: Cincinnati Reds at Miami Marlins Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

J.T. Realmuto is at the top of the wish list for a number of teams during the Winter Meetings in Vegas, and for good reason. In 2018 he had a career year, leading all catchers with 4.8 fWAR, second in wRC+ at 126 and knocking a career high 21 home runs, all great numbers for a catcher. Heck, they’re great numbers for any position, and he’s still just 27.

The Marlins want to move him for the right price, and they’ll get a haul for Realmuto because he’s good at all the things you want a catcher to be good at, both on defense and offense. He’s also, somehow, an amazing base-runner. In fact, he might be the finest base-running catcher of the last decade, if not one of the best ever.

Damning with faint praise, to be sure. Catchers are not known for their base-running, and aren’t expected to be anything more than barge-like on the base paths. In his career, Realmuto has amassed 8.3 Base-running Runs Above Average (BsR).This is roughly the mark that Billy Hamilton and Trea Turner posted just this year alone, so it’s not some world-beating number.

But in the world of the backstop, Realmuto is a dang gazelle. Just this year he posted a 4.8 BsR, which rated 18th in baseball, above Jose Altuve or Andrew Benintendi. Both guys thought to be quite spry, and outpaced by a supposedly slogging catcher. How did he pull this off?

It’s important to note that BsR isn’t some kind of end-all, be-all stat, any more than WAR is, but it gives a good sense. It combines all aspects - stolen bases, taking extra bases, and other base-running fiddling, and is the combination of weighted Stolen Base Runs, Weighted Grounded Into Double Play Runs, and Ultimate Base Running, all FanGraphs stats. Read more about them here.

So we could delve into these numbers to find some truth, but they themselves come from somewhere. The real question, in the rawest sense, what is Realmuto doing out there that makes him, somehow, one of the best base-runners in the game? Thanks to Baseball Reference’s insane granularity, we have some answers.

The things we care about are obviously base stealing; it’s the most obvious on-base positive activity. But there’s also things like taking extra bases, scoring while on bases besides third, advancing on fly-outs and whatnot, and things of that nature. Basically, taking advantage of his time on base. We can look at stolen base percentage (SB%), Extra Base Taken percentage (XBT%) and Run Scored percentage (RS%) League averages in 2018 for these sorts of things looked a bit like this:

League average baserunning

Stat Rate
Stat Rate
SB% 72
XB% 41
RS% 30

Tyler O’Neill of the Cardinals led scored 54 percent of the time he was on base, the most among those with at least 100 plate appearances (O’Neill was at 142). Stolen bases are harder, since a lot of guys had a 100 percent success rate while stealing just one base. Jurickson Profar stole 10 without being caught. Whit Merrifield led baseball with 45 steals, succeeding 82 percent of the time, while Trea Turner was at 83 percent and stole an NL-best 43.

They rated 6th and 4th in BsR, respectively, while Profar ranked 25th. As for extra bases taken, you could convince me Minnesota’s Eddie Rosario was tops in this among qualified hitters, going an extra 90 feet 70 percent of the time, while being on first when a single is hit 26 times and on second 10 times. So it’s not like it’s a murderer’s row or anything, but these are all players known for speed and athleticism.

Realmuto, meanwhile, was successful on 60 percent of stolen bases, though on just five attempts (managers don’t send catchers very much), scored 33 percent of the time he was on base, and took the extra base 67 percent of the time. For his career he’s a 72 percent stolen base guy, and his career high in steal attempts for a season is 16, of which he nabbed 12. So he’s got knack. But how does he compare to some of his catching compatriots?

Top catchers’ baserunning metrics

Player SB% (Att.) XBT% RS%
Player SB% (Att.) XBT% RS%
Yasmani Grandal 67 (3) 19 26
Willson Contreras 80 (5) 39 23
Yadier Molina 57 (7) 32 25
Salvador Perez 50 (2) 23 21

I think what most surprises me from this is how much more often Realmuto scores than these other guys when he’s on base. The Marlins offense was the second worst in baseball by wRC+ at 89, so it’s not like he had bangers behind him to drive him home. Especially not like Grandal and the number one ranked offense he got to be part of. This tells a bit of a story, especially when combined with the total extra bases taken, of someone who’s just very fast.

As we now know from StatCast’s Sprint Speed metric, it’s not just fast for a catcher. At a peak of 28.6 ft/second, Realmuto isn’t simply the speediest catcher in baseball, he’s rated as just as fast as Lorenzo Cain and a smidgen faster than Francisco Lindor (28.5 ft/second in 2018) or Shohei Otani (28.4). The plain, simple fact is that the guy is just supremely athletic.

I’m not the first to note this. Infielders surprised by his legging out an infield hit - 83 for his career - have surely had something say, and of course Mike Petriello at MLB.com wrote about this in 2017. Besides the Sprint Speed and stolen bases, Realmuto’s 1.90 second pop time this year was tops in baseball among catchers with at least 20 throws to second.

While footwork and timing have something to do with it, it’s a supremely athletic maneuver to simultaneously burst from a crouch, pull the ball from the glove immediately after receiving a 95 mile an hour pellet, and throw it at nearly 90 miles per hour to a 1 square foot target 127 feet away. And he does it faster than anyone, while gunning down 38 percent of runners, 6th highest among catchers who spent at least 50 games behind the plate. So yeah, the athleticism plays on defense too.

Teams aren’t hunting Realmuto for his speed. They want him for all the other things that his athleticism that nearly made him a shortstop and Division I quarterback brings to the table. His ability to hit, that aforementioned pop time, and his mobility behind the plate are huge selling points. Plus, as athletic as he is, you can imagine he can actually last behind the plate for at least a few more years while still providing some level of offensive support.

But a nice bonus thrown into the mix can’t hurt at all, and for the Marlins, it’s just another selling point. It’s rare you get some kind of speedy guy behind the plate. I literally can’t think of another one for as long as I’ve watched baseball. Yet the game is getting more and more athletic this way, from Realmuto to Contreras to, well, someone else I’m sure. This is a beginning more than anything.

Merritt Rohlfing writes about The Indians at Let’s Go Tribe, and more generally just baseball that interests him at Beyond the Box Score. Email him at merritt.rohlfing@gmail.com. Tweet at him @MerrillLunch. Or whatever.