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J.T. Realmuto will reset the free agent catching market

Realmuto is such a unicorn that it’s nearly impossible to appropriately value his upcoming free agent deal.

Miami Marlins v Philadelphia Phillies Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

You don’t need me to tell you that J.T. Realmuto is good at baseball, but I’m going to go with a series of a similes to describe his excellence anyway.

Realmuto is like a speedy shortstop behind the plate, supplied with the power of a first baseman, the cannon arm of a corner outfielder and the glove control of a defensive wizard. He’s fast, runs the bases well, hits for contact, produces power and is an excellent defender. There is no catcher with a game as complete as Realmuto’s is right now. He is a true five-tool player, who just happens to play the most important position on the field.

And he might be getting better. As both Andrew Simon at MLB.com and Tony Wolfe at FanGraphs have chronicled in the last few days, Realmuto’s game has reached a different level in the first handful of games this year. The biggest conclusion drawn from both Simon and Wolfe is that Realmuto’s power has ticked up big time. He’s barreling more baseballs than just about anyone, and, per Simon’s piece, his increase in year-over-year barrel rate is the fifth-highest in baseball. His isolated power, as a result, has jumped. Indeed, even in the most basic of counting stats, home runs, Realmuto is among the leaders. His eight through 18 games ties him for the seventh-most in baseball.

Overall, Realmuto has a .275/.333/.652 line into games on Tuesday. This equates to a 156 wRC+, making him not only the second-best hitting catcher so far, but also the 25th-best hitter at any position. But, of course, as mentioned, Realmuto is a five-tool player, and because of that, he’s been more valuable than most catchers in the game (read: all but Yasmani Grandal) by quite a large margin:

Catcher fWAR, 2017-19

Player WAR
Player WAR
J.T. Realmuto 15.0
Yasmani Grandal 14.0
Tyler Flowers 9.1
Buster Posey 8.9
Gary Sanchez 8.3
Mike Zunino 7.0
Christian Vazquez 6.3
Yadier Molina 6.0
Martin Maldonado 5.8
Willson Contreras 5.8

Realmuto also happens to be an impending free agent. Despite loud pleas from both Bryce Harper and Phillies fans to “sign J.T.,” the front office in Philadelphia has yet to make him an offer, Realmuto said on July 25. It’s impossible to know why they haven’t yet reached out to begin extension talks, especially because Realmuto seemingly does want to remain with the team. He even said last September that he “wouldn’t be opposed” to staying in Philadelphia for the rest of his career.

“It’s been a first-class organization all around, the way they treat my family,” he told Todd Zolecki of MLB.com at the time. “The fans are tough in Philly, but they’re there. They’re passionate. They care about the game, which is the first time I’ve really experienced a fan base like that. Just this group of guys. It’s a great clubhouse. This team just jells. It’s a place I enjoy.”

However, as the clock ticks on the 2020 season without an extension in sight, it might be time to begin considering what type of contract Realmuto could earn this offseason. His value does appear to be peaking right now, yes, but it’s really more of the same. Realmuto is truly a unicorn among catchers, and, hot start or not, he was extremely likely to reset the catcher free agent market. Now even more so.

Catchers are often hard to come by via free agency, since extensions have historically been worked out with the elite class of backstops before they could even test the waters. Indeed, the two largest catching contracts in baseball history are both extensions. Joe Mauer got an eight-year, $184 million deal from the Twins in 2010, and Buster Posey got an eight-year, $167 million deal from the Giants in 2013. Mike Piazza signed the largest contract for an impending free agent, a seven-year, $91 million deal, the richest contact in baseball history at the time. But the deal was signed in late-October, before Piazza was truly free to sign elsewhere. According to the archived report from the Los Angeles Times, the Mets made the lucrative offer to “foreclose on Piazza’s free-agent eligibility.”

Thus, when we evaluate true catcher free agent signings, we find that Brian McCann’s five-year, $85 million deal to join the Yankees is the largest. Since 2010, here’s a list of every catcher to earn more than $10 million in free agency, along with other key factors, including their age going into the next season, as well as WAR produced in both the previous season and the three seasons leading up to free agency:

Catcher free agent contracts for at least $10 million, since 2010

Player Years Value Team Date Age WAR WAR/120 WAR3 WAR3/120
Player Years Value Team Date Age WAR WAR/120 WAR3 WAR3/120
Brian McCann 5 $85,000,000 NYY 12/03/2013 30 3.5 4.1 14.7 5.0
Russell Martin 5 $82,000,000 TOR 11/17/2014 32 6.2 6.7 15.5 5.0
Yasmani Grandal 4 $73,000,000 CWS 11/21/2019 31 5.2 4.1 14.0 4.0
Victor Martinez 4 $50,000,000 DET 11/23/2010 32 3.7 3.5 6.9 2.3
Carlos Ruiz 3 $26,000,000 PHI 11/21/2013 35 0.3 0.4 6.4 2.3
Jason Castro 3 $24,500,000 MIN 11/22/2016 30 2.9 3.1 7.5 2.6
Jarrod Saltalamacchia 3 $21,000,000 MIA 12/06/2013 29 3.1 3.1 8.7 3.0
Matt Wieters 2 $21,000,000 WAS 02/21/2017 31 1.1 1.1 2.1 1.1
Wilson Ramos 2 $19,000,000 NYM 12/17/2018 31 2.2 2.4 6.1 2.4
John Buck 3 $18,000,000 FLA 11/17/2010 30 1.6 1.6 2.2 0.9
Russell Martin 2 $17,000,000 PIT 11/30/2012 30 3.8 3.4 12.2 4.1
Yasmani Grandal 1 $16,000,000 MIL 01/14/2019 30 4.7 4.0 14.5 4.4
Travis d'Arnaud 2 $16,000,000 ATL 11/23/2019 31 1.6 1.9 3.0 1.6
Matt Wieters* 1 $15,800,000 BAL 11/13/2015 30 0.3 0.5 3.0 1.4
Welington Castillo 2 $15,000,000 CWS 12/01/2017 31 2.0 2.5 3.8 1.4
Wilson Ramos 2 $12,500,000 TAM 12/06/2016 29 3.6 3.3 4.1 1.4
Yan Gomes 2 $10,000,000 WAS 11/28/2019 32 0.8 1.0 5.0 1.9
Kurt Suzuki 2 $10,000,000 WAS 11/20/2018 35 1.0 1.1 2.5 1.0

And here are Realmuto’s marks in those same categories:

Realmuto’s quick free agent profile

Player Age WAR WAR/120 WAR3 WAR3/120
Player Age WAR WAR/120 WAR3 WAR3/120
J.T. Realmuto 30 0.9 6.0 11.5 4.8
Through games on Wednesday, August 19

Upon first glance, Realmuto’s numbers don’t immediately pop off the page when compared to the elite free agent catchers listed above. He’s very clearly among the best, well within in the range of both McCann and Russell Martin, the two highest earners here, but it’s not as if he blows them away. With that said, however, there are two key contributing factors that should allow Realmuto to earn significantly more money than both McCann and Martin.

First is the value of catcher framing. McCann (+165.6 framing runs from 2008-19) and Martin (+165.7) are the two best framing catchers since the stat was first able to tracked with the implementation of PITCHF/x in 2008. It’s quite possible that this value — though not really discussed in the public sphere until mid-2011 — contributed to their large free agent deals. Even if we do assume that the Yankees and Blue Jays were ahead of the curve in properly valuing catcher framing, they were likely among only a handful of teams to do so. Indeed, when we look at the distance between the best and worst pitch framing teams, the gap has closed considerably in recent years, after the McCann and Martin deals:

McCann and Martin are each marked on the year preceding their free agent contracts.

Since Martin’s deal with the Blue Jays, the distance between the top-performing framing team and the worst-performing framing team has closed from 64.5 to 42.7 runs. This metric is of twofold importance. First, it suggests that all 30 teams have framing on their radar, but second, it also shows that there is still a roughly four-win gap between the best and worst teams. Thus, framing should still be highly valued as a way to improve your team’s win total and help your pitching staff in the process. In other words, its importance in free agent negotiations remains paramount. Realmuto wasn’t the best framing catcher in the majors last year, but he did still rank inside the top-10. That would be an added bonus to just about any team in the majors.

The second contributing factor that should allow Realmuto to earn much more than both McCann and Martin is the introduction of the designated hitter in the National League. While the players and owners only agreed upon this rule change for 2020, it’s hard for me to see pitchers pick up their bats again in 2021. Even if that is the case, baseball’s CBA expires at the conclusion of next season, and the DH is sure to be a talking point once again. Considering we already have the DH in the NL now, I honestly doubt we ever go back.

This rule change is quite good for Realmuto’s upcoming contract. Since he will be 30 next year, teams may recognize that signing him to a long-term deal could take him beyond his catching days. That’s effectively what happened with Victor Martinez. But, since the National League is more-than-likely going to continue to have the DH, teams can dole out larger sums of money to Realmuto with the confidence that he’ll be able to be in the lineup every single day. National League teams should not have any pause in offering an expensive deal to Realmuto with this extra starting spot. Plus, even during his catching days, the DH allows NL teams to have his bat in the lineup even when he’s not behind the plate as well. Into games on Thursday, the Phillies have already started Realmuto at DH twice this season.

And Realmuto’s bat is plenty good to handle DH duties. He’s a career 109 wRC+ player, but since the beginning of 2017, he’s up to 119. That is a bat you’d want at virtually any position. Realmuto isn’t a defense-only catcher that could never play anywhere else, à la Jeff Mathis.

With all of this considered, Realmuto should garner interest from the entire league. If he’s available, expect him to blow away McCann’s (or Piazza’s) catcher free agent record. Realmuto should earn well over $100 million. He could even reach Joe Mauer territory if all goes to plan.

J.T. Realmuto is truly one-of-a-kind right now, and he is set to get paid like it.


Devan Fink is a sophomore at Dartmouth College and a Contributor at Beyond The Box Score. Previous work of his can be found at FanGraphs and his own personal blog, Cover Those Bases. You can follow him on Twitter @DevanFink.