The Miami Marlins are turning to youth and their farm for at least one of their infield positions this year, as second-year starter J.T. Realmuto will own the position full-time after a decent 2015 debut.
Catcher Depth Chart
1. J.T. Realmuto
2. Jeff Mathis
Minor League Depth: Tomas Telis
The Marlins are banking on some improvement in the 25-year-old's game after a decent rookie campaign. Realmuto spent the previous year fighting back against the stereotype that he had faltered at the plate in the minors, having hit ..299/.369/.461 (.374 wOBA) in a repeat campaign in Double-A. It did not take long for Miami to test him in the majors, as the team gave up on Jarrod Saltalamacchia fairly quickly and got a pretty similar offensive campaign out of Realmuto. The rookie hit just .259/.290/.406 (.298 wOBA), which ended up 16th out of the list of catchers with at least 350 plate appearances last year.
Realmuto was close to league average for the catcher position, and depending on your defensive inclination, that would be good enough again in 2016. Some of the skills that he showed in the minors showed up in 2015. He was always a low-strikeout, high-contact hitter, and his 15 percent strikeout rate lent itself to that profile. Out of those 28 catchers with at least 350 plate appearances, Realmuto's overall 86 percent contact rate was ranked seventh, behind a combination of known contact hitters like A.J. Pierzynski and Kurt Suzuki and good hitters like Jonathan Lucroy and Buster Posey. That is not awful company to keep.
The Marlins also like his potential for power. Realmuto put up 10 homers in 467 plate appearances, which was tied for third on the team in terms of bombs. The ratio of extra-base hits and ISO that Realmuto put up in the majors was surprisingly similar to the one he put up in 2014 in Double-A Jacksonville. One would think with some power increase as he develops, he might be able to boost that offensive production even more.
Still, some other things were of concern for Marlins fans. That on-base percentage was in large part due to a terrible 4.1 percent walk rate. Realmuto was among the least patient hitters on the roster, swinging at 50 percent of the pitches he saw. It was of benefit to Realmuto last season, as he had a decent propensity to hack at pitches in the zone (68 percent in-zone swing rate) while pitchers still opted to attack him in the zone (51 percent zone rate). However, if he does not find more of a patient approach and if opposing pitchers realize his aggressive approach and go out of the zone, that OBP may not improve and could limit his development. Luckily, Realmuto has classically put up decent walk rates before.
The defensive work Realmuto put up was a mixed bag. On the one hand, he improved on Saltalamacchia's weaknesses, as he threw out runners at close to the league average; his 27 percent rate was a far cry compared to the awful rates that Saltalamacchia put up in 2014. This was never unexpected, as Realmuto is an athletic player who happens to have great pop times; his 1.867 seconds on throws to second base was the best in baseball. This scouting data points to improvement on the league average caught stealing rates, indicating that Realmuto might actually do better next year.
On the other hand, we have the question of his framing. Last year, he was one of the worst framers in baseball according to most metrics. Improvement in that regard is something that needs to be taught, and teaching during the Marlins' offseason may have been hard to come by. Brian Schneider was advanced as the team's catching instructor after serving a similar role primarily in the minors, but the Fish were also spending much of the offseason in search of a coach and subsequent coaching staff. Unless Realmuto worked on this on his own, it is difficult to imagine him getting a significant amount of instruction on the matter.
All three projection systems see a similar batting line as compared to last season, but PECOTA's projection is notable because it likely contains some semblance of the work expected from his negative framing. On hitting, all the sides are in agreement for a continuation of Realmuto's difficulty with walking and expecting a decrease in power, though this may in part miss the fact that Marlins Park has gotten slightly more homer- and hitter-friendly in recent months thanks to the new renovations.
The average batting line among these three is a .253/.296/.379 line, which is fairly close to the midway mark between what ZiPS and Steamer are projecting. If we take him to put up a .297 wOBA in 2016, that would be six runs worse than average in 515 plate appearances, which is approximately what I would expect from the Marlins' full-time catcher if he stays healthy. Realmuto is young and athletic, and at this stage he is likely better equipped to handle the rigors of catching regularly. In addition, his backup is Jeff Mathis, who should be getting as little playing time as possible.
The question is how much his defense will contribute. Playing catcher alone is worth 10 runs just in being one of the few players capable of playing the position regularly. We expect Realmuto will be close to average or even better at throwing out runners and blocking pitches, while he should be below average in terms of pitch-framing. As a unit, we could conservatively guess that the best league throwers could get something like +5 or so runs on defense with their arms. If Realmuto is near that, but is a below average blocker, he could be worth two runs in those two categories. If his framing is about half as bad as it was last year, he might be worth seven runs below average with grabbing strikes. That total defensive contribution would lead to five runs below average in total.
The total package would be worth about a run below average, and in 515 plate appearances, that might be worth 1.6 Wins Above Replacement. That puts Realmuto close to league average and a solid contributor for the Marlins in 2016.