What do you envision when you think of a prototypical baseball catcher? In Bill James “defensive spectrum,” catcher is considered the most difficult position to play. Thus, catchers are thought of as defensive specialists who control the run game and work with the pitcher to game plan against the opposition. They are often forgiven for offensive ineptitude due to the defensive rigor of the position.
The catcher for half of the 30 MLB teams that played this past sunday batted in either the eighth or the ninth spot in the lineup. Good hitting backstops are a rarity, but a few players, such as Jonathan Lucroy and Buster Posey, have begun to break the conventional mold. Fortunately for the Miami Marlins, J.T. Realmuto is also one of those players.
Being an MLB catcher is physically and mentally draining
The physical demands required of a catcher are simply the most rigorous of any position in the sport of baseball. In an interview with NPR, Brett Ausmus once described the physical toll catching took on his body by explaining how difficult it was for him to climb the stairs:
“I remember walking up the stairs one season when I had a newborn, and I'd walk halfway up the landing and I'd have to rest. There is a physical demand, mostly on your legs.”
As one would expect, squatting for hours a day wears down a player’s body, and we can see proof of this in Ausmus’ struggles even off the field. Further confirmation of this truth can be found by simply looking at the average games played for starters at each position. Take a look at the table below.
Table 1. Average games played by starters at each position in 2016
So far this season, starting catchers have played 13 games less, on average, than any other position player. That is a direct result of the physical demands of the position. However, catching is not all physical - it is a position that also takes incredible mental fortitude.
Here is an Ausmus’ quote describing the mental checklist he goes through before every pitch:
“[I'm thinking] what's the score, what inning are we in, how many outs, what's this hitter's weakness, what's this pitcher's strengths, who's on deck, who could pinch hit, who is up after the hitter on deck — and you kind of go through all of these things in an instant. And then you make a decision and put down the next signal.”
Catchers have an immeasurable amount of pressure on them due to the unique nature of the position. They work directly with the pitcher to analyze each hitter’s strengths and weaknesses in order to determine how to attack them. For a glimpse of this preparation, here is a quote from A.J. Ellis describing what it is like to prepare for a game with Clayton Kershaw.
“Before each of Clayton’s starts, he and I, with pitching coach Rick Honeycutt, sit down together two hours before the game. Clayton dictates that entire meeting, running through the starting lineup in detail. “Here’s what I want to do … ” Hitter after hitter.”
Are you beginning to understand why teams might be more forgiving when their backstop is having a poor offensive season? Let’s take a closer look at how catchers stack up against the rest of the league offensively.
Catchers as a whole are below average offensively
Below is a table that includes common statistics and advanced metrics to compare catchers to league average batters in 2016.
Table 2. Catchers are below average hitters
The numbers speak for themselves. Catchers do not stack up very well offensively against league average, whether you look at advanced metrics or not. Not only are catchers, on average, poor hitters, they are also poor baserunners.
In the above table, UBR stands for Ultimate Base Running. Ultimate base running is a counting statistic developed by Fangraphs that measures the value a player adds to a team via base running (excluding successful or unsuccessful stolen bases). As you would expect, due to the demand the position has on a player’s legs, catchers as a whole are poor base runners. Luckily for the Marlins, however, Realmuto has been far from your stereotypical, average catcher this season.
J.T. Realmuto is not your stereotypical catcher
Let’s take a look at the Table 2 again with Realmuto’s stats included.
Table 3. Realmuto is having a breakout offensive season
No matter what metric you look at, Realmuto has been above league average offensively this season. Not the stats you would expect from your typical catcher. Most interestingly, he has been an above average baserunner - with a 1.8 UBR. In fact, by the UBR metric, Realmuto is the best base running catcher in the entire league. So, despite playing a position that takes an incredible physical toll on his legs, Realmuto is able to run the bases well. Incredible!
What makes Realmuto’s 2016 season so impressive is that he hitting well at a position that, historically, does not generate a lot of offensive production. Today, strong offensive catchers have become such a rarity that most casual baseball fans can name many of them offhand: Buster Posey, Jonathan Lucroy, Brian McCann. Hopefully, in the near future, Realmuto’s name will join the casual fan’s list. He is certainly headed in the right direction.
Data obtained from Fangraphs.