Spring Training is upon us. As we speak, hundreds of beat writers are flocking to the back fields of baseball facilities in Arizona and Florida, to break the hard-hitting news on which pitchers got haircuts over the offseason, to make Yu Darvish and Shohei Otani puns, and to flood our timelines with clips of pitchers throwing their first spot sessions. It’s an exciting time; after weeks of asking “what could be,” we finally see cleats hit dirt, and hope springs eternal as the baseball season begins.
What isn’t shown to you in said videos of pitchers throwing their first ‘pens is that offstage right, are catchers, catching the first of many bullpen sessions to be caught over the next month. It’s the less glorious aspect of Spring Training. As the pitchers delicately glide through their windup to deliver 75% effort location pitches, catchers are in full regalia under the sweltering heat of the Florida and Arizona suns, shifting over their knees and working on their framing.
While they may just be catching bullpens now, soon they will be in the lineup for their respective teams, and they will be called upon to produce offensively, as well as to manage the pitching game from behind the dish. Let’s take a look at who will get the call for the Marlins in 2018.
As he did last year, J.T. Realmuto will command the vast majority of the playing time behind the dish for the Fish. One of baseball’s most intriguing players, Realmuto has groomed his game over the past two years, going from one of the most athletic catchers in the league, to quite simply one of the best catchers in the league.
J.T. Realmuto Offensive Statistics
For the past two years, J.T. Realmuto has quietly produced for the Marlins, hitting above average in both 2016 and 2017. While Realmuto’s 2016 numbers may be slightly inflated by a BABIP of .357, his 2017 season shows a realistic picture of what we can expect from the sure-footed backstop. Although, as most projection systems are, Fangraphs’ projections of his 2018 season are considerably conservative, given that Realmuto could bat as high as leadoff, we could actually see an improvement from his 2017 numbers, assuming benefits from lineup protection and more chances to bat.
One strikingly odd facet of Realmuto’s projections are his games played. For the last two seasons, Realmuto has shared time with seasoned backstops such as Jeff Mathis and A.J. Ellis. Despite their comparable deficiencies at the plate, it is usually the case that catchers like Mathis and Ellis can still command game-time as backup catchers, due to the rapport they develop with pitchers and their prowess in managing games. This year, as will be explained later, the Marlins have no such option behind Realmuto; still, Fangraphs only has him slated to play 122 games. Barring an injury, expect Realmuto to garner much more playing time than that in 2018.
Even if the Marlins were to bring in a veteran backstop to supplement depth at catcher, it shouldn’t hurt Realmuto’s playing time; on top of being an elite offensive catcher, Realmuto has developed into a premier defensive catcher as well.
J.T. Realmuto Defensive Statistics
|Year||Framing Runs||Blocking Runs||Throwing Runs||Total Runs|
|Year||Framing Runs||Blocking Runs||Throwing Runs||Total Runs|
J.T. Realmuto has consistently managed the running game. While his caught stealing rate dropped from .354 to .321 in 2017, the former shortstop has always been notorious for his quick pop-time. Don’t expect that to change in 2018. However, coming into 2016, Realmuto was also notorious for being a lackluster pitch framer. As shown by the table, Baseball Prospectus has developed a method for determining how many runs a player contributes to or costs his team via his ability to frame pitches. In 2016, Realmuto cost the Marlins an inconceivable 12.9 runs just by his inability to adequately frame pitches.
However in 2017, Realmuto made a drastic improvement in his game, bringing said metric up to benefit the Marlins 3.8 runs. Baseball Prospectus’ George Bissell asserted that Realmuto made the change under the tutelage of recently promoted coach, and former catcher, Brian Schneider. Whatever the culprit was, because of the improvement, J.T. is now a bona fide, all-around catcher.
As far as the Marlins’ highly publicized “race to the bottom,” J.T. was the last man standing after the departure of Giancarlo Stanton, Marcell Ozuna, Christian Yelich, and Dee Gordon. As it stands now, that’s not likely to change. Unless another team offers the Marlins a blue chip prospect, the Marlins seem very inclined to make Realmuto the center of their build.
And although Realmuto has previously expressed his desire to be traded, coming into Spring Training, he has also acknowledged that he has a job to do with the team. As now one of the elder statesmen in the clubhouse, look for Realmuto to flourish in his expanded role, and to build on the progress he has made at and behind the plate in 2018.
As it stands now, Tomas Telis is the heir apparent to play during J.T. Realmuto’s off-days. To be frank, this is not the ideal situation for the Marlins. In 2017, Telis had not a cup of coffee, but something more like a 48-game venti soy latte in the Bigs. And although he is a catcher by trade, Telis only made it behind the dish for the Fish in six games last year. On the other hand, he played 28 games at first base. While this is probably due to the fact that the Marlins had a backup catcher last year, it can be surmised that if the Marlins truly had a lot of stock in the young catcher, they would have given him a chance to supplant Ellis for more than six games. That was not the case; even offensively, Telis only mustered a wRC+ of 64, signifying that he hit 36 percent worse than league average.
Still, assuming that a trade for a second-stringer isn’t made, Telis is the second-most veteran catcher on the depth chart. While it’s uncertain what role Telis will play defensively, there is hope that Telis can serve a bigger purpose with the offense this year. After the regular season, Telis joined los Caribes de Anzoategui in the Venezuelan Winter League. In 28 games, he upped his slash to an impressive .352/.398/.509. Call it wishful thinking, but if Telis can translate his Winter League success into his big league playing time, he may find himself sticking around in Miami.
Nevertheless, there is not much to judge Telis on. He will at least have a shot to make the big-league club out of Spring Training, which has to at least help his psyche. Hopefully, he can channel some big league swagger and serve at least a replacement-level role with the team. If not, a move will probably have to be made.
While his chances at making the big league club are probably futile, it’s worth mentioning the curious case of Austin Nola. The brother of Philadelphia Phillies ace Aaron Nola, and a former star shortstop at Louisiana State University, Austin decided to go the way of J.T. Realmuto and convert from a shortstop to a catcher at the beginning of 2017. While the move is not uncommon nowadays, the timing of Nola’s decision puts him in a precarious spot. That is, while most shortstop converts are given a catchers glove their first day of rookie ball, Nola played shortstop for about five years before transitioning into a catcher. Thus, without being demoted, he has attempted to learn how to receive, block, and manage the running game, all at the double and triple-A levels.
With that said, Nola hasn’t floundered in his attempts; in 2017, Nola threw out 16 of 44 runners at double-A, and then a remarkable 11 of 21 at triple-A. Still, without the availability of tools like pitch f/X and others at the minor league level, it’s hard to tell, other than through observation, how Nola has faired in the realm of receiving and blocking.
In the meantime, Nola struggled at the dish in 2017. While he accrued decent metrics at double-A, slashing .250/.352/.327, he was challenged by triple-A pitching, recording a .287 OBP and a wRC+ of 38 in 29 games. It’s evident that Nola still has a ways to go before he can be slotted into the depth chart; still, if Nola can make the necessary improvements, he could find himself in Miami towards September when the rosters expand.
Chad Wallach is the last man on the 40-man roster. The son of current Marlins’ bench coach Tim Wallach, Chad seems defensively like the highest floor fall-back option for the Marlins. That is, in the event of an injury or an off-day for Realmuto, given the Marlins’ insecurities with Telis behind the plate and Nola’s necessary refinement at the position, the career catcher Wallach appears to be the safest go-to for the team.
The Marlins drafted Chad out of Cal State-Fullerton in 2013. After the Marlins traded him and Anthony Desclafani to the Reds for Matt Latos, he spent three years progressing through the minors, before the Marlins reclaimed him off waivers. While Wallach excelled at double-AA Pensacola in 2016, posting a wRC+ of 127, he took a significant step back in 2017. Still, 2017 was his first below average hitting season since 2013, and as aforementioned Wallach has always been a catcher, and a catcher only. Given his ties to the team and his resumé behind the plate, keep an eye out for Wallach to emerge with the club as the least-disastrous catching option for the Marlins, after J.T. Realmuto.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs.com, Foxsports.com, Baseballprospectus.com, and the Baseball Prospectus 2018 Annual.