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What makes J.T. Realmuto better than ever

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Adjustments to his swing path and approach make Realmuto an elite offensive player. The Marlins should be asking for a huge prospect package in return at the trade deadline.

Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

J.T. Realmuto, the Marlins star catcher, returned to game action two weeks ago against the Yankees and since then, he has absolutely crushed the ball. Through 56 plate appearances, Realmuto is posting a triple-slash line of .340/.400/.600 with a 178 wRC+, where 100 is set as the league average. He will enter Friday’s game with a career-high 11-game hitting streak intact.

Obviously those numbers will regress to some degree. In 2017, only 7 players posted a wRC+ of 150 or higher and Gary Sánchez led all catchers with 130 wRC+. Even so, Realmuto’s numbers this year suggest that he is here to stay has one of the top catchers in the league.

As crazy as it may sound, the Marlins should capitalize on Realmuto’s success and try to trade him as soon as possible.

Using Baseball Savant’s new player profile pages, it is easy to see why Realmuto has earned 0.9 WAR this year, which only trails Yasmani Grandal (1.3 WAR) and Francisco Cervelli (1.4 WAR) among all catchers. The amazing thing is that Realmuto has played in approximately half as many games as other starters at his position, thanks to the several weeks he was sidelined with a back injury. It takes dominance to overcome that kind of disadvantage.

2018 Wins Above Replacement leaders among catchers

Name Team G PA fWAR
Name Team G PA fWAR
Francisco Cervelli Pirates 25 98 1.4
Yasmani Grandal Dodgers 26 110 1.3
J.T. Realmuto Marlins 13 56 0.9
Gary Sanchez Yankees 27 116 0.8
Wilson Ramos Rays 22 87 0.7
Kurt Suzuki Braves 23 86 0.7
Buster Posey Giants 26 104 0.6
Yan Gomes Indians 20 80 0.6
Willson Contreras Cubs 25 107 0.6
Chance Sisco Orioles 22 57 0.5
Includes players with min. 50 PA Source: FanGraphs

When looking into Realmuto’s 2018 success, we find that he has made significant changes that have helped him sustain his stellar numbers thus far.

I think the first place to look is at his contact and more specifically, how hard he has hit the ball this year. His average exit velocity this year is 92.0 mph, which is up 3.5 mph from his career average of 88.5 mph. That ties him with players like Manny Machado and Yasiel Puig. Both of those guys are known for their ability to hit towering home runs, something that has never been at the forefront of Realmuto’s game...until now.

Over the past couple of years, there has been a league-wide trend towards elevating the ball off the bat. The most productive hits—such as doubles and home runs—come between 15 and 30 degrees of launch angle.

Realmuto has completely changed his approach this year and it is fair to wonder if he trained in the offseason to maximize power. He has increased his average launch angle from 9.9 degrees in 2017 to 14.7 degrees in 2018, with many individual batted balls in that 15-30 sweet spot. There is no reason for Realmuto’s power numbers to regress back to what they were in years prior if he continues doing this.

2017 launch angle chart
Source: Baseball Savant
2018 launch angle chart
Baseball Savant

Lastly, Realmuto is demonstrating an ability to swing at good pitches and cut down on his strikeouts. As realtors always say, “location, location, location.” He has taken that to heart by only swinging at pitches over the plate.

Realmuto has decreased his strikeout rate from 18.3% in 2017 to 12.5% in 2018. He has also decreased his O-Swing% (swings at pitches outside of the strike zone) from 32.0% in 2017 to 18.2% this season. That ranks him 12th-best in the majors (min. 50 PA) at laying off bad pitches in favor of ones that he can hit with more authority.

Realmuto’s average exit velocity by location in 2018
Source: Baseball Savant

He is mashing balls over the heart of the plate. Good hitters make pitchers pay for “mistakes” and that is exactly what Realmuto has done. The more he is able to put the ball in play at a high exit velocity and the right launch angle, the easier it will be for him to sustain a high average and slugging percentage.

After all of the information I just laid out to you, you are probably thinking, “Why would the Marlins ever want to trade a player that could very well be one of the best at his position?”

Well, the answer is pretty simple. If the Marlins really are going to commit to this rebuild, then they need to continue strengthening their farm system. Realmuto is already 27 years old with 3 years of team control left before he becomes a free agent after the 2020 season—that’s an asset that could bring back several elite prospects. Catchers generally do not last a long time behind the plate, so by the time the Marlins rebuild, Realmuto should be on the decline anyway (and eligible for a big, inefficient contract).

The trade value for Realmuto has never been higher and if the Marlins want to be contending sooner rather than later, it is in their best interest to trade Realmuto.