By Daniel R. Epstein
Whenever a team makes an unexpected run deep into the playoffs, we always often adjectives like “magical,” “fairy-tale,” and “Cinderella.” The implication is that the club isn’t good enough on its own to survive so long with some sort of sorcery. In other words, it can’t possibly be the players themselves because they don’t have the requisite talent.
The Phillies snuck into the postseason with an 87-75 record, finishing just a game ahead of the Brewers for the final Wild Card spot, then outlasted the rest of the National League to reach the World Series. While they were never favored to beat the Cardinals, Braves, or Padres, their earned their pennant with pure muggle muscle. Rather than magic, they relied on a distinct advantage over the rest of MLB at the most important position on the field.
That J.T. Realmuto is the best catcher in the game is no longer in dispute. His former contemporaries Yasmani Grandal and Buster Posey have regressed and retired. The next generation, led by Will Smith and Adley Rutschman, doesn’t yet have the track record of excellence to match his own. 2022 was his finest season yet, in which he hit .276/.342/.478 and led MLB catchers in every iteration of WAR.
His hitting prowess led to a career-best 128 wRC+, which is FanGraphs’ catch-all adjusted metric for offense where 100 is always the league average. However, just stipulating that he was 28% better than a standard MLB hitter belies the difficulty of playing catcher. The MLB average wRC+ for the position was only 89, meaning his bat was actually 44% better than a league-average backstop.
As impressive as his offense was, the lion’s share of catcher value comes from defense. This is harder to quantify statistically and in WAR, especially since defensive metrics tend to fluctuate year to year more than offensive stats. However, Realmuto consistently rates among the best defenders in baseball by Baseball Prospectus’s catcher defensive adjustment, and his 11.3 CDA was seventh-best in MLB in 2022. Voters awarded him with his second Gold Glove as well.
Perhaps the most astonishing and overlooked skill in his toolkit is baserunning. He swiped 21 bags in 2022 and only got thrown out once, setting a single-season record for stolen base percentage by a catcher (minimum ten attempts). His 20-20 season was only the second ever in MLB history at his position, joining Hall of Famer Iván Rodríguez, who accomplished the feat in 1999. His 28.8 ft/s sprint speed was the second-fastest in MLB by a catcher, which he put on full display with an inside-the-park home run against Atlanta in the NLDS.
As the cliché says, the best ability is availability. Here again, Realmuto outpaced his peers. He played 133 games at catcher, starting 130 of them, which was 17 more than any other player in MLB. He caught 1,131 ⅔ innings; no one else caught more than 1,004. That doesn’t even include catching all 150 innings of the Phillies’ 17 playoff games. Excluding the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, he has played at least 125 games every year of his career since 2015, his first full season.
The Phillies were not the best team in the NL in 2022, but they defeated all the others anyway. Bryce Harper, Aaron Nola, Kyle Schwarber, and Zack Wheeler all played important roles in powering their pennant. Lots of teams have aces and sluggers though, but only one club boasts the best all-around catcher in baseball. It’s no magical mishap that Realmuto pushed Philadelphia to the World Series.
Daniel R. Epstein serves as Co-Director of the IBWAA. He writes for Baseball Prospectus and Off the Bench Baseball. You can find him on Twitter @depstein1983.