It’s that time again. After a couple of years away, the Washington Nationals and catcher J.T. Realmuto will almost certainly be joined at the hip over the course of this offseason’s rumor mill.
While Major League Baseball’s championship series are taking place, both the Nats and Realmuto’s Philadelphia Phillies are watching from their couch and licking their respective wounds despite having high hopes that they could be making noise in this year’s playoffs.
The Nationals’ wounds following their disappointing World Series title defense are plentiful.
After losing an offensive force in their lineup for a second-straight offseason last year in Anthony Rendon, runs were often tough to come by.
The rotation suffered injuries as well as some unsightly performances from their back-end starters.
And while the bullpen was mostly solid, some key high-leverage relievers didn’t live up to expectations.
That’s the long way of saying that the Nats have rather a lot to evaluate this offseason as they look to bounce back and get back to playing meaningful games in September and October.
Signing Realmuto doesn’t solve all of those issues, but his impact on both sides of the ball while also providing a long-term solution to a catching position that has been a black hole since Wilson Ramos departed the nation’s capital should make him a primary target.
The former Marlin has arguably been the best catcher in baseball for three seasons now and players who are the best at their craft, regardless of position, don’t hit the free agent market often.
Former National and teammate of Realmuto for the last two seasons, Bryce Harper, put it well.
“He’s the best catcher in baseball,” Harper said after the Phillies’ season ended. “Anybody that’s the best at their position — hitting and fielding — needs to be signed and that is J.T. Realmuto.”
Obviously, he was talking about the Phillies making an effort to re-sign him, but now that it looks certain that he will be available to the other 29 MLB teams, the door opens for the Nationals.
Either way, the stats back Harper up.
On the offensive side of the ball, Realmuto ranks second in batting average at .274 and slugging percentage at .489 while his 57 home runs and 118 wRC+ are third among catchers since 2018 of those with at least 500 plate appearances, according to FanGraphs.
To put that 118 wRC+ into perspective, Nats’ shortstop, Trea Turner, also has a 118 wRC+ over that span.
Realmuto would be a significant offensive addition at a position that often hits pretty lightly.
But finding an offensive catcher isn’t that much of a rarity. What makes him special is that he has that value with his bat as well as being one of the best defensive catchers in the league too.
Since 2018, Realmuto ranks fourth among major league catchers in FanGraphs’ Defensive Rating at 41.6, behind only Yasmani Grandal, Austin Hedges, and Christian Vazquez.
When digging into the individual stats that make Realmuto’s overall defensive rating so good, it’s clear that it primarily boils down to his elite framing and his almost unrivaled ability to catch those trying to steal bases.
On the framing-front, according to Statcast, Realmuto has been elite in recent seasons.
Among qualifiers in Runs Extra Strikes, Realmuto finished second in 2020 and sixth in 2019.
Meanwhile, Realmuto might just be the best at catching opposing base-stealers.
Since the start of the 2018 season, the backstop has caught 69 players trying to steal, the most in the majors in that time, with his 41.3% caught-stealing percentage the best among those who have had more than 30 potential base-stealers against them.
When you’re a team like the Nationals that will be pumping over $90 million into its top three starting pitchers next season, investing in an elite catcher like Realmuto is not only helping their lineup, it also helps them get the most out of their most valuable assets.
The problem is that the same rotation that currently costs them so much money could be prohibitive when it comes to adding another big, long-term contract if the Nats want to stay below the luxury tax threshold again in 2021, or perhaps further below it if they try to justify doing so because of the hit to income on the team with only 30 home games and no fans in attendance in 2020.
Even despite the financial side of things, it would still be a shock if Mike Rizzo and the Nationals weren’t at least monitoring Realmuto’s free agency this offseason.
Because of how Realmuto fits the pitching ethos of the front office and with all the rumors when he was with Miami, there’s definitely a chance that the Nats could finally get their man this winter...