J.T. Realmuto is a free-agent catcher who FanGraphs ranked as #1 of the 2021 Top 50 free agents. Should the Blue Jays have Realmuto on their radar?
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In the 60-game 2020 season, Jays catchers ranked 25th with their negative 0.1 fWAR, and for the 2019-2020 period, Toronto’s catchers produced a 2.1 fWAR (#16) and a 67 wRC+ (#25). If the Jays want to be playoff contenders in 2021, they will need a better performance from their catchers. Improved play may come internally, but it would be prudent for Blue Jays management to consider players outside their organization. Free-agent J.T. Realmuto is a player worthy of consideration.
Realmuto debuted with the Marlins on June 5, 2014, at the age of 23; he played 11 games that season and became a full-time player in 2015. Throughout the 2015-2020 seasons, there were 41 catchers with a minimum of 1,000 plate appearances. Realmuto produced a 110 wRC+ (fifth-best) and a 19.0 fWAR (third-best). More recently, Realmuto’s fWAR was the highest among catchers in the 2018-2020 period. Realmuto is an elite catcher.
The structure of the analysis is as follows:
- A review of various offence, defence, and player-value metrics
- An estimate of what a reasonable contract would be for Realmuto
- The arguments for and against signing Realmuto
Offence and value
- Among catchers with a minimum of 600 plate appearances, Realmuto ranked third in both wOBA (0.348) and wRC+ (118)
- Jansen was 25th best in wOBA (0.291) and wRC+(80)
- Realmuto’s fWAR, and its components (Off, Def, and BsR), are all superior to Jansen’s
Note that fWAR, Off, Def, and BsR are counting stats. These metrics do not provide context concerning the number of opportunities that a player had. On the offence ledger, Realmuto had more plate appearances (1,319) than Jansen (626). From a defence perspective, Jansen’s 1,402 innings trailed Realmuto by almost 1,000 innings. To Jansen’s credit, although he ranked 26th in innings caught, he was 11th in Def.
Table 2 contains a sample of Statcast data for Realmuto and Jansen for the 2018-2020 period. The items to note are as follows:
- Concerning expected batting metrics (xBA, xwOBA, and xSLG), Realmuto has been a better hitter than Jansen.
- Jansen also lags in terms of Barrel% and Exit Velocity.
- Of note, Realmuto’s K%, Whiff%, and xBA declined on a relative basis in 2020 from the previous season. For example, his Whiff% was in the 59th percentile in 2019 but fell to the 30th percentile in 2020
- For reference purposes, the best player has the 100th percentile ranking; the worst player has the 1st percentile slot.
- Realmuto’s K% was 38th percentile in 2020, which was inferior to the 2019 mark of 58th percentile.
The Statcast data supports the view that Realmuto makes more solid contact than Jansen and does so on a more frequent basis. Realmuto’s reduced 2020 percentile ranking in Whiff% and K% may be a red flag regarding future performance, or it may just be a short-season anomaly.
Catcher framing and pop time
Catcher framing is “the art of a catcher receiving a pitch in a way that makes it more likely for an umpire to call it a strike.” Furthermore, it can be “turning a borderline ball into a strike, or not losing a strike to a ball due to poor framing. The effects of a single pitch can be huge; in 2019, hitters had a .858 OPS after a 1-0 count, but just a .631 OPS after a 0-1 count.”
Pop Time “represents the time elapsed from the moment the pitch hits the catcher’s mitt to the moment the intended fielder is projected to receive his throw at the center of the base.”
Table 3 summarizes the percentile ranking of Realmuto and Jansen in terms of Catcher Framing, Pop Time, and sprint speed for each of the 2018, 2019, and 2020 campaigns. The highlights are as follows:
- In 2019, Realmuto and Jansen were very similar in their catcher framing ranking; 68th and 66th percentile, respectively.
- Contrast those performances with Realmuto’s 95th percentile ranking and Jansen’s 26th percentile slot in 2020
Judging by performances in 2019 and 2020, Realmuto has been more consistent at framing than Jansen. A possible explanation for Jansen’s relative inconsistency may be because Jansen is less experienced than Realmuto.
- There is a clear distinction between these two catchers when it comes to Pop Time.
- In both 2018 and 2019, Realmuto was in the 100th percentile.
- Jansen was 14th and 25th in 2018 and 2019, respectively.
- Pop Time data for 2020 is currently unavailable.
- Of the 31 catchers with a minimum of 20 attempts in 2019, Realmuto had the second-highest average thrown-ball velocity at 88.2 mph; Jansen was 20th with an 80.4 mph score.
- Realmuto had the fourth-quickest average exchange at 0.65 seconds; Jansen tied for 27th at 0.77 seconds.
Overall, Realmuto is better at making throws to second base than Jansen. Nonetheless, Jansen may improve his footwork and throw mechanics as he gains experience. However, it is doubtful that he can substantially close the velocity gap between himself and Realmuto.
Table 4 presents the calculation of a reasonable contract for Realmuto. The highlights are as follows:
- The calculation involves a projection of fWAR over the term of a contract.
- In previous years, analysts used a rate of $8 million per expected fWAR in their contract evaluations.
- However, $7 million per fWAR was used in this estimate to reflect the negative impact of the COVID-19 pandemic upon the financial health of MLB teams.
- In other words, there will likely be fewer bidders for the services of 2021 free agents, which should depress contract values (AAV and term)
- There is a belief that the Blue Jays have to pay a premium to attract free agents because of higher effective tax rates, frequent border crossings, and other issues, including the uncertainty of where Toronto will play homes games in 2021
- Nevertheless, I did not include a Blue Jays premium in the analysis given the unusual free-agent market in 2021
- According to FanGraphs, the ageing curve for catchers is similar to other position players.
It is important to note that a reasonable contract value falls within a range of other valid contract values. Hence, there is no precise number for a contract estimate; it is not like going to the grocery store to buy broccoli.
Based on the method outlined, a five-year, USD 119 million contract is reasonable for Realmuto. This contract is in-line with the projected deals published by FanGraphs (six years, USD 140 million), Crowdsource (five years, USD 110 million), and MLB Trade Rumors (five-years, USD 125 million).
Arguments for and against signing Realmuto
- Realmuto is among the best catchers in baseball; he hits well for a backstop, and his defence is top-tier.
- His signing would be consistent with the Jays statement that they want to improve the team’s run prevention.
- A Realmuto-calibre player would likely attract suitors in a typical free-agent market that would push the term and AAV higher than what is estimated to be this off-season.
- That is to say, the 2021 off-season is a buyer’s market, and the Jays would acquire an elite catcher at a discount.
- The Jays have organizational strength in the catcher position (Alejandro Kirk and Gabriel Moreno). Accordingly, Toronto could trade Jansen for other assets.
- Hence, Kirk could be the back-up to Realmuto in 2021
- A USD 119 million financial commitment is a significant undertaking in a very uncertain economic environment.
- Realmuto rejected his Qualifying Offer, which means that the Jays would forfeit their second pick in the 2021 June Amateur Draft.
- Jansen is a good defender and, with experience, should continue to improve in areas such as pitch calling, catcher framing, throwing, and hitting.
- Having Jansen as the Jays primary catcher is consistent with the Blue Jays run prevention objective because Jansen is a good defender.
- ZiPS 2021 projects a 3.1 fWAR for the Jansen-Kirk combination, which would have ranked eleventh in team fWAR from the catcher position in 2019
- Toronto can use their financial resources to address other needs, for example, starting pitching and centerfield.
The last word
Realmuto is among the best MLB catchers, and he would be an excellent player for the Blue Jays. Nevertheless, Toronto should use its resources to address more urgent needs, such as starting pitching and centerfield defence. In summary, this is a reluctant pass on free-agent Realmuto.
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Bob was a St. Louis Cardinals fan until the Blue Jays arrived on the baseball scene, although he still has a soft spot for the Cards. Similar to straddling the Greenwich Meridian, as depicted in the avatar, Bob applies sabermetrics when applicable, but his heart tells him that Lou Brock belongs in the Hall of Fame.