How J.T. Realmuto is trying to prove he's the best catcher in MLB

NEW YORK -- Phillies manager Gabe Kapler describes any attempts to tell catcher J.T. Realmuto that he won’t be in the lineup as a “fistfight.”

Realmuto loathes off days. He wants to be back behind the plate every day. Once or twice this year, he’s even won an argument with Kapler, forcing his way into the lineup.

“I want to play, I enjoy playing,” Realmuto said. “I think it’s important for your teammates to see you back there every day and not taking days off all the time.”

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That drive to play every day has Realmuto, 28, set to accomplish a career goal by leading all catchers in games played and innings caught.

He leads all catchers with 125 games behind the plate, and his 1070.1 innings are 89.2 more than closest competitor Yasmani Grandal.

And if that’s not enough, Realmuto leads all catchers by throwing out 48 percent of runners, and he’s also slugged a career-best 24 homers.

Realmuto is showcasing to the world why he’s considered the best catcher in the game all while enjoying his first true playoff push after leaving the Marlins.

“He’s the best catcher in the game. It’s kind of not close,” Phillies outfielder Jay Bruce said. “The way he approaches the game is something I really appreciate because this is my 12th year so I’ve seen a lot of people and a lot of different approaches to the game. (His) way is one of the best I’ve seen.”

May 1, 2019; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia Phillies relief pitcher Edubray Ramos (61) and catcher J.T. Realmuto (10) celebrate after defeating the Detroit Tigers at Citizens Bank Park. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports
May 1, 2019; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia Phillies relief pitcher Edubray Ramos (61) and catcher J.T. Realmuto (10) celebrate after defeating the Detroit Tigers at Citizens Bank Park. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Trying to be like Yadier Molina

The grueling 162-game grind of a season is perhaps the most physically demanding for catchers, and especially those that play all the time like Realmuto.

All those innings squatting and getting foul balls to the mask, legs and arms add up. Playing night games after day games can be brutal.

That’s why Realmuto’s season stands out.

It’s not as common anymore to see catchers playing 145-150 games as they used to, or, in Randy Hundley’s case, playing in 160 games for the Cubs in 1968. Teams are much more active in trying to get their catchers rest these days.

Willson Contreras led MLB with 1109.2 innings last year, but that marked the fewest innings caught by the league-leading catcher in the 2000s. The hardest-worked backstops used to land in the 1200s, and Jason Kendall even caught 1328.1 innings in the 2008 season.

Realmuto said that he’s always drawn inspiration from Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina, who three times has led all catchers in appearances. The Phillies catcher needs four more starts and five games to set new career-highs.

“(Molina) was a guy out there every day playing day games after night games, it didn’t matter, he was playing 130 games if he could, 140 games if he could, and I always looked up to him in that manner,” Realmuto told Yahoo Sports recently at Citi Field. “I definitely taking pride in being able to do that.”

Sep 1, 2019; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia Phillies catcher J.T. Realmuto (10) tags out New York Mets center fielder Rajai Davis (18) at the plate during the eighth inning of the game at Citizens Bank Park. Mandatory Credit: John Geliebter-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 1, 2019; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia Phillies catcher J.T. Realmuto (10) tags out New York Mets center fielder Rajai Davis (18) at the plate during the eighth inning of the game at Citizens Bank Park. Mandatory Credit: John Geliebter-USA TODAY Sports

September games that matter

For as much as Realmuto would like to play every day, he can only push himself as much as his body — specifically his lower half — will allow.

In past years, Realmuto said he would feel pain in his hips and legs in these final weeks of the season. He would feel sluggish while catching.

This year, it’s different.

When he takes the field, it doesn’t seem like the season’s about to end.

“I feel great,” Realmuto said.

Realmuto doesn’t have any concrete reason for why he’s felt better than in years past, but credited the Phillies’ training staff.

He receives several massages per week, and noted that all the mobility work the staff has him do has allowed his right shoulder to feel better than ever.

There’s also a mental side to it all that perhaps negates any aches he may feel.

In Realmuto’s five seasons in Miami, the Marlins never won more than 79 games, and finished at least eight games out in each wild-card race.

This is his first true taste of a playoff push.

And Realmuto loves it.

“That we’re playing for a spot in the playoffs makes you forget you’re tired at the end of the year. I’ve caught more than I ever have but this is the best I’ve ever felt in September body-wise,” Realmuto said. “You get on the field, your body starts going, adrenaline, you forget you're tired. Especially when you’re trying to win, every game is important. That’s helped me stay fresh.”

Realmuto is set to be the first Phillie since Mike Lieberthal in 1999 to lead catchers in games and innings. Lieberthal caught 1191.1 innings in 143 games that year.

“(Realmuto) prepares like nobody else, keeps his body in shape, does the things necessary treatment wise, whatever it might be to make sure he’s ready to go every day,” Phillies first baseman Rhys Hoskins said. “It’s one of those things where (Kapler) has to fight him to give him a day off, and as a leader of the team and someone who is catching, that’s the kind of guy you want.”

As Realmuto’s peers talk him up, one opposing NL coach also sang his praises, noting how Realmuto is “very creative” with how he receives pitches.

Realmuto has thrown out 42 of 87 runners this season, which he credited to his infielders being the best in the league at making tags.

“He’s a guy you can count on every day. When we play them, I feel like he’s going to be in the lineup. Day game, night game, he’s going to be in the lineup,” the NL coach said. “Certainly, he’s someone you have to deal with offensively and defensively. Offensively, a different story. Defensively, I think he’s the best.”

Jul 20, 2019; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Philadelphia Phillies catcher J.T. Realmuto (10) tags Pittsburgh Pirates left fielder Corey Dickerson (12) out at home plate attempting to score during the fourth inning at PNC Park. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
Jul 20, 2019; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Philadelphia Phillies catcher J.T. Realmuto (10) tags Pittsburgh Pirates left fielder Corey Dickerson (12) out at home plate attempting to score during the fourth inning at PNC Park. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

‘I want to lead the league in everything.’

Realmuto’s standout season could land him a massive payday as soon as this offseason, but he said that’s not on his mind right now.

He dreams of suiting up in October for the first time and chasing a ring with the Phillies — who are two back in the wild card race entering Thursday.

Only 17 games remain in their season, and you better believe that Realmuto wants to be in the lineup for all of them.

And if Realmuto does so — perhaps by winning a fistfight or two —he’ll enter the 2020 season as the defending ironman among catchers.

“I want to lead the league in everything,” Realmuto said. “That’s not going to happen. But I take pride in all aspects. The biggest pride factor I have in baseball is I want to be a complete catcher. I don’t want to be just good at hitting or good at catching or just good at throwing or not good at blocking. This year, I worked really hard on my receiving because that was the weakest part of my catching game.

“Whatever I’m not as good at, I’m going to work to better at because I want to be a complete player.”

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