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Why Realmuto is even more valuable than you think

MLB catchers just had 4th-weakest hitting line in past 100 years
MLB.com @mike_petriello

Miami catcher J.T. Realmuto doesn't plan to sign a long-term deal with the Marlins, according to his agent, Jeff Berry, who on Tuesday went on to add that he thinks Realmuto "will definitely be wearing a different uniform by the start of Spring Training."

Maybe so, though that's hardly a certainty. After all, Realmuto is under Miami's control for two more seasons before reaching free agency. His agent's comments aside, it's certainly possible they choose to keep him until the 2019 non-waiver Trade Deadline, next offseason or into the 2020 season, all the while attempting to get an extension done to build around him for the future. We have no idea how this plays out.

Miami catcher J.T. Realmuto doesn't plan to sign a long-term deal with the Marlins, according to his agent, Jeff Berry, who on Tuesday went on to add that he thinks Realmuto "will definitely be wearing a different uniform by the start of Spring Training."

Maybe so, though that's hardly a certainty. After all, Realmuto is under Miami's control for two more seasons before reaching free agency. His agent's comments aside, it's certainly possible they choose to keep him until the 2019 non-waiver Trade Deadline, next offseason or into the 2020 season, all the while attempting to get an extension done to build around him for the future. We have no idea how this plays out.

But if the Marlins determine that reaching an extension isn't possible, then they probably should move to trade Realmuto sooner than later. That's mostly because he has a strong case to be made to be considered the best all-around catcher in the game, but there's more to it than that. It's because the state of catching, at least on the offensive side, is historically weak right now. The reason that so many teams would be interested in acquiring Realmuto is because so few teams actually have a catcher who can hit -- and that only benefits the Marlins.

It's not really hyperbole to say that Realmuto is the best backstop in the game. As the catching heroes of recent years like Buster Posey, Russell Martin and Yadier Molina begin to age, he finds himself at or near the top of so many different catcher leaderboards.

In 2018, Realmuto was:

First in pop time, 1.90 seconds
Second in catcher arm strength, 87.8 mph
Sixth in caught-stealing percentage, 38 percent (minimum 30 attempts)
First in catcher Sprint Speed, 28.6 feet per second
Second in slugging percentage, .484, of 27 catchers with 300 plate appearances
Second in catcher wRC+, 126, of those 27 catchers
• First in catcher WAR, both with framing (5.8) and without (4.8)

Video: WSH@MIA: Realmuto hits a walk-off single to right

You can argue about whether Realmuto is the best or the second-best or the fourth-best catcher if you like, but the point is that he's elite. So if the Marlins do make him available, he'll be in extremely high demand, and this is where we get to talking about how poorly catchers across the Majors hit in 2018. (Spoiler alert: very.) 

To express that, let's look back at the past 100 seasons of baseball and look at how well catchers hit each year. We'll use Weighted On-Base Average, or wOBA, which is very similar to traditional on-base percentage, except that it gives more credit for extra base hits rather than giving equal credit for each time on base.  

In that entire century of baseball, only three times have catchers hit worse than the .232/.304/.372 (.296 wOBA) they combined for in 2018 -- and all three times were in the low-offense 1960s, an era so devoid of production that the sport had to lower the mound in 1969 to account for it.

Weakest catcher hitting seasons, 1919-2018, wOBA
.281 -- 1967
.285 -- 1968
.290 -- 1965
.296 -- 2018 (tied with 1989 and 2015)

For context, the entire sport of backstops hit basically like White Sox infielder Yolmer Sanchez, who put up a .242/.306/.372 line this year. (If we look at it as a comparison against the league hitting average that year rather than as a raw number, it's still one of the 10 weakest seasons.)

What that means is that while Realmuto would be valuable in any year, he might be especially so right now, just because so many teams could use an offensive boost behind the plate. When the supply is low, the demand for one of the few all-around catchers is higher.

Now, the obvious question here is "why?" Why is catching offense down so markedly right now? There's not one clear answer, but a few theories include...

1. Maybe it's just a down year. 
Are we just in between catcher generations? We ran into this a few years ago at shortstop where there was a brief down period between the Derek Jeter/Hanley Ramirez/Jimmy Rollins era and the current standout Francisco Lindor/Corey Seager/Carlos Correa/Xander Bogaerts group. 

Behind the plate, older stars like Molina, Martin, Posey, Brian McCann, Jonathan Lucroy and Matt Wieters are generally not the same players they were a few years ago. Throw in surprisingly poor years from younger catchers like Gary Sanchez, Willson Contreras and Austin Barnes, and maybe it's the perfect storm -- or at least it would be, if 2018's .296 wOBA weren't tied with what we saw in '15.

Video: MIA@NYM: J.T. Realmuto throws out Amed Rosario

2. Maybe it's just harder than ever to be a catcher.
We talk a lot about how much more difficult it is to hit these days, thanks to the increase in velocity, breaking balls, and ever-increasing numbers of relief pitchers all showing different looks and repertoires. What if that's impacting catchers, too? We saw Grandal's high-profile struggles this October, but that's been an issue for Sanchez as well, and as FanGraphs showed recently, the past several seasons have had the highest rate of passed balls and wild pitches we've seen in years.

Because of all that, and because games are longer (in terms of pitches and time) than ever, and because teams are selecting for pitch-framing skill more than ever before, different types of players make it to the bigs behind the plate. It's harder to see sluggers of years past, like Mickey Tettleton or Mike Piazza, or even more recent names like Evan Gattis, sticking at catcher.

3. Maybe it's just harder than ever to develop catchers.
Catchers notoriously develop later than other positions, but what we're seeing now is something else. Five years ago, there were six catchers 25-or-under who had at least 200 plate appearances and league-average or better hitting. This year, there were none, one of only 14 times that's happened in the past 100 seasons.

Top hitting prospects like Bryce Harper and Wil Myers, who were amateur catchers, don't often get to stay there in the pros, as teams hope to expedite their arrival and limit injury risk. Kyle Schwarber's catching career is over; so, after some time behind the plate, were those of Joe Mauer and Carlos Santana.

If you go back to the 2011 MLB Pipeline Top 10 catchers list, only Yasmani Grandal has had an extended period as a quality starter; Travis d'Arnaud, Sanchez, Wilin Rosario and Derek Norris have had their moments. From the 2014 list, it's more of the same. Austin Hedges, Jorge Alfaro and Kevin Plawecki have been okay at best; Schwarber no longer catches and Blake Swihart barely does; Max Pentecost, Andrew Susac, Reese McGuire and Christian Bethancourt seem unlikely to break through.

The point being, it's harder than ever to catch, or to find a good catcher still in his 20s, and if Realmuto really is available, he'll cost a ton, and he'll be worth it, which is why you could envision him on so many different teams.

Video: Bowman: Braves could pursue Realmuto trade

Think about the Red Sox, who somehow managed to win the World Series despite a .194/.246/.288 line from Sandy Leon, Christian Vazquez and Swihart. The Dodgers may lose Grandal and can't count on Barnes, and prospects Will Smith and Keibert Ruiz may not be ready yet. The 90-win Rays will need more than Michael Perez or Nick Ciuffo behind the plate. Rockies catchers hit only .206/.307/.349, part of Colorado's generally weak offense; the Nationals will part ways with Wieters and have been rumored to be interested in Realmuto for years, as have the Braves. You could keep going: Milwaukee, Arizona or Texas. The Angels, A's or Mets. All would be upgraded with Realmuto.

Realmuto is valuable because he's a great player, the best at his position in the game. But he's valuable because he's a great player at the right time, when far too many teams are dealing with a total lack of offense behind the plate. It's hard to find a player who can hit well and receive, too. It's hard to find a Realmuto. Teams will be lining up for him if the Marlins make him available.

Mike Petriello is an analyst for MLB.com and the host of the Statcast podcast.

J.T. Realmuto