J.T. Realmuto still had his right thumb in a splint two weeks ago, when he leaned against the green padding in the left-field corner at BayCare Ballpark in Clearwater, Fla., and explained why he expected to be in the Phillies’ lineup on Opening Day.
If the thumb healed as planned, he could handle the rest.
Realmuto is a worker. He continued to work after he broke his thumb a few days before camp opened last month. The intensity picked up last week when he started to work without a splint. He played in a simulated game on Friday and he could play in his first Grapefruit League game as early as Sunday. Realmuto will DH first. After that, he will catch. There is no reason to think that he will not be in the lineup on April 1 against the Braves at Citizens Bank Park. There is no reason to think that Realmuto will not continue to work, as he wants to be the same elite catcher at the end of his five-year, $115.5 million contract as he is at the beginning of it.
“I’m pretty motivated to change that perception of catchers,” Realmuto said. “Who knows? I can’t predict how I’m going to age, but I’m going to do everything I can to age the best I can. I want to be able to be productive and I don’t see this as like, ‘Oh, you know, it’s a five-year contract, and then he fizzles out.’ I want to get another five-year contract. That’s my goal. I don’t want this to be the end of my baseball career after this [contract]. I want to continue to develop my body and stay in the best shape I can.”
Realmuto comes from a family of athletes. Three of his uncles won NCAA wrestling championships at Oklahoma State. A fourth finished in the top five three times. One of his uncles, John Smith, is a two-time Olympic gold medalist.
Realmuto wrestled growing up before he focused on baseball and football in high school. He never stopped being a gym rat.
“I start weight training basically the day the season ends,” he said. “I don’t get to work out during the season much, just because I don’t have the energy. Once the offseason comes, I’m so excited to start training again. I take a couple days off. I do a lot of footwork and sprint stuff, just to try to keep my explosiveness. And then I pair that with the weight room. It's nothing crazy. I just work really hard because that’s what I enjoy doing. It doesn’t feel like I’m working.”
Realmuto spends his offseasons in Oklahoma. He works out at the University of Oklahoma, which has a state-of-the-art football facility, or at the mom-and-pop gym five minutes from his home.
“I do everything on my own pretty much,” he said. “I always have. I started training pretty hard after I got drafted [by Miami in 2010]. I’ve just kind of picked up things along the way from different strength coaches and kind of put together my own program.”
MLB.com wrote in November about the aging curve of catchers like Realmuto, who has an elite offensive and defensive skill set. It found 12 catchers that compared to Realmuto through their age 27-29 seasons. Darrell Porter, Bill Freehan, Yadier Molina and Mike Lieberthal arguably aged the best in that group.
If anybody can age better than them, it might be Realmuto.
“There’s no crystal ball and there’s no magic idea or magic pill,” Phillies strength and conditioning coach Paul Fournier said. “But looking at the catchers I’ve been around in my 17 years at the Major League level, he’s the most disciplined and the most athletic catcher I’ve been around. He’s a tremendous worker in the offseason. He’s a tremendous worker in Spring Training. It’s just a matter of keeping his best version of himself available to the team.
“Now that he’s 30, it becomes more about movement quality and tissue quality. Not so much about being as strong as can be. He’s a very athletic individual. We want to keep them that way.”
Phillies players have individualized training programs available on an app on their phones. Players coming from other organizations, like Realmuto, keep the things that worked for them in the past, while incorporating new ideas, if needed.
“J.T. obviously knows what he needs,” Fournier said.
“I don’t do anything special,” Realmuto said.
Sports performance can be trendy. There are hyperbaric and cryotherapy chambers. There are recovery boots. Remember those copper necklaces the Phillies wore while they won National League East titles from 2007-11? Sometimes a good diet, a good night’s sleep and a good work ethic is enough. Realmuto understands that.
“You can see the discipline,” Fournier said. “It’s one thing to be athletic. But it’s another thing to have a work ethic, too. He’s focusing on all aspects of the game, not just on the field and being strong enough. There are a lot of other things that go into it, other variables that will help them in the long term.”
And it is about the long term.
“Catchers have done it in the past,” Realmuto said about playing well into his mid- to late-30s. “You look at the ones that have, it’s typically been the more athletic-like, not the huge, tall, [6-foot-4, 6-foot-5], catchers. The smaller, better built, faster, more athletic guys have been the ones that have lasted longer. I hope that can be my route to for sure.”