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How much longer can Realmuto remain one of the best? Ex-Phils catcher weighs in

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CLEARWATER, FLORIDA – MARCH 05: J.T. Realmuto #10 of the Philadelphia Phillies celebrates with teammates in the dugout after scoring in the fourth inning against the Baltimore Orioles during a 2024 Grapefruit League Spring Training game at BayCare Ballpark on March 05, 2024 in Clearwater, Florida. (Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images)

Over the next two weeks leading up to Phillies Opening Day on March 28, we're taking a daily look at the biggest questions and storylines surrounding the team in 2024.

Imagine, if you will, Dave Dombrowski sitting in his executive box at Citizens Bank Park. The sun has already begun to set. In this baseball twilight zone, the Phillies president of baseball operations is peering intently at the game being played on the perfectly manicured field below.

Further suppose that, at that moment, J.T. Realmuto makes one of those extraordinary plays he makes look ordinary. Blocked a nasty breaking ball in the dirt or easily threw out a runner who'd gotten a huge jump from first or hit an impressive home run or stole yet another base off a pitcher who had been lulled into forgetting that he's an exception to the cliché that catchers can't run.

In the moment, the veteran executive would naturally be pleased with what he just witnessed. But his job description also requires him to exist in parallel universes.

At some point, a sobering thought will inevitably cross his busy mind. Realmuto is one of the best at what he does. But he plays a position that, because of its physical demands, has a reputation for carrying an early expiration date. Realmuto is 33. How much longer can he perform at this level?

One of Dombrowski's duties is to make certain, to the extent possible, that reinforcements are available up and down the roster when they're needed. The devilishly tricky part is that there's no way of knowing for sure whether that will be tomorrow or 10 years from now.

Just ask the Red Sox.

Carlton Fisk was one of the best offensive catchers in baseball during his eight full seasons at Fenway Park. The image of him urgently waving at his walk-off home run in Game 6 of the 1975 World Series, all but willing it with his body language to stay fair, lifted him into a Boston pantheon that includes Paul Revere, Ralph Waldo Emerson, the Kennedys, Stephen King and, of course, Ted Williams.

Fisk was at the top of his game when his contract expired at the end of the 1980 season. He had been slowed by a rib injury in 1979 that limited his time behind the plate, but he bounced back with an All-Star season. As the story is told, he wasn't a favorite of general manager Heywood Sullivan because he openly advocated for players to be paid more. But also, hey, he'd be 33 the next season. How many more good seasons could he possibly have?

All these years later, it's impossible to say with certainty what Sullivan's motivations were when he mailed Fisk an offer but posted it a day after the deadline mandated by the Basic Agreement. Even though free agency as we know it today was still in the future, that triggered a loophole that allowed the catcher to negotiate with every other team and eventually resulted in a five-year, $3.5 million deal with the White Sox.

(We interrupt this story for a Fun Fact. The two catchers who amassed the most games behind the plate in major-league history share a nickname: Pudge. We now return to our regular programming.)

To be fair to Sullivan, it wasn't entirely off base to factor Fisk's age into his thought process. Hall of Famer Johnny Bench is considered one of the very best to ever strap on a pair of shin guards. He caught over 1,000 innings in 1979 for the eighth time in nine years. He was 31 ... and never came close to that admittedly arbitrary milestone again. Hall of Famers Gary Carter and Mike Piazza were 33 when they last spent at least 1,000 innings behind the plate in a season.

In case you were wondering, Rodriguez was 35 the final time he hit that benchmark.

Then there was 41-year-old Bob Boone, who caught 1,082 innings for the Royals in 1989.

Realmuto is known as a workout fanatic, but that only increases his odds of defying baseball's actuarial tables. There are no guarantees. To quote Joaquin Andujar, who pitched for the Astros, Cardinals and A's from 1976 through 1968, "In baseball, one word says it all: You never know."

Mike Lieberthal was the Phillies' No. 1 draft choice, the third overall pick, out of Westlake (CA) High School in 1990. He retired with the franchise record for most games caught (1,139). He also reached 1,000 innings for the final time when he was 32 and retired at 35.

It's his educated opinion that, barring a catastrophic injury, Realmuto still has plenty of productive seasons ahead of him.

"He's a guy who could catch until he's 40," Lieberthal told NBC Sports Philadelphia from his home in Southern California.

That prediction is based on a couple of factors, beginning with Realmuto's athleticism.

"He's fortunate because he's so athletic," Lieberthal continued. "He can run. It's more of an athletic position now than it was 20 years ago. You see guys being converted from shortstop to catching in the minors. There are a few catchers in the league who are athletic, but probably not quite like J.T."

He further highlighted the rules changes that were put into place after Giants catcher Buster Posey's knee was shredded and fibula fractured in a home plate collision in 2011. In fact, Lieberthal dismisses the notion that a catcher's shelf life is necessarily shorter than other positions, that the inevitable foul tips off various body parts make catchers more prone to be forced into an early retirement.

"Only if you do have (a serious) injury," he said. "They are (more at risk) but not as much as before because of the collision rules. That's huge. When I played, if you played long enough, at some point you were to get your knee torn up. I had so many (collisions). I remember in the minor leagues I tore my ACL and my cartilage. I always had to deal with the constant pain of getting around and catching."

Lieby turned 52 earlier this year. He's already had a hip replacement and needs a total knee replacement, but has been putting it off as long as possible.

Offering the rebuttal, to some extent, are the statistics. Realmuto's offensive numbers slipped in 2023. And it's not just that his OPS dropped from .820 to .762 and his OPS+ went from 130 to 106. Any player can have an off year and his numbers were still pretty good. But they were also the lowest of his career since 2015, his first full season in the big leagues. He also struck out a career-high 138 times.

And here Lieberthal offered a cautionary note. In his experience, he said, bat speed often begins to dissipate when players reach their mid-30s. "Obviously, you have to hit if you want to keep playing no matter what position you are," he added. "What gets players to retire is that they're not hitting anymore."

Realmuto is still hitting. But his average exit velocity (89.8 miles per hour last season) and his line drive percentage (43.1) have been edging lower. Not alarmingly, but enough to bear watching.

Defensively, he threw out just 22.1 percent of runners trying to steal (23 of 81) last season. And while stolen bases were up sharply across baseball because of the new rule that allowed pitchers just two pickoff attempts, that was still a career low and barely above the expected league percentage (19 percent). A year earlier, he gunned down 44.1 percent, nearly double the ELP (24 percent).

These numbers could be just a blip on the radar. Or they could be early hints that Realmuto has begun to decline.

This is all playing out against the backdrop of a receiver who has led MLB in games and innings caught for three of the last four seasons. Who, since he joined the Phillies in 2019, has averaged just under 130 games caught and almost 1,100 full innings behind the plate for each of the non-pandemic seasons. No catcher in baseball came close to that kind of durability.

The Philadelphia Inquirer printed an eye-popping stat this spring. Since 2010, the only catcher to start at least 130 games behind the plate when he was 34 or older was Yadier Molina for the Cardinals in 2017. (Molina was behind the plate for 1,000+ innings in 2018 and 2021— when he was 38 — as well.)

It would be logical to suggest that Realmuto could be rested more often moving forward. The Phillies might even fully intend to give it to him. But here's the thing. When manager Rob Thomson is sitting at his desk with pen in hand and a blank lineup card staring back at him, it's really hard to not write in one of the best players in the game at one of its most crucial positions. Especially since the Phillies are in a win-now mode.

Besides, Realmuto has given no indication that he wants to sit more, and Thomson seemingly tries to defer to his players' wishes when possible.

Sometimes catchers extend their careers by playing other positions. In Realmuto's case, that could be tricky as well.

He has two more years on his contract. So does Kyle Schwarber. So spending more time at DH could force Dombrowski to make a difficult decision. First base would appear logical. But only if Bryce Harper moves back to the outfield. And that's even before you consider the most important variables. How productive will Realmuto still be at the end of the 2025 season, what sort of salary will he command and for how many years?

Every indication is that the best catching prospect in the Phillies organization right now is Eduardo Tait. He's ranked No. 9 in the system by after hitting .333 with a .917 OPS last season. The catch is that he did that in the Dominican Summer League and doesn't turn 18 until August. So it's a real stretch to believe he could step in if, for whatever reason, Realmuto isn't back with the Phillies in 2026.

These are all difficult issues to grapple with and questions with no perfect answers. Which is why when Dombrowski and general manager Sam Fuld and all their lieutenants watch J.T. Realmuto do something most catchers can't, they devoutly hope it's not something they'll have to seriously think about for a long, long time.

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