Most outfielders don’t hurry as much to play a ball hit by a catcher into the gap or down the line.
But they’re learning they have to when J.T. Realmuto hits it.
Since earning the starting job behind the plate for the Marlins last season, Realmuto, a three-sport standout in high school in Oklahoma, has displayed a combination of athleticism and speed rare for catchers.
“I’m sure a lot of these guys you see now in baseball now are multisport guys, but you don’t see it as much at the catcher position,” Marlins manager Don Mattingly said. “It’s going that way though. You look at a Russell Martin, a guy who’s athletic and can run, and steal some bags, and hit for some power. It’s nice for us to have one of those guys [Realmuto] on our team.”
Realmuto’s speed hasn’t diminished in the offseason.
In Friday’s spring game against the Braves, Realmuto drove a ball to right-center field and was rounding second base by the time Emilio Bonifacio tracked it down. Only the ball disappearing through a gap beneath the fence kept Realmuto from his first triple of spring training.
Realmuto has gone 7 for 22 (.318 average) with two RBI in nine spring games.
“I’m a lot more relaxed this spring,” Realmuto said. “It feels better not having to be worried about anyone watching me or looking over my shoulder, and not worried about having to do anything just to impress somebody. You just go out and try to get better every day.”
Realmuto, a shortstop in high school who later converted to catcher in the minors after the Marlins drafted him in 2010, also played basketball and football. He set a Marlins record for triples by a catcher last season with seven, surpassing Benito Santiago’s six in 1993 in the team’s inaugural season.
Realmuto, who finished last season strong by hitting .333 in September, was second on the team to Dee Gordon’s eight triples, and was almost the first catcher to lead his team in triples since the Pirates’ Jason Kendall in 1996. He also beat out 19 infield singles and stole eight bases, which ranked fourth on the team.
“There’s really nothing to not like about J.T.,” Mattingly said. “The metrics on his [pitch] framing were a little down last year, but that’s something we’ve been working with him on this spring. That could be because of him getting called up early to play last year when he probably would have been continuing to grow as a catcher.”
Realmuto started last season at Triple A New Orleans, and was not expecting to be the Marlins’ starting catcher so soon.
But after backup catcher Jeff Mathis broke his hand and the Marlins subsequently demoted Jarrod Saltalamacchia after a poor start, Realmuto was named the backstop and had a mostly impressive rookie season.
He caught 118 games, hit .259 with 10 home runs and 47 RBI, and had the best average “pop time” (the time it takes him to throw the ball to second base) of any catcher in the majors.
Realmuto has been working with Brian Schneider, the Marlins’ new catching coach, to improve his pitch framing, which was conversely the worst in the majors, according to the metrics.
“I have two more weeks to work on it, but I feel 10 times better than I did at the end of last season,” Realmuto said. “I got rid of some of the bad habits I created, which will help me. My shoulder feels a lot healthier than it did at the end of last season, so that’s helped a lot as well.
“I’ve made very subtle changes like being in the right position pre-pitch and staying there instead of being in the right position and then moving my glove, which would usually put me in a bad position and late to pitches.”
Realmuto, who will likely hit sixth or seventh in the lineup, is also working on improving his pitch selection at the plate as he hopes to increase his power numbers this season.
“I’ve been taking a lot of strikes early in the count this spring, but it’s allowing me to work on situations when I’m behind in counts,” Realmuto said. “I needed to get to a point when I get a two-strike count not to feel like I have to be so aggressive and be comfortable about taking a pitch in that situation.”
OZUNA GOES DEEP
Marcell Ozuna hit a towering blast over the left-field scoreboard in the second inning for his second home run of the spring during a 6-5 loss to the Braves on Friday. Trailing 5-2 in the ninth, outfielder Isaac Galloway hit a three-run home run to tie the score. The Braves won it in the bottom half when reliever Andre Rienzo hit Nate Freiman with a pitch with the bases loaded.
▪ Saturday: Marlins LHP Adam Conley vs. Tigers LHP Daniel Norris, 1:05 p.m., Jupiter.