Ever since he was acquired in February of 2019, Phillies catcher J.T. Realmuto has earned the moniker “BCIB,” or best catcher in baseball, in the city of Philadelphia. That name has been fitting in recent years as the three-time All-Star was named MLB Network’s top catcher in the game in 2021 and 2022.
But as we approach the summer months of the 2023 season, Realmuto hasn’t been the “BCIB” so far this year. He’s still playing like himself for the most part, but there are a few other guys who are playing at a higher level right now.
Three of them made up the next three spots behind Realmuto in MLB Network’s top catchers this past winter. And the other is putting together the best year of his career.
Who Are Realmuto’s Competitors?
Entering play on May 23, Realmuto ranks 10th among catchers in fWAR (0.8). The top four at the position in that same category are Sean Murphy of the Braves (2.5), Jonah Heim of the Rangers (1.8), Will Smith of the Dodgers (1.5), and Adley Rutschman of the Orioles (1.4).
Last season, Realmuto led all catchers with a 6.5 fWAR. Rutschman (5.3) and Murphy (5.1) were second and third at the position in 2022, while Smith (3.9) was fifth and Heim (2.8) was 10th a year ago.
As mentioned above, Realmuto was named the best catcher in baseball before the start of 2023, while Murphy was fourth, Heim wasn’t ranked, Smith was second, and Rutschman was third. So outside of Heim, who is putting together a career year, these are names we are used to hearing when it comes to the discussion of who the best catcher in the sport is.
To start things off, here are how many games each of the catchers mentioned above have played through the end of May 22, along with the number of innings they’ve spent behind the plate:
|Jonah Heim||40||308 1/3|
|Will Smith||31||227 2/3|
As you can see, Realmuto, who led all catchers in innings caught last year with 1,131 2/3, leads this group of five in that category this year – his 345 innings also lead the majors.
When it comes to offensive production, Murphy leads all catchers in wRC+ (157) – a number that is ninth highest in Major League Baseball ahead of players like Juan Soto (142), Shohei Ohtani (140) and Mike Trout (140). Smith’s wRC+ of 154 isn’t far behind Atlanta’s backstop, but he doesn’t qualify for the leaderboard yet due to a lack of plate appearances (he spent some time on the injured list with a concussion in April).
Following Murphy and Smith in wRC+ are Rutschman (134), Heim (127), and then Realmuto (104).
Here are some more offensive statistics for each catcher:
It’s safe to say Murphy and Smith are the best hitting catchers in the game so far this season.
Offensive production is just one part of a catcher’s overall value. In fact, when it comes to the position, the general consensus is that the defense a catcher provides behind the plate is more important than the offense he provides. So let’s break these five catchers down in a few different defensive categories.
Starting out with defensive runs saved, Murphy and Heim lead the group with three, followed by Realmuto (two), Rutschman (one), and Smith (zero).
Next up is each player’s pop time to second base and their respective arm strengths:
|Player||Pop Time||Arm Strength|
|J.T. Realmuto||1.81||86.4 mph|
|Sean Murphy||1.88||86.7 mph|
|Will Smith||1.91||82.4 mph|
|Adley Rutschman||1.92||85.4 mph|
|Jonah Heim||1.99||83.3 mph|
Realmuto’s pop time is not only the best of this particular group, but it’s also the best in the majors.
Now we’ll look at Statcast’s new catcher throwing metric known as caught stealing above average. This metric uses a number of inputs, including pop time and both a runner’s speed and distance from second at the time of the throw by the catcher, to estimate the likelihood of a catcher throwing out a would-be base stealer:
|Player||Caught Stealing Above Average|
So, both Murphy and Realmuto have thrown out more would-be base stealers than expected, according to caught stealing above average.
Another new Statcast metric is blocks above average – which uses a number of different inputs to determine how good a catcher is at blocking possible wild pitches and passed balls:
|Player||Blocks Above Average|
Realmuto’s eight blocks above average is tied with William Contreras of the Brewers for the best in baseball.
Finally, we’ll look at catcher framing runs – a metric that measures how a catcher’s framing (getting pitches outside of the strike zone to be called strikes) affects his opponent’s run-scoring:
|Player||Catcher Framing Runs|
At the moment, Heim and Murphy are both tied with Austin Hedges of the Pirates for the most catcher framing runs.
It is clear that Realmuto is still one of the better defensive catchers in baseball – especially when it comes to throwing out attempting base stealers and blocking balls in the dirt. But his offense this year is lacking when compared to other players at his position.
It should be noted that Philadelphia’s catcher struggled at the plate for most of the first half of last season, too. From Opening Day to the end of June, Realmuto posted a below-league-average 92 wRC+. He turned things around once the month of July hit, though, as he slashed .311/.366/.591 with 17 home runs and a 163 wRC+ – which was tied for eighth best in the big leagues – from July 1 to the end of the season. So there is still time for Realmuto to maintain his status as the “BCIB.”
But, right now, Realmuto’s overall value places him well below said status of best catcher in baseball. So, if it’s not Realmuto, then who is it?
Murphy has been nothing but fantastic for Atlanta. As for Rutschman, he continues to be the star of the Orioles while also being one of the game’s top young players. Meanwhile, Smith continues to be one of the Dodgers’ best hitters. And Heim has, somewhat quietly, become both a solid defender and hitter.
That being said, going over the numbers from above, I think it is safe to say that Murphy is the early season “BCIB”. Not only is he the best hitting catcher in baseball right now, he’s been one of the league’s best hitters as well.
Couple that with his above league-average defensive numbers in pop time, arm strength, caught stealing above average, blocks above average, and catcher framing runs, and there hasn’t been a single weakness to Murphy’s game over the first two months of the season.
There are still more than four months left in the 2023 regular season, but if things continue at their current pace, the Atlanta Braves will have the best catcher in baseball in the 28-year-old Murphy heading into the 2024 season.
NOTE: All statistics in this article are accurate before play on May 23.