Transition to catcher pays off for Marlins' J.T. Realmuto
JUN 09, 2014 11:00a ET
As the story goes, a Midwest scout for the Marlins heard word from a friend about a state champion high school quarterback and shortstop with "makeup off the chart."
The kid had decided during his senior year to pursue baseball rather than football, turning down interest from big programs like Oklahoma, Texas A&M and Stanford.
Vice president of scouting Stan Meek decided to pay a visit to Carl Albert High School in Midwest City, about 30 minutes away from his home in Oklahoma in 2010.
But J.T. Realmuto caught that game -- one of only a handful that season.
It set in motion the organization's inspired idea: If it selected Realmuto in the upcoming First-Year Player Draft, he would move from short to catcher. The Marlins took him in the third round.
"He just had the raw tools and quickness and athleticism," Meek said. "We talked to him and he said 'Yea, I'd like to try it.' ... Started there and worked his backside off to get there. Wonderful kid, great family and you really pull for a kid like that."
So began Realmuto's uncommon transition from middle infielder to backstop. At first shocked by the idea, he put in the effort once he signed and began in the minor leagues.
It took time to adjust to the physical demand of the position. Realmuto often found himself needing ice for his knees. By the middle of the season, his legs got under him to the point of complete exhaustion.
After all, Realmuto had played shortstop since little league. In high school, he was a thinner version of his current 6-foot-1, 215-pound frame.
"Parts of it felt natural, parts of it not so much," Realmuto said. "As far as the receiving, catching, all that was pretty simple and came naturally. When it came to blocking and game-calling -- that stuff I had to learn. It took me a year, two years to learn all that stuff. That was tough."
While blocking was the toughest physical challenge, calling a game mentally drained him day in and day out. Not only would he have to remember every opposing team's hitter, but also how to manage a pitching staff.
Over the past two springs, Realmuto has had the opportunity to catch big leaguers in camp. The best advice he received from catching coordinators like Rob Leary and Tim Cossins was that his most important job is to handle the pitchers.
"As a catcher you have to grow close with all your pitchers, good relationships with every single one of them," Realmuto said. "They're all different. That's the most challenging and rewarding part is getting to handle them every day."
Realmuto would hang out both on and off the field with them -- over drinks, at dinner or even at their homes, getting to see what they were like as people.
This past spring, Leary told FOXSportsFlorida.com that Realmuto's progress could clearly be seen one year to the next. For someone less than three seasons removed from playing the infield, his learning curve was high.
"You're in every pitch. That's the thing," Leary said of catching. "If a catcher's really doing his job right and putting in what you hope he will, they're as tired mentally as physically, which is tough to say because it's physically demanding. You should be spent mentally by the end of the game. He's got a real strong arm and his feet and arms work well together."
Rather than go with Rob Brantly, last year's Opening Day starter and current Triple-A New Orleans backstop, the Marlins called up Realmuto.
In 46 games with Double-A Jacksonville, he was batting .301 with 14 doubles, three triples, five homers and 31 RBI. He had thrown out 46 percent would-be basestealers. It was a drastic improvement from 2013 when he hit .239 with five dingers and 39 RBI in 106 games.
"I think we feel like right now, he's the guy who, in the short term, we think he can come up and do a good job," manager Mike Redmond said when the announcement was made. "We hope that Salty is just a short-term deal, but you never know with a concussion. So right now J.T. is a good fit. He's playing well, he's swinging the bat extremely well and we're glad to have him."
The 23-year-old sat on the bench until his debut last Thursday against the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field. He went 2-for-4 with three RBI in an 11-6 victory.
Through three games, Realmuto has gone 3-for-9 (.333) with four RBI. He aided a rally by driving in a run during Sunday's 4-3 win over the Chicago Cubs. He also threw out Emilio Bonifacio, who was trying to steal third in the first inning.
Realmuto knows he will go back to the minors once Saltalamacchia is fully healed. A bittersweet circumstance led to his debut. Since joining the club he has been of the mindset of absorbing it all.
"I'm just trying to run with the experience and get as much positive influence as I can from these older guys and take what I can," Realmuto said. "It's nice to get to relax and go out and have fun and play to the best of my ability."