There’s no replacing J.T. Realmuto: How the Phillies reached a strategic decision on injured catcher

BOSTON — There is nowhere to hide inside the visiting clubhouse at 112-year-old Fenway Park, so this is how life without J.T. Realmuto had to begin. Garrett Stubbs commandeered a small table in the middle of the room Tuesday afternoon. There was commotion — players and coaches and reporters — all around him. And he went to work. He opened his iPad and arranged color-coded heat maps on the table. He didn’t touch a half-full cold brew coffee. For more than 20 minutes, he took notes in pen.

The best pitching staff in the National League belonged to the guy who wears pinstriped overalls — and not much underneath — after victories.

“Every time somebody goes down, somebody steps up,” Phillies manager Rob Thomson said. “And I’m expecting the same thing.”

There is no way to replace Realmuto, who will undergo knee surgery Wednesday to repair a small tear in his right meniscus, but the Phillies are attempting to do it in the most calculated way possible. Realmuto should miss “about a month,” Phillies president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski said. The Phillies, by timing it now, can make it five weeks with the All-Star break in mid-July.

The Phillies decided last week, before everyone boarded a transatlantic flight to London, that Realmuto would proceed with the surgery. Realmuto agreed it was time. And he still played in the two games overseas while the Phillies brought another catcher, Rafael Marchán, with them. Marchán spent the weekend catching every pitcher on the side and he talked strategy with the coaches.

They told the 25-year-old Venezuelan on Sunday before flying back to America. “Just be ready,” they said, “because something’s going to happen soon.” Marchán then realized why the Phillies had paid so much attention to his work over the weekend.

He will split the catching duties with Stubbs.

J.T. Realmuto played two games in London after agreeing he would have knee surgery. (Matthew Childs / Reuters via USA Today)

No position in baseball produces less offense than catcher; the Phillies cherish Realmuto because he can do everything. He can hit for power. He can run. He can squat for more innings than almost anyone else in the sport. With Stubbs and Marchán, the Phillies care about only defense. Any offensive contribution is a bonus. They can live with that for a month, but not much more.

And, with a nine-game lead in the National League East entering Tuesday, they just felt like it was the right thing to do for their star catcher.

Realmuto, for weeks, wanted to see if he could play through the injury. The Phillies knew in early May that he had suffered a meniscus tear, but doctors told the 33-year-old catcher he could continue to play as long as he tolerated the pain.

“He felt a little bit better over time,” Dombrowski said. “We thought he actually would be able to work himself through it. But he developed a little bit more persistent pain.”

Realmuto was candid about it. Early last week, he told Phillies head athletic trainer Paul Buchheit how much he was struggling. Buchheit relayed his recommendations to Dombrowski, who wanted to talk to the catcher last Wednesday before the long flight.

“Looks like we’ll have to get this done,” Dombrowski said to him.

“Yeah,” Realmuto said. “But, Dave, we can do this when you want. I’m all right to play.”

They were in agreement. Getting it done now reduces the risk of a compromised catcher for the remainder of the season — or knee surgery at a much less convenient time. Realmuto had hit .135/.200/.189 since May 25 and was not driving the ball. The balky knee was a factor.

Word had started to filter through the clubhouse that Realmuto was playing through significant pain at times. Realmuto’s teammates have often labeled him as the club’s “backbone” and that description fit even more in May and June.

“He would never say anything to me,” Thomson said. “But I knew that he was fighting through it. Just because I could see him wince every once in a while on a certain block or something behind the plate. But he’s a tough guy, and he’s not going to admit to anything, you know? There were certain days that he would say it was a little more sore than normal, but felt like he could always play through it.”

If anything, Realmuto set an example the Phillies have preached: Be trustworthy and be honest. The doctors thought he could nurse it along and Realmuto would have preferred that path. He tried. It did not work. He did not hide from the reality — this will be his longest absence during a season since he debuted with the Miami Marlins in 2014.

“There have been people that have worked through meniscus tears,” Dombrowski said. “And if anybody could, it would be him. But it just got too bad.”

The list of players more valuable to the Phillies than Realmuto is not long because the gap between him and the reserves — Stubbs and Marchán — is wider than anywhere else on the depth chart. Realmuto is so integral to what the Phillies have done on the mound; he excels at one of the last unquantifiable things — calling a game. Pitchers and coaches have marveled this season at Realmuto’s in-game recall and analysis of opposing hitters’ swings. He filters all of the different metrics the Phillies use in pregame planning and blends them with his feel for the situation at hand.

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Garrett Stubbs has appeared in 20 games this season. He will split the catching duties with Rafael Marchán. (Albert Cesare / The Cincinnati Enquirer / USA Today)

As Realmuto’s caddy, Stubbs prepares his own game plans even on the days he does not start. They compare notes. Stubbs often spends games in the dugout with Phillies pitching coach Caleb Cotham. Stubbs has stuck in the majors not solely because of vibes but also because the Phillies believe in his behind-the-scenes acumen.

It will be tested.

Stubbs and Marchán could alternate games, Thomson said. Marchán, who said he suffered a small fracture in his back before spring training that sidelined him for more than two months, has always been regarded as a fine defender. He has not been blessed with health. His prospect status has evaporated. The Phillies think he can handle a timeshare behind the plate for a month.

“The one thing is, from a defensive perspective, I feel great about the catching,” Dombrowski said. “I mean, Marchán is an outstanding defensive catcher. He can really throw. When I talk to our people, they’ve told me this for years, he handles a pitching staff very well. They like throwing to him. He studies the opposing hitters. Just like Stubbsy does.”

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Rafael Marchán last appeared in the majors in 2021. (Bill Streicher / USA Today)

The Phillies will pursue more catching depth for Triple-A Lehigh Valley. Aramis García is the catcher there and he’d be the next call-up if there is another injury.

In the meantime, the Phillies will need more offense from other spots on the field. Trea Turner and Brandon Marsh are nearing returns from hamstring injuries. Marsh is with Double-A Reading this week and should play in a game or two at some point. Turner is with the Phillies and will exercise his right to refuse a minor-league rehab assignment. He could return this weekend in Baltimore, or on Monday when the Phillies open a homestand against the San Diego Padres.

The mission, behind the plate, is to make things as seamless as possible.

“The way they are playing, it’s tremendous,” Marchán said. “I want to be a part of a winning team and this is the perfect team to do that. We know what we want. We know what the goal is this year. I just want to help them keep playing the way they’re playing.”

(Top photo: Mitchell Leff / Getty Images)

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