On Tuesday, catcher J.T. Realmuto agreed to terms with the Philadelphia Phillies on a five-year deal worth $115.5 million. In doing so, he's made some special history for the position. Realmuto's average annual value of $23.1 million is the highest in baseball history for a catcher contract.
Realmuto, who turns 30 in March, is also the third catcher to:
- Sign a contract worth at least nine figures (Joe Mauer and Buster Posey)
- Earn an average annual value north of $20 million (Mauer, again, and Yadier Molina).
The rarity of the blockbuster catcher contract is tied to the belief that such deals are hazardous; alongside pitchers, catchers appear to take slices off the cakes that form their careers with each pitch. The data doesn't support that observation, but teams have been choosy about which catchers they reward. That behavior within itself merits investigation; if Realmuto is deemed worthy, and he has been, then he belongs to a special class.
How have the other members of his ilk aged; how have their lucrative deals turned out; and what does it all mean for Realmuto? Below, we've attempted to answer those questions by recapping the seven multi-year contracts handed out to backstops that had AAV of $15 million or more, according to Cot's Contracts. (We accept that $15 million is an arbitrary number, but it's a charming one, isn't it?)
1. Joe Mauer, $23 million AAV, 2011-18
For reasons largely outside of Mauer's control, his contract serves as the worst-case scenario in this particular arena. Mauer was, of course, forced to first base by repeated head trauma. He still posted a 114 OPS+ for the deal, but that mark wasn't as remarkable at the cold corner as it would've been behind the dish. Baseball Prospectus' Wins Above Replacement Player calculation (used in this article because it incorporates catcher framing) suggests he notched about 13 wins in that period -- or one for every $14 million. That's over the general baseline ($10 million) and the worst on this list, however, it's much better than the perception of the deal suggests.
2. Yadier Molina, $20 million AAV, 2018-20
This is the first of two appearances for Molina; predictably, since it came later in his career, this is the less valuable of the pair. Molina's bat was in clear decline over the last three years, and he averaged a 93 OPS+ in fewer than 100 games per pop. His defense still allowed him to amass 5.5 WARP, putting him around $11 million per win. Depending on how you value the soft defensive factors that Molina gets credited with -- game-calling, defensive positioning, etc. -- that might be underselling him.
3. Buster Posey, $18.55 million AAV, 2013-21
If you want to get technical about it, Posey's "true" AAV is lower after he opted out of last season for family reasons. He had a rough 2019, but it doesn't matter. For the deal, he's hitting .298/.367/.441 (122 OPS+) while averaging nearly 140 games per season. He's been worth 38 WARP during that span, meaning the Giants have paid less than $4 million per win. It doesn't matter what happens in 2021; that's a massive, massive victory for the Giants, and about as good as it gets here.
4. Yasmani Grandal, $18.25 million AAV, 2020-23
As with Posey's contract, Grandal's remains in progress. The difference is that Grandal's is closer to the head end than the tail. Year one went well enough: he hit for a 113 OPS+ and remained one of the best receivers in the league. Provided he can do that again, or twice more, the White Sox will have no regrets about this one.
5. Brian McCann, $17 million AAV, 2014-18
McCann originally signed a five-year pact with the Yankees, though he spent the final two years of that with the Astros following the emergence of Gary Sanchez. He wasn't as productive at the plate as he had been earlier in his career, but he was a league-average hitter (or thereabout) with strong framing numbers. That combination allowed him to notch 13 wins, or about $6.5 million per. Strong.
6. Russell Martin, $16.4 million AAV, 2015-19
As with McCann, Martin also finished out his contract (signed with the Blue Jays) with a different team (Dodgers). He too was unable to sustain his past glory, yet he did have a 96 OPS+ for the life of the deal. Martin's high-grade framing enabled him to also rack up 13 WARP, good for a ratio around $6.3 million. Stronger.
7. Yadier Molina, $15 million AAV, 2013-17
Obviously Molina's first entry (chronologically) worked out well enough for the Cardinals to come back for seconds. He hit for a 104 OPS+ over the five years while averaging 133 games played. Factor in stellar defense, and he accumulated 19 WARP. That's less than $4 million per win, making this deal an absolute bargain.
To recap: of the six deals that have either finished or are entering their last season, two of them had a dollars-per-WARP rate exceeding the $10 million threshold. Four of them, meanwhile, were well beneath the mark. It's possible that WARP overstates catcher framing, but if you accept that it's mostly accurate -- or, at least, that it's a step in the right direction -- then you also have to accept that most of the large catcher contracts handed out over the past decade have been home runs.
The past doesn't necessarily predict the future, and Realmuto is his own being regardless. But it should hearten Phillies fans that, as of late, teams are right more frequently than not when they bet big on a backstop.