After two years of tantalizing us with glimpses of his potential, the Mets’ Travis d’Arnaud has emerged as one of the top catchers in the game. Tagged as a top prospect since being selected in the first round of the draft by the Phillies in 2007, it has been a bumpy road.
Traded twice, and injured often, the Mets’ young catcher is finally finding his zone. While Yoenis Cespedes has grabbed the headlines and received the ‘MVP’ chants during the Mets’ surge (rightfully so), d’Arnaud has quietly begun to fulfill the promise.
In March and April, d’Arnaud hit .317, before fracturing his pinkie. Once healed, he posted a .901 OPS before hitting the DL again with a sprained elbow. This came after missing time in 2014 for a concussion and in 2013 with a broken foot. Injury-free, d’Arnaud has turned it up a notch in September, batting .432 with a 1.220 OPS.
Allowing for the fact that he has still only played in 52 games in 2015, d’Arnaud’s numbers place him with the game’s best at the catcher position. He’s sixth among MLB catchers with a WAR of 2.6, despite the limited playing time, higher than phenom Kyle Schwarber, who sits at 1.9 in 53 games. He compares with the 3.0 WAR for the Yankees’ Brian McCann, who has played in more than twice as many games. McCann’s WAR is driven in large part by his 25 home runs, while d’Arnaud has been both an above-average base runner and a league average defender to go along with his success at the plate.
No one is suggesting that d’Arnaud is an elite defender, but his hard work has made him an average defensive catcher with a big bat. That formula worked out pretty well for another Mets catcher not too long ago. In 2014, d’Arnaud posted a -15 defensive runs saved. In 2015, that number is at -2 in half as many games. He has thrown out 26 percent of base-stealers this year versus 19 percent last year. Even more important is the fact that he has just one passed ball and three errors this year, after 12 passed balls and nine errors in 2014.
This year is d’Arnaud’s first positive WAR year on defense. He has a 1.9 WAR, which compares with Schwarber’s -2.6 defensive WAR. d’Arnaud’s defense is not doing anything to take away from his offensive contributions. There is talk of Schwarber moving off of the position longer term, but d’Arnaud has shown that he can remain a catcher as long as he stays healthy. Is he injury-prone? Most of his injuries have been the result of foul tips, which comes with the territory. D’Arnaud has also managed to bounce back each time and re-find his groove.
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Despite the defensive growth, d’Arnaud’s value comes from the fact that he is such an offensive threat at a position where it is the exception. Buster Posey has long been the cream of the crop and while no one is suggesting that d’Arnaud is in his class, his stats suggest the Mets enjoy a similar positional advantage with d’Arnaud in the lineup.
Projecting d’Arnaud’s stats over 135 games (Posey’s YTD total), we would get 31 home runs, 104 RBI, and 6.8 WAR to go with the .300 batting average. No one is suggesting that he would keep up the current pace over that stretch, but it is fun to think about, and speaks to his current output.
D’Arnaud has always had a short, line drive stroke at the plate. His line drive rate has gone up each year in the big leagues, from 17.7 percent to 19.6 percent to 22.2 percent this season. At the same time, his fly ball rate has increased from 35.4 percent to 38.6 percent to 41.8 percent. This has translated into a career best 18.2 percent HR/FB ratio. By comparison, Posey is at 13.2 percent for his career. In fact, d’Arnaud’s 2015 HR/FB ratio puts him in Jose Bautista/Nolan Arenado territory.
Is this a breakout or is d’Arnaud just on a hot streak? The steady improvement suggests a breakout. If you are determined to look for warning signs, his BABIP has also increased each year, from .244 to .259 to .308 this year. However, as he’s matured as a hitter, he’s also used the opposite field more and more, improving three points a year to a high of 28.5 percenthits to the opposite field this year. Hitting to all fields with more regularity, along with the increased home run rate could account for the increased BABIP.
D’Arnaud’s oSwing percentage (meant to measure how often he swings at pitches outside the zone) has also been steadily increasing, but sits at 27.2 percent against a league average of 31.3 percent. It compares favorably to the notoriously patient Russell Martin, who has a career oSwing percentage of 26.3 percent at the catcher position. D’Arnaud has been aggressive, but still maintained an above average eye. He’s hitting more line drives, using all fields, and seeing more balls go over the wall without having become an extreme fly ball hitter.
The Mets boast a new hero almost every night, but Travis d’Arnaud has flown under the radar a bit to become one of the most deadly bats in the lineup at the same time the team has surged in the standings. The Kevin Plawecki chatter has quieted as fans bear witness to d’Arnaud’s emergence as one of the best at his position.
If the trends continue, we’re looking at a breakout 27-year old season in 2016. In the meantime, d’Arnaud puts up 2015 numbers that compare with Buster Posey and Kyle Schwarber without the same fanfare. If he puts on a show in October, baseball fans across the country will know what we already do. Travis d’Arnaud is now an All-Star caliber catcher.