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An analysis of Travis d'Arnaud's pitch blocking

The young catcher has been praised for framing pitches, but he struggled a bit when it came to blocking pitches.

Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

There’s little doubt that the Mets are depending on Travis d’Arnaud to become an above-average major league catcher as they look to contend in 2014 and beyond. Acquired a little less than a year ago from the Toronto Blue Jays as a major component of the R.A. Dickey trade, the soon-to-be 25-year-old missed much of 2013 after breaking a bone in his foot. But he made his major league debut in August and stuck with the Mets through the end of the season.

At the plate, d’Arnaud didn’t do much. In 112 plate appearances, he hit just .202/.286/.263, which translated to a .254 wOBA and 60 wRC+. Despite his offensive struggles, Mets general manager Sandy Alderson expressed optimism about d’Arnaud's debut because of his defensive play in an interview on WFAN.

"I think coming in we assumed that he would hit fairly well and the catching maybe needed some additional work. Actually he caught really well, the pitchers took to him almost immediately, and that was a positive."

Alderson expressed a similar sentiment on an interview on SNY.

"Well coming into this season, the issue was whether or not he was polished enough as a receiver in order to hold down a starting role behind the plate. As we’ve experienced him—I think my observation and most other observations—he’s done a fine job behind the plate."

In thirty-one games behind the plate, d’Arnaud’s pitch framing was impressive. It was written about twice here at Amazin’ Avenue. Rob Castellano wrote up d’Arnaud’s framing and wrote:

Travis d'Arnaud appears to be extremely good at the burgeoning art of pitch framing. Not only is this visible in the above examples as well as in some of the data we've seen thus far—limited, though it may be—but it agrees with much of the anecdotal evidence we've already been able to glean on the young catcher.

Greg Karam compared d’Arnaud’s pitch framing to John Buck’s and found d'Arnaud was much better at it.

Anthony DiComo of wrote about d’Arnaud’s framing in August in a piece that included praise from several of the Mets’ pitchers. DiComo noted that Mets bench coach Bob Geren tracked pitch framing and had data to back up the claims the pitchers were making about d’Arnaud’s glove.

So there’s an early consensus that d’Arnaud is really good at pitch framing. That’s great, as the skill can help a team and its pitching staff significantly over the course of a full season.

Pitch blocking

Having watched d’Arnaud catch, however, it seemed like his defensive game was lacking in another area: pitch blocking.

I started by looking at some pretty simple numbers: innings caught, passed balls, and wild pitches. In 258 ⅓ innings behind the plate, d’Arnaud was charged with 3 passed balls and 12 wild pitches. Combining the two—since the distinction between them is often irrelevant—d’Arnaud had a passed pitch, a term coined by Bojan Koprivica, once per 17.1 innings. For the sake of clarity, that’s seventeen-point-one, not seventeen-and-one-third.

Among the 66 catchers who caught at least 200 innings this year, d’Arnaud’s rate ranked 55th. Yadier Molina led the way with a rate of one per 44.6 innings, and he was trailed by Brian McCann, Kurt Suzuki, and Matt Wieters. Hector Sanchez of the Giants was the worst at one per 10.5 innings behind the plate.

With that concern in mind, I turned to the metrics created by Koprivica’s outstanding research on pitch blocking at the Hardball Times, a piece that’s well worth reading in full. A couple of the metrics created in the piece have since been added to Fangraphs: CPP, which is a catcher’s expected number of passed pitches, and RPP, the number of runs above or below average a catcher is when it comes to pitch blocking.

At 7 CPP, d’Arnaud’s passed pitch expectancy in his time in the big leagues was less than half his 15 actual passed pitches. With -2.1 RPP, d’Arnaud also ranked 55th among the 66 catchers who caught 200 or more innings in the season. And—surprise—Yadier Molina led the league at 5.9 RPP. It’s a small sample for d’Arnaud, but the numbers are in line with what looked to have been the case while watching him catch.

Let’s take a look at some of d’Arnaud’s passed pitches.

August 17, 2013

This was d'Arnaud's first game in the big leagues, during which he had two passed pitches. The pitch above was the first. Pedro Feliciano didn't hit his spot, but he didn't miss by a wide margin, either. It seems d'Arnaud picks up on that quickly, but he reaches across his body with his left arm and isn't able to catch the ball as it hits the heel of his glove. Keith Hernandez made a remark in the SNY booth that d’Arnaud still needed to get up to speed with his pitchers.

August 18, 2013

The next day, d'Arnaud misses this pitch from Matt Harvey. It's a little tough to see the ball actually go through d'Arnaud because of Harvey's follow through, but the ball isn't very far off d'Arnaud's original target. He might get a little bit of glove on it, but it goes right through the five hole.

Here's the pitch again in slow motion.

August 25, 2013

Here, d'Arnaud reached across his body for the pitch outside, but he reached too far. The ball again hit the heel of his glove and got away from him.

August 26, 2013

Like the last passed pitch, d’Arnaud reached for this one with his glove and wasn't able to catch it.

September 4, 2013

This pitch is a particularly tough one. As it hit the ground, it looks like it caught the edge of home plate, but d'Arnaud goes for the backhand stop with his glove. The pitch hit his glove and ricocheted away.

September 11, 2013

This pitch didn't miss the target by much. Ron Darling opined that d’Arnaud was fooled by Ian Desmond’s fake bunt and did not have his eyes on the ball. Instead, Darling suggested, d’Arnaud was looking at the runner at first and was likely to throw behind the runner after catching the pitch.

September 21, 2013

Here, d'Arnaud went down to his knees in an attempt to block the pitch. Before he got there, however, the ball gets under his glove and hits his leg. Keith Hernandez noted after the pitch that d'Arnaud did not get his glove down off his shin guard as he tried to block the pitch.

September 27, 2013

This pitch from Carlos Torres had a lot of horizontal movement. The hitter, Scooter Gennett, was clearly fooled, but the pitch went well wide of d'Arnaud's target. Again, d'Arnaud reached across his body, but this time, the ball went off the tip of his glove rather than the heel before it got away from him. Gennett struck out on the pitch but reached first base safely.

Minor league track record

Since CPP and RPP are based on PitchF/X data, we don't have the data to see how he fared in the minors. And with just games played—not innings caught—and passed balls readily available, it's tough to make a real comparison between his major and minor league numbers in terms of passed pitches. Let’s instead take a look at some of what was written about d’Arnaud’s defense before his promotion to the big leagues.

In his "Prospects Smackdown" series back in February at Minor League Ball, John Sickels wrote, "On defense, [d’Arnaud] features very good mobility and receiving skills, with slightly above average arm strength."

And last November, Baseball America wrote the following of d’Arnaud’s defense:

"D'Arnaud made good strides with his defense in 2011 by working with then-New Hampshire manager Sal Butera, who caught in the majors for nine seasons. Those improvements carried over to 2012, when d'Arnaud threw out a career-high 30 percent of basestealers. He has average to plus arm strength and has refined his footwork and throwing accuracy. He's a solid receiver who moves well behind the plate, and he's a good leader who works well with his pitching staffs."

Moving forward

The Mets are not worried about d'Arnaud's pitch blocking ability. Asked about d'Arnaud's struggles in his first brief stint in the big leagues, Paul DePodesta, the Mets' vice president of player development and scouting, noted that the team's concerns were about the time d'Arnaud lost to injury, not his ability.

"While he was rehabbing his foot, he was able to take plenty of BP, but there wasn't a lot of live catching practice available, especially with Major League caliber guys," DePodesta said. "We're not concerned moving forward. He's very athletic and has good hands, so we believe he'll be a very good blocker as well as receiver moving forward."

And like Keith Hernandez during d'Arnaud's first big league game, DePodesta pointed out that d'Arnaud had very limited experience with the Mets' pitching staff before joining the team in August.

If his performance doesn't improve next year, d'Arnaud could at least be a wash defensively, assuming his pitch framing ability holds up over a full season. Combined with a bat that should be a lot better than it was in his first cup of coffee, he could still be a very good major league catcher. And if his pitch blocking looks more how the Mets think it will look than it did in 2013, it's not hard to see a very high ceiling for d'Arnaud.

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