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Travis d’Arnaud’s 2016 season was very disappointing, but it’s not time to give up on him yet

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There is some evidence that d’Arnaud often gets shortchanged with the value he’s brought to the Mets over the last three seasons.

League Championship - Chicago Cubs v New York Mets - Game One Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

The Mets had two young, highly-touted hitters coming into 2016 that looked like core pieces of the team, and one of them was Travis d’Arnaud. The catcher made a swing adjustment in Triple-A in June 2014 and had a 129 wRC+ and .216 ISO in 544 plate appearances after it, spanning from his June 2014 recall through 2015. That is roughly 40% better offensive production than the league average catcher over a span of 136 games, and he combined his potent bat with high level pitch framing. d’Arnaud looked like he had a chance to be an All-Star catcher if he could consistently stay on the field, which had been his biggest issue.

d’Arnaud didn’t have a great postseason last year, with a .577 OPS, below the major league average postseason OPS of .677 in 2015. But he kept hitting for power, and his .189 postseason ISO was above the postseason league average of .158. He hit some big home runs, including two in the NLCS, one off Jon Lester in Game 1 to give the Mets a 3-1 lead. He hit another in the clincher, going back-to-back with Lucas Duda.

Josh Lewin’s terrific call in the video above highlighted d’Arnaud’s power.

“He bruised the fruit! That’s the longest home run I’ve ever seen Travis d’Arnaud hit. And he hit it through a knifing wind, over a disbelieving Fowler, and Jon Lester is shaking his head, like, really?”

d’Arnaud badly regressed offensively in 2016, and what jumped out most about his 2016 season was an erosion in that excellent power. He had a 74 wRC+ and saw his ISO tank to .076. Among all catchers with at least 200 plate appearances in 2016, d’Arnaud’s .076 ISO ranked second lowest. It ranked 12th lowest among all position players, lower than slap hitters like Ben Revere (.083), Billy Hamilton (.083), and Ichiro (.086).

Date PA wRC+ ISO
Post call up 2014-2015 544 129 .216
2016 276 74 .076

d’Arnaud’s defense also wasn’t quite as strong. Baseball Prospectus’ Fielding Runs Above Average for catchers, which takes into account framing, blocking, and throwing, ranked d’Arnaud as the 9th-best defensive catcher in 2015, with his defense being worth 12 runs above average on the back of his terrific pitch framing and vastly improved pitch blocking. In 2016, he fell to 15th, at 7.4 runs above average. d’Arnaud’s throwing in particular really dropped off, falling from a slightly-above-average 0.1 runs in 2015 to -2.1 runs in 2016, the sixth worst in baseball.

Year Framing Runs Blocking Runs Throwing Runs Fielding Runs
2015 12.6 0.1 0.1 12.0
2016 7.5 0.3 -2.1 7.4
Year Framing Rank Blocking Rank Throwing Rank Fielding Rank
2015 7th of 117 12th of 117 39th of 117 9th of 117
2016 14th of 114 16th of 114 109th of 114 15th of 114

To say d’Arnaud’s 2016 season was a disappointment would be an understatement. d’Arnaud looked like at least a solid above average regular when he was healthy enough to play, and carried star upside with his lightning quick bat and excellent receiving. WAR isn’t a perfect statistic, but Baseball Prospectus WARP had d’Arnaud worth 2.6 wins less in 2016 (1.4 WARP) than 2015 (4.0 WARP) in a similar number of games due to declines in both offense and defense.

Part of the reason d’Arnaud had a drop in power was because of an increase in ground balls and a drop in line drives and fly balls. His ground ball rate rose from 39% after his June 2014 adjustment to 52% in 2016. In 2015, 49% of d’Arnaud’s batted balls had a launch angle greater than 10 degrees, which means that 49% of his batted balls were either line drives or fly balls. In 2016, only 38% of d’Arnaud’s batted balls were line drives or fly balls by launch angle.

The launch angle sweet spot is between 10 and 30 degrees, which are line drives to lower fly balls. Batters hit about .600 between these angles and slug 1.100. 70% of all extra base hits come between these angles. In 2015, 28% of d’Arnaud’s batted balls were hit between those sweet spot angles, above the MLB average of 26%. In 2016, only 18% of d’Arnaud’s batted balls were hit between those angles. d’Arnaud wasn’t hitting the ball between the sweet spot as often.

It should be noted that d’Arnaud went on the DL three weeks into the season with a rotator cuff strain. A shoulder injury could very easily torpedo a hitter’s bat control and power, so if d’Arnaud was playing with a sub optimal shoulder for most or all of the season, that could explain his struggles in the box. It could also explain why d’Arnaud dropped from an average thrower to one of the worst. d’Arnaud struggled with throwing in 2014 while playing through a bone chip in his elbow, so there’s some history of injury impacting his throwing.

d’Arnaud’s lack of ability to stay healthy is very concerning. He has had a significant injury in four out of the last five seasons dating back to his 2012 season in the Blue Jays organization. Injuries have contributed to just 84 games played per season since 2012, which includes games in the minors. He’s played in 100 games in a season only once in those years, his 2014 season, where he played 126 games between MLB and the minors.

The 2016 regression and frequent injuries are alarming, but it’s not time to give up on him yet. d’Arnaud has shown signs that he could be a very valuable catcher, and there is some evidence that d’Arnaud often gets shortchanged with the value he brings to the Mets. Baseball Prospectus’ WARP had him worth 4.0 wins in 2015, the 5th most valuable catcher and 42nd most valuable non pitcher, in just 67 games because of his bat and pitch framing combo. The only other players in the 2015 hitter WARP top 75 that played in less than 100 games were Giancarlo Stanton (74 G, 4.6 WARP) and Francisco Lindor (99 games, 3.3 WARP).

Year Games WARp Rank
2014 108 2.9 87 of 1212
2015 67 4.0 42 of 1252
2016 75 1.4 177 of 1247

Why does d’Arnaud grade so well here compared to other metrics? Baseball Prospectus’ research indicates that pitch framing is by far the most valuable skill a catcher can have defensively, and it’s a skill d’Arnaud excels at. d’Arnaud has an unfair reputation in some places as being a poor defensive catcher, but there’s evidence that not only is he not poor, he’s one of the better defensive catchers in baseball because his pitch framing strength vastly outweighs his shortcomings with throwing in value to the team.

d’Arnaud’s excellent pitch framing isn’t just data driven, it passes the eye test, too. Here’s vintage d’Arnaud beautifully stealing a strike in last year’s NLCS to swing the outcome from a walk to a strikeout:

Swinging the count in favor of the pitcher with pitch framing can be huge. For example, after 1-0 counts, league average OPS was .839 in 2016, but after 0-1 counts, it was .618. With the batter ahead in the count, league average OPS was Mike Trout esque at .998. With the count even, OPS was around average at .718. With the pitcher ahead, OPS was a minuscule .521.

I think d’Arnaud needs to get at least one more season of regular playing time behind the plate with the Mets. There’s some evidence that the upside is too great; if you subscribe to BP’s catcher metrics, d’Arnaud was essentially a six win catcher for 136 games spanning from his June 2014 recall through 2015, although with an off-season and time on the DL in between. Again, WAR is not a perfect statistic, especially because the defensive component is difficult to measure. Smart baseball people have argued both for and against the value of WAR in player analysis. But WARP is the best catcher WAR out there, and in the last 3 seasons combined, d’Arnaud has graded as a solid major league catcher by the metric at 2.8 wins per season, even with all of the missed time. Compare this to popular free agent target Matt Wieters, who is coming off a 0.9 WARP season and grades as a below average pitch framer.

As for what the Mets themselves think, d’Arnaud’s 2016 struggles caused the team to try to trade for Jonathan Lucroy in July, so it’s fair to wonder if the Mets have at all soured on d’Arnaud long term. But Sandy Alderson said in spring training that the organization thinks he can be a plus plus catcher with his bat and framing, which wasn’t that long ago. That’s very high praise.

Maybe d’Arnaud’s brittleness will keep him from becoming the plus plus catcher that the Mets had hoped he’d become. After all, he has given little indication that his body can hold up for a full season with the rigors of catching. But there are some comprehensive metrics that back him as a valuable major league catcher. And he’s projected to make only about $1.7 million this upcoming season, leaving more room for a cash strapped team to invest money elsewhere. It’s probably worthwhile to make him the primary catcher for at least one more season.