Last year, only one catcher with at least 250 plate appearances had a better wRC+ than Travis d’Arnaud’s 131: Buster Posey. Kyle Schwarber matched d'Arnaud's 131 wRC+ but played fewer than half of his games at catcher. No other catcher surpassed 120.
d’Arnaud was also money on the defensive end, saving his pitchers countless strikes throughout the season. Among all catchers in framing runs above average, d’Arnaud ranked seventh, according to Baseball Prospectus. It’s not often that you come across a catcher that hits 31 percent better than league average and makes a significant impact on the defensive side of the ball as well. But that’s exactly what d’Arnaud was last season.
Catcher framing has shown to correlate really well year-to-year. However, it’s fair to ask whether d’Arnaud can maintain his elite offensive production.
There is good news and bad news in this regard. The good news is that d’Arnaud has made legitimate strides in his approach at the plate every year he’s been in the league.
The first thing that jumps out here is the steady rise in d’Arnaud’s opposite field percentage. In other words, d’Arnaud has been using the opposite field a lot more than he did when he first came up. That helps explain some of his increase in BABIP and offensive production. There are multiple reasons for this, both statistical and intuitive.
First, going the other way makes a player more shift-proof, forcing teams to defend the whole field instead of just half of it. Secondly, the general theory of hitting is to pull one’s hands in to pull an inside pitch, while driving outside pitches to the opposite field. If hitters try to pull pitches on the outer half of the plate, it will naturally result in weak contact.
Lastly, after a hitter’s scouting report shows that he’s willing to drive the ball to the opposite field, pitchers will challenge the hitter with more inside fastballs to keep him honest. (Think Derek Jeter, a notorious opposite-field hitter. The book on him was to go hard in.) Forcing pitchers to throw inside would clearly benefit d’Arnaud, as he produces nearly all of his power on pitches in that area of the plate:
The news isn’t all good for d’Arnaud, however. His BABIP is going to remain depressed if he doesn’t stop popping up the ball. His infield fly rate was an ugly 16.3% last year and has been above 10% every season of his career thus far. An infield fly is essentially a strikeout and a wasted at-bat for all intents and purposes, so that’s clearly an area in need of improvement.
In addition, according to Fangraphs’s PITCHf/x data, d’Arnaud posted a career-high chase rate and a career-low contact rate in 2015. In other words, d'Arnaud traded some plate discipline and contact for power. Fortunately, his chase rate is still better than average, and his contact rate is nowhere near as bad as, say, Joc Pederson’s.
The last word of caution is the obvious one: d’Arnaud can’t seem to stay healthy. He’s never played a full season in the majors, and he’s already going into his age-27 season. We’ve been talking about seasons in which small sample sizes apply, and d’Arnaud’s offensive growth in 2015 may have been about little more than a 67-game hot streak.
Regardless, everything about d’Arnaud’s prospect pedigree, his most recent offensive production, and his offensive and defensive skill set scream "top-five catcher" in baseball. It’ll be exciting to see what he's capable of over a full season if he stays on the field this year.