After a 2017 season in which the Mets ranked 18th in catcher fWAR, it was thought by some that the team could use an upgrade at the position this offseason if it were serious about contending in 2018. The Mets reportedly contacted Jonathan Lucroy last month but otherwise have not been involved in the weak free agent market for catchers. And there’s really no need for them to be, as what they have now behind the plate is probably fine.
There’s no doubt that Travis d’Arnaud is a frustrating player. Famously acquired as the centerpiece of the R.A. Dickey trade that brought him and Noah Syndergaard to New York, the backstop has been under the spotlight for a long time, and given his prospect status, he was expected to be more than what he’s been. His career has been littered with injuries, and his last two seasons in particular have been underwhelming in terms of production. But d’Arnaud’s 2017 season may not have actually been as bad as it seemed, or as fWAR would say.
Of course, most will remember d’Arnaud’s sluggish season with the bat last year. He finished the season with a .244/.293/.443 line with a 91 wRC+, but as late as August 20, he was hitting just .226/.272/.397, which is just a paltry .280 wOBA and a 73 wRC+. But d’Arnaud apparently changed his swing towards the end of the year, and in his last 100 plate appearances of the season, the 28-year-old catcher put together a spectacular .297/.350/.571 line with a .384 wOBA and a 141 wRC+.
Of course, that’s just 100 PAs, most of which were accumulated in September, so it’s easy to take those numbers with a grain of salt. But looking into it, you can pull out some really encouraging tidbits from that small sample size. For example, over those 100 plate appearances, d’Arnaud started hitting for power he hadn’t displayed in any capacity since his excellent, albeit brief, 2015 season. And that may have had something to do with the fact that he started avoiding ground balls as well as he did in 2015. In his poor 2016 season, d’Arnaud hit the ball on the ground an astounding 52.2% of the time. Last year, his ground ball rate was down to 43.3% as of August 20, and dropped to 39.5% during his late-season boom, which is more in-line with his 2015 ground ball rate of 37.0%.
But the sustainability of that production is still questionable, especially since d’Arnaud’s exit velocities actually remained rather static throughout the year. That said, we all know that d’Arnaud has tons of offensive ability, and he’s shown it at the MLB level. But even if he never fully realizes that offensive potential and merely maintains production around his final 2017 line, that still wouldn’t necessarily make him a bad player. Because while a 91 wRC+ isn’t exactly good, it’s important to keep in mind that it’s not as bad for a catcher as it would be for players at other positions. Last year, the league average wRC+ for catchers was only 90. To be fair, though, that number does include some really poor backup catchers that are useless to compare d’Arnaud to if we’re trying to evaluate him as a starter. And his wRC+ of 91 does rank just 24th among catchers with over 300 plate appearances; definitively towards the bottom of the more prominent catchers in the league.
But something only few of those catchers above d’Arnaud bring to the table is d’Arnaud’s elite framing ability. Baseball Prospectus has a statistic called Framing Runs, in which they estimate how many runs a catcher saves per year through framing. d’Arnaud has graded out among the league’s best each of the last three seasons at this, and 2017 was no exception. His +6.7 framing runs last year was ninth-best among all catchers in baseball. What’s more, BP also has a stat called FRAA (Fielding Runs Above Average) which accounts for all aspects of a catcher’s fielding—blocking, throwing, fielding ground balls, all in addition to framing—and d’Arnaud consistently ranks among the best in the league at this as well. He placed 12th on the catcher leaderboard last year with a 7.2 FRAA, and has ranked as high as eighth in baseball with an 11.2 FRAA in 2015.
That is all to say that even if d’Arnaud remains a below-average hitter even by starting catcher standards, the metrics say he’s still around an average overall catcher due to his defense. This is evidenced by WARP, Baseball Prospectus’s version of WAR, which is more accurate for catchers than both bWAR and fWAR, because neither of those metrics account for framing in their calculations. And by WARP, d’Arnaud was worth 2.3 wins last year despite only playing in 112 games.
To build on that even more, in 2016, d’Arnaud was only worth 0.8 fWAR in 75 games, but was still worth 1.4 WARP in what was a dismal offensive season for him while he was hampered by a lingering shoulder injury. Obviously, none of these numbers are perfect by any means, but they’re not to be ignored, either. And they suggest that there might be much more to d’Arnaud than what meets the eye.
Of course, the main problem with d’Arnaud is health; his 112 games played in 2017 was a career-high. And that is always going to be a concern with him, and may cap his ceiling for his entire career. But this year, the Mets actually have serviceable backup catchers behind d’Arnaud in Kevin Plawecki, Jose Lobaton, and Tomas Nido.
As we know, Plawecki was a downright atrocious hitter in his major-league stints in 2015 and 2016. But he, too, changed his swing going into 2017, and we all saw the results. Plawecki had a fine year at Triple-A, batting .328/.375/.514, which is a 128 wRC+, and that success transalted to the MLB level to the tune of a 106 wRC+ and 14.4% strikeout rate in 37 games and 118 PAs with the Mets. Our own Allison McCague wrote a great piece last month about how Plawecki has altered his launch angle and how he can parlay that adjustment into even more offensive success in 2018 and beyond.
Plawecki will turn 27 at the end of February, but catchers are well-known for being late bloomers. He was a highly-regarded prospect once upon a time, so the latent talent is still there. Either way, his offense doesn’t even need to equal his 2017 output to be acceptable for a backup catcher.
Looking beyond the 25-man roster, Lobaton was signed earlier this offseason to serve as Triple-A depth. The 33-year-old is obviously not a good hitter, with a career 72 wRC+, but had rated as a very good defender by FRAA every single year prior to 2017. He’s a fine third catcher to have in the minor leagues. And finally, Nido is probably not ready for the big leagues yet despite a September call-up last year, but he’s still a Top-10 Mets prospect and, at the very worst, can provide very good defense.
While nobody will confuse the Mets’ depth chart at catcher as being among the league’s elite, it’s hard to see where a real upgrade could have come from this offseason for a reasonable cost. There are question marks present at the position for sure, but given the status of catchers throughout the game, the Mets’ current situation behind the plate is far from their biggest concern going into 2018.