Travis d’Arnaud was a highly touted prospect before his big league debut. He was a consensus top 20 prospect in the game and was ranked as the #6 overall prospect in baseball by MLB.com before the 2013 season. d’Arnaud hit .311/.371/.542 with 21 HR and a 150 wRC+ in the Eastern League in 2011 as a member of the Blue Jays organization and followed up with a 147 wRC+ in 2012 in the hitter friendly PCL. A knee injury shortened his 2012 season after only 303 PA, and he was then traded to the New York Mets for Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey, the second time he had been traded for a Cy Young award winner in his career.
d’Arnaud was on the cusp of making his big league debut in 2013 with the Mets when he took a foul tip off his foot while catching in Las Vegas and fractured his foot. It was the second major injury in two years for d’Arnaud, and it set him back significantly in terms of lost developmental time. As a result of the missed repetitions, d’Arnaud struggled heavily in his first exposure to the big leagues; over his first 257 PA in MLB, d’Arnaud hit a putrid .189/.277/.269 with 4 HR and a 56 wRC+. It was clear he was all messed up at the plate and the Mets sent him back to the PCL in June 2014 to get him straightened out.
With the Las Vegas 51s, hitting coach George Greer, manager Wally Backman and pitching coach Frank Viola sat d’Arnaud down and talked over his approach and mentality. The coaching staff eased d’Arnaud’s mind and helped him to focus on trusting his swing rather than over thinking his mechanics as the ball was coming to the plate. Greer also moved d’Arnaud closer to the plate so he could cover the outside part, because d’Arnaud was not hitting outside pitches well. Both of these adjustments revived d’Arnaud; he dominated the PCL, posting a 253 wRC+ with 6 HR over 59 PA before being called back up to the Mets.
Greer, Backman and Viola made a tangible change in d’Arnaud’s process at the plate and his strong results continued at the big league level. This heat map from ESPN’s Mark Simon from July 2014 shows the stark difference between pre demotion and post demotion performance for d’Arnaud in plate coverage:
d’Arnaud continued to cover the entire plate as the year went on. This heat map was from the middle of September:
This picture series, taken from August 19 against the Oakland A’s, shows d’Arnaud launching an opposite field home run from a pitch on the outer half against Scott Kazmir. d’Arnaud shows off impressive opposite field power in the spacious Oakland Coliseum.
Here is a .gif of d'Arnaud's home run:
In his final 276 PA after his demotion, d’Arnaud hit .272/.319/.486 (.805 OPS) with 10 HR, 39 R, 32 RBI, 19 2B and a 128 wRC+. d’Arnaud only struck out in 14% of his PA and made contact 83% of the time during this sample. This is not an arbitrary endpoint, either, because a tangible change in his process was made. A full season line with this approach would have put him right in the mix as a top 5 catcher, somewhere after Buster Posey, Devin Mesoraco and Jonathan Lucroy. I think d'Arnaud has room to further improve on these numbers as he gets more experience and playing time.
I believe that this version of d’Arnaud is the player we will be getting in 2015. Watching d’Arnaud hit post demotion, he has explosive hand and bat speed and makes a lot of hard contact. He also doesn’t swing and miss much which bodes well for his batting average. Hard contact and consistent contact are good things for a hitter, and d'Arnaud does both of these things well.
The one downside to d’Arnaud is that the Mets have a poor lineup and Citi Field is a low run scoring environment, which hurts d’Arnaud’s chances to score runs and knock in base runners. Regardless, I think he will produce very well with his batting average, HR total and OPS, which is extremely valuable at the catcher position. The Mets will also lean on d’Arnaud as one of their best hitters, so he should hit in a favorable spot in the lineup. Some have cited injury concerns with d'Arnaud, which is a legitimate criticism, but I think his injuries have been more related to bad luck.
I think d'Arnaud will be one of the more undervalued players in fantasy drafts in 2015 and wouldn't hesitate to draft him to be your starting catcher.