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Will Travis d’Arnaud get enough playing time in 2020?

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Heath examines Travis d’Arnaud’s catching situation with a fantasy baseball slant.

Tampa Bay Rays s v Boston Red Sox Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

Earlier this week I discussed the 230 to 250 range at catcher, and how it was my preference to find a catcher in this area. My preference would be to pair one of these guys with J.T. Realmuto, if I got my every wish. If I missed on Realmuto, my preference would be Salvador Perez and one of these guys. And if I was in a shallow league with only one catcher spot, I think I’m fine landing my one guy in this range if I miss out on Realmuto and Perez.

Anyway, these are the catchers being drafted around this time: Carson Kelly, Sean Murphy, Yadier Molina, Francisco Mejia, Travis d’Arnaud, and Tom Murphy.

For me, Kelly is my clear target, but he’s also a target for many and his price should be higher than the rest of this cluster. With Molina I get some boring production, and with Mejia there is still uncertainty regarding playing time and defense (which could limit his at-bats). Neither is a current target of mine, unless I’m chasing big upside (then I’d be okay with Mejia).

Long story short, I’d like to figure out this Sean Murphy-Travis d’Arnaud-Tom Murphy grouping, and I chose to dig into d’Arnaud a bit more. So come along with me as I decide in real time how I’m feeling about him for this year.

Batting Average

Travis d’Arnaud has BABIPs all over the map, but has a career .270 BABIP and career .246 batting average. His .262 xBA last year was exactly 50th percentile, and his actual batting average was .251 (only a few points off of his career mark). He has a career .250 xBA and the MLB average is .251. So let’s just say d’Arnaud is exactly average when it comes to...average.

Runs and RBIs (team context)

The Braves run totals and ranks over the last three years: 732 (20th), 759 (10th), 855 (7th)
The Braves RBI totals and ranks over the last three years: 706 (19th), 717 (11th), 824 (6th)

Travis d’Arnaud is being drafted around the likes of Francisco Mejia, Tom Murphy, Buster Posey, and Danny Jansen. Of those four players’ respective teams, no team finished higher than 20th in runs scored in 2019. None of those teams finished better than 19th in RBIs, either. So for any of those team contexts to suddenly rival d’Arnaud’s, we’d need to see a ton of growth (like we could perhaps assume with San Diego) or a big step back from Atlanta (which seems unlikely).

Batting order slots could also play a role. Mejia is slated to bat sixth, but still has defensive wiz Austin Hedges to contend with. Tom Murphy is slated to bat cleanup and has only a little competition in the form of Austin Nola, but the Mariners are clearly a team lacking in run-scoring ability. Posey is projected in the two-hole for the Giants, but that’s a poor-looking offense in a poor home park (not to mention a punch-less Posey). Danny Jansen will need to fend off Reese McGuire, who is actually projected to start ahead of Jansen to begin 2019. Roster Resource isn’t the gospel truth, but d’Arnaud’s situation seems superior to this lot. But for my general knowledge, let’s scope out the recent Braves’ catcher pairings:

ATL Catchers

Year Catchers (PA) Catchers (Runs) Catchers (RBIs)
Year Catchers (PA) Catchers (Runs) Catchers (RBIs)
2019 McCann (316), Flowers (310) Mac (28), Flowers (36) Mac (45), Flowers (34)
2018 Suzuki (388), Flowers (296) Suzuki (45), Flowers (34) Suzuki (50), Flowers (30)
2017 Flowers (370), Suzuki (309) Flowers (41), Suzuki (38) Flowers (49), Suzuki (50)
2016 Flowers (325), Pierzynski (259) Flowers (27), AJ (15) Flowers (41), AJ (23)
2015 Pierzynski (436), Bethancourt (160) AJ (38), Bethancourt (16) AJ (49), Bethancourt (12)

There are some injuries baked into here, but I still wanted to get a sense of the playing time split, as well as the range of outcomes for d’Arnaud. For instance, Bethancourt’s 160 PA is well below what I’d expect from a healthy Flowers. Bethancourt was HOPELESS in 2015, slashing .200/.225/.290 with a .223 wOBA and whopping 35 wRC+. Flowers would have to lose an extremity to be that bad.

Speaking of Flowers, he’s now seen fewer at-bats than wily veterans Brian McCann and Kurt Suzuki over the last two seasons. Flowers is now 34 years old, and the Braves didn’t just pay the 30-year-old d’Arnaud to sit on the bench. Over the last two years, the split has been roughly 55/45...so I think a solid outlook for d’Arnaud is seeing 55% of the at-bats. I see no reason why the younger and more productive player wouldn’t get the larger share, barring injury.

That percentage means d’Arnaud needs to land around the 375 PA mark (based on recent history) to garner around 55% of the at-bats. So I researched the last three years and the amount of backstops who had at least that many opportunities each year, just to see how that level of opportunity would stack up (and if finishing as a Top 10 or 12 catcher seems feasible for d’Arnaud). Here are the number of catchers to reach 375 PA by year:

2019: 16 (d’Arnaud was one of the 16, at 391)
2018: 18 (Suzuki’s 388 PA ranked 18th)
2017: 19 (Flowers’ 370 ranked 20th)
2016: 18 (The number 375 would have ranked 19th)
2015: 21 (375 ranked 20th)

That’s about as far back as I care to go. I think we get a good sense of it. There aren’t tons of catchers reaching my (somewhat) arbitrary 375 PA mark. And d’Arnaud himself was at nearly 400 last year. This does solidify to me that d’Arnaud’s ceiling is capped, though, barring an injury to Tyler Flowers. He’s simply not slated to see a huge volume of at-bats, not with Tyler Flowers around. He’ll need to produce in a smaller number of opportunities. But the good news is that he’s shown the skills to do so, and we’ve seen that come to fruition from Braves catchers in recent years.

In our staff rankings, d’Arnaud checked in at 13th, and that feels about right. It’s possible he can finish higher, but it doesn’t seem wise to project tons of volume onto him given the recent usage of catchers by Atlanta. For what it’s worth, d’Arnaud has reached that 375 PA mark three times in his career, with two of those times coming in the last three years. His home run counts in those years are 13, 16, and 16. So as a rough projection right now we could see a .250 BA and 15 homers...right? The 13 home runs came as a member of the Mets, so I think it’s fair to call that the absolute rock bottom floor projection for him—while 15+ sounds more realistic. That’s not too shabby once you add in that he’ll likely bat sixth in the order for a Top 10 (or better) offense.

Home Runs (park factors via Pitcher List)

The shift from Tropicana Field to SunTrust Park would seem to be a good one, except that recent work from within the industry points to SunTrust Park being far less friendly to pulled homers by right-handed bats than to left-handed bats (major shouts to Alex Fast and all the folks over at Pitcher List for all their work on barrels and park factors). Seriously, go read the article. I won’t ruin it for you. But here’s my rudimentary take:

As a Braves fan, I know that Suntrust plays way better for lefties (hellooooo, Freddie Freeman). However, knowing how SunTrust compares to Tropicana on the RHH chart was pretty exciting. Atlanta’s home park ranks dead last at 30th on the RHH chart, while the Trop actually ranked third among all MLB parks for RHH, behind only Minute Maid Park and the Great American Ball Park of Cincinnati. That’s quite the discrepancy, and another reason to temper expectations a bit with regard to home runs in d’Arnaud’s new locale. For giggles, Citi Field was 9th on the RHH chart. Maybe the Steamer projection of 13 homers isn’t low, after all.

Lastly, d’Arnaud’s better split was against lefties last year, but he went oppo 30.5% of the time in that split. Among catchers with 100 PA or more against southpaws last year (a sample size of 21), only Buster Posey (32.7%) went oppo more than d’Arnaud (30.5%). So perhaps there’s a little room for some oppo tacos in d’Arnaud’s repertoire in 2020. But I don’t think this is moving the needle very far.

Conclusion

Initially I was pretty excited about d’Arnaud’s chances in Atlanta to grab the lion’s share of the job. However, upon further review the split looks much closer to even than I’d like for it to be. I absolutely think he’ll be a quality catcher in two-catcher formats, and I think he can even finish as a Top 10 or 12 guy with what looks like a middling amount of opportunity compared to some of the catchers being drafted ahead of him. At their respective ADPs, I think I lean more towards Tom Murphy given that he appears to have the bulk of at-bats locked up, and that he should bat higher in the order. So for now, I rank them Murphy-d’Arnaud-Murphy (Sean). I still think this is a great place to draft, as even d’Arnaud is typically the 16th catcher off the boards. For my part, I think you can turn a profit on him...I just don’t think it will be massive. What say you all? Any insight into this tier?