A More Aggressive Travis d’Arnaud

It seems to be fair to say that most fantasy baseball gamers didn’t have high expectations for Travis d’Arnaud this season. The New York Mets’ backstop went undrafted in nearly all rotisserie and head-to-head leagues at Yahoo! and ESPN. His CBS ownership rate in the first week of the season was 63%. I surmise that the numbers basically placed him near the fringe of indifference in two-catcher mixed leagues, where he still resides, for the most part.

I thought that it was a tad surprising. Granted, d’Arnaud slashed .202/.286/.263 in the 112 plate appearances that made up his MLB debut in 2013, but peripheral numbers suggested that his control of the strike zone was good. His bat speed is considered top-notch. Plus, he was still a top prospect. Most who do the fantasy thing like prospects, don’t they? I don’t have and didn’t want any shares then, but I figured that someone did.

Either way, at the All-Star break, widespread skepticism appears to have been justified. He’s slashed .217/.292/.354 in 210 plate appearances. According to ESPN’s Player Rater and Yahoo!’s ranks, he falls outside the top 30 players who qualify at catcher in mixed leagues. He’s 63rd in offensive WAR among all those who don the tools of ignorance, according to FanGraphs.

The Metropolitans were obviously aware of d’Arnaud’s continued struggles at the dish, so they sent him to Triple-A Las Vegas in early June. They hoped that he’d find the missing link. He slashed .436/.475/.909 in 59 plate appearances. Mission accomplished?

The Pacific Coast League and, in particular, Vegas, with its dry desert air, are about the last places on the planet at which observers can tell anything about a hitter’s development based on his numbers. The 25-year-old was with the 51s for just a couple of weeks. What changed so much for the better in such a relatively short amount of time? We discussed d’Arnaud in the podcast a few weeks ago. We agreed that this recess alone hardly seemed like enough to fix a hitter with plus power but flawed plate discipline.

I did caution, though: If part of the directive to him had been to take the bat off his shoulder more often, then perhaps there was reason to follow this story. As a minor leaguer, d’Arnaud didn’t walk at a rate that reached double digits until 2013, when the sample sizes were small and just before he’d made his first trip to The Show. He missed more than three months that year because he fouled a ball off his left foot and fractured a bone or bones in it. It’s possible that he never got into a rhythm at the plate, but he stuck with that less aggressive mindset. Prior to his demotion in 2014, he’d been notably more patient, for lack of a better term for his approach, in the major leagues than he was throughout his time on the farm. His stay at Vegas, on the other hand, came with a reduced walked rate (5.1%). Having said all that, I wasn’t especially hopeful.

Silly us. The time away for d’Arnaud has paid off, so far.

Before demotion 145 .180 .271 .273 .544 .094 11.0% 17.2%
After demotion 65 .295 .338 .525 .863 .230 6.2% 20.0%

The Mets had in fact encouraged him to be more aggressive. But that wasn’t all. Sure, they’d hoped for the proverbial rediscovery of his confidence. That’d come mostly from a greater understanding of his process, one about which both he and the Mets believed he’d begun to think too much. It’s unclear whether he did so of his own volition or because of a suggestion, but he also stands closer to the plate. And, yes, he began to swing more often.

Those things show up in the numbers, albeit in a pretty small post-demotion sample size. The 2014 swing rate of d’Arnaud has advanced 49.4%. His walk rate since his recall is similar to those he posted in the minor leagues.

There are potential negative repercussions to d’Arnaud’s altered approach. They come mostly in the way of batting average risk, naturally. But we’re OK with that, aren’t we? He regularly posted averages above .300 on the farm, but the scouting reports and his advanced marks indicated that such levels were unlikely in the bigs. The good news is that he’s finally unveiled the makings of 20- to 25-homer power!

I had strong doubts about whether d’Arnaud would be worth ownership in mixed leagues for any significant stretch this season. There would be the occasional hot streak, but not enough to make me curious. Well, call my interest piqued, by the end of June. It feels dirty to type this, but Carlos Ruiz’s concussion came at a convenient time for me in the Mixed Tout Wars Draft league, a 15-team setup. I was eager to give d’Arnaud a test run because someone in that league had lost some hope after the croucher was demoted.

His run won’t remain this good. But I encourage others in two-catcher mixed leagues – 10-team versions is pushing it, although I won’t rule it out – to pick up d’Arnaud. He’s more interesting than at least a couple of the options in the Brad Guzan tier of my latest catcher rankings, I think. I’m usually willing to settle for my No. 2 backstop, if I find one who can provide 16 to 18 home runs (prorated), even if I have to sacrifice some batting average or on-base percentage.

He’s not a lock to hit 10 more bombs. But his fly-ball percentage has steadily risen this year and sits at a healthy 42.7%. I think the four for which both ZiPS and Steamer, rest of season, have d’Arnaud projected is easily beatable now. I’ll take that .236 to .245 average along with the chance that he belts 10 more, as long as the signs for his rediscovered power remain present, too.

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Nicholas Minnix oversaw baseball content for six years at KFFL, where he held the loose title of Managing Editor for seven and a half before he joined FanGraphs. He played in both Tout Wars and LABR from 2010 through 2014. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasMinnix.

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I snatched him up right around his call-up due to the Carlos Ruiz injury. I’m pretty happy so far. I have a fairly strong team overall and I’m basically just looking for my C to not mess up my rate stats, so I’m comfortable even if he struggles again. It’s a good position for me to take a risk.