The Keeper Case for Travis d’Arnaud

The curtain has not yet come down on the 2014 regular season, but if you’re like me, flushed out of the playoffs with not a whole lot to do except look ahead to next year, you’re probably already mulling over your keepers. For me, no one quite draws my eye like Travis d’Arnaud, who I took in the last round of my 12-team, mixed H2H single-catcher league as a stasher and rode through what’s been a roller coaster-like season for him.

A keeper backstop is an uncommon and risky venture. Catchers, after all, get hurt. They don’t steal bases. They don’t hit for a high average. It’s a rare bird who notches more than 20 home runs, and rarer still the ones who knock in more than 80 RBIs. It’s a position that typically offers a terrible return on investment, which makes keepers a premium commodity — especially when they come at a post-hype price tag.

After all, part of what makes the 25-year-old d’Arnaud affordable is how disappointing he had been coming into this year. Losing much of 2013 to a broken bone in his foot, he was promoted to the majors in mid-August and looked thoroughly overmatched, posting a .202/.286/.263 slash line. The foot injury, of course, was just the latest in a series of physical setbacks for the backstop, and as an aging prospect playing a position that has become relatively deep in recent years, his fantasy value plummeted to the point where he had become a fringe option, even in two-catcher leagues, heading into 2014.

By the beginning of June, when he was hitting an abysmal .180 and generally seemed lost at the plate, such sourness certainly was justified. When he was demoted to Triple-A on June 6, his ownership in CBS leagues had plummeted to just 26%.

But right as d’Arnaud’s value cratered, he began to turn things around. Las Vegas manager Wally Backman worked with d’Arnaud to get him to move his back foot closer to the plate to better cover the outer half, and d’Arnaud responded instantly, putting up a 1.384 OPS and .563 wOBA with six home runs and 16 RBIs. That’s some serious production, regardless of the PCL’s reputation for boosting offense, but more than anything, perhaps, is that the 15 games d’Arnaud spent in the minors helped him regain his confidence.

Recalled to New York on June 24, d’Arnaud began hitting immediately. He smashed a three-run homer in his return, reached base safely in his first 14 games back and produced a .795 OPS in July. He added five home runs in August and is batting .317 this month. He became much more successful against both hard stuff and breaking balls, and now hits regularly in the middle of the Mets’ lineup.

PERIOD PA HR RBI BB% K% ISO BABIP AVG OBP SLG wRC+
3/31 – 6/6 145 3 9 11.0 17.2 .094 .200 .180 .271 .273 53
6/24 – 9/20 272 10 32 5.9 14.0 .209 .286 .273 .320 .482 127

Soon after d’Arnaud was recalled, Nicholas Minnix identified a primary reason for his success: a more aggressive approach at the plate. He began swinging a bit more often, and although that’s come at the expense of his walk rate, it also means he’s been pouncing on hittable pitches, which in turn has produced a spike in his line drives.

darnaudzone

Although I’m no expert, I’ve known from my days of playing Ken Griffey Jr. Presents Major League Baseball for Super Nintendo that if you stand closer to the plate, you’ll have better coverage of the outer half, and thus, your ability to pull the ball — and hit for more power — improves significantly. With a nod to outweighed sample size (d’Arnaud now has nearly twice as many plate appearances since his return than he did pre-demotion), we can see the results below:

darnaudspray

To this point, let’s take a look at d’Arnaud abusing this Ervin Santana meatball attempt to tease the outside corner:

DarnaudHR070914santana

If none of this sounds convincing, check the leaderboards. Among qualified catchers in the second half, d’Arnaud ranks fourth in ISO, tied for fourth in home runs, fifth in wRC+ and sixth in wOBA, standing alongside guys like Devin Mesoraco, Buster Posey and Jonathan Lucroy — or, put another way, guys who either won’t be available or truly affordable as keepers for next year. (I’ll also point out here that position stalwarts Joe Mauer and Carlos Santana likely won’t qualify at catcher in most leagues next year.)

To be sure, there are legitimate concerns surrounding d’Arnaud’s ability to stay on the field. He’s suffered four known concussions (including one in May), a minor wrist injury this month, the aforementioned foot injury last year, tore a ligament in his left knee in 2012 and dealt with two bulging discs in his back in 2010. Although d’Arnaud himself rejects the “injury-prone” label, the Mets, supposedly, are toying with the idea of moving him to left field next year as a way to keep his bat in the lineup and clear a spot for Kevin Plawecki behind the dish.

As far as the injuries go, however, I’d argue that all catchers, by nature, are injury risks; Posey, Lucroy, Evan Gattis, Yadier Molina, Salvador Perez and Matt Wieters have all had seasons in the past three years in which they missed significant time, and d’Arnaud is on pace to play a full season for the first time since 2011. Besides, even if he truly is a health risk, he’ll probably be cheap enough where one could afford to draft a handcuff in single-catcher leagues anyway.

And that’s the point: we’re talking about a guy who is still growing into his ceiling as a former top prospect with 20-home-run upside, who likely comes at a dirt-cheap cost in many leagues and satisfies one of the scarcer positions in fantasy. That’s a combination we don’t see often enough in keeper leagues, one that’s worth a gamble even in standard mixed formats.

We hoped you liked reading The Keeper Case for Travis d’Arnaud by Karl de Vries!

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Karl, a journalist living in Washington, D.C., learned about life's disappointments by following the Mets beginning at a young age. His work has appeared in numerous publications, and he has contributed to the 2014 and 2015 editions of The Hardball Times Annual. Follow/harass him on Twitter @Karl_de_Vries.

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Brad Johnson
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Probably not the response you’re looking for, but I had the home run derby song from that Ken Griffey stuck in my head the other day. I hadn’t thought about the game for about a decade at least!