When the Braves signed Travis d’Arnaud to a two-year, $16 million deal last offseason, the reaction was much more “yeah, okay” than “this is awesome!” The former top prospect was great in 2014-2015 with the Mets, but was much more injured and inconsistent afterwards, putting up 2.4 fWAR in 668 PAs in 2016, 2017, and 2018 combined. His 2019 ended up being a bizarre saga that ended happily:
- the Mets waffled on tendering him a contract, but eventually did so, only to DFA him before April ended;
- d’Arnaud went unclaimed and the Dodgers then signed him, but used him for a single PA as a pinch-hitter;
- and then they traded him to the Rays for cash, less than two weeks since his DFA.
- d’Arnaud was then pretty decent for the Rays, putting up 1.8 fWAR in 365 PAs.
All in all, d’Arnaud’s 2019 resulted in league-average walk and strikeout rates that combined with an elevated ability to barrel the ball to render him an interesting but not mind-blowing free agent target. There was definitely an opportunity there, as evidenced by d’Arnaud’s .338 xwOBA relative to his .314 wOBA, but his addition was more a steady-as-she-goes maintenance move than anything else... at least until 2020 actually rolled around.
What went right? Honestly, pretty much everything. It’s hard to say that d’Arnaud “broke out,” given that he had been great half a decade ago, so “went berserk for 44 games” might be more like it. After missing a few games early in the year due to pandemic-related precautions, d’Arnaud just socked the snot out of the ball over and over and over. He finished the season with a career-high 145 wRC+ and was essentially one of the best hitters in baseball. Seriously.
- Among players with 100+ batted balls, he was fourth in average exit velocity, behind just Fernando Tatis Jr., Christian Yelich, and Mike Trout.
- He was second in the rate of batted balls hit at 95+ mph, behind only Tatis. He was one of just 14 players who hit a ball 95+ mph over half the time they made contact and put it in play.
- Even though he outhit his xwOBA by .016, his xwOBA alone put him in the top 30 in baseball among players with 100+ PAs.
I mean, really, who expected this out of a guy who came into the season with basically a league-average batting line?
The performance led to d’Arnaud being essentially granted primary catcher status partway through the season, and the Braves rode him the entire postseason. He responded by putting up a 129 wRC+ in 50 PAs, not missing much of a beat. His xwOBA in the playoffs actually increased up to .391; the only reason his batting line was worse was just due to the usual variation on ball-in-play stuff.
When you’re raking, your season is pretty much not going to be devoid of big hits. d’Arnaud provided these in spades, as well. The first and easily most memorable of these was his annihilation of the team that ignominiously released him just a season ago:
That hit capped an insane, improbable comeback (imagine winning 11-10 with no homers hit!) and was his third hit, and fourth time reaching base, in the game.
There was also, y’know, this — which put an exclamation point on another Braves comeback, this time in Game 1 of the NLDS:
Look, let’s put it this way: let’s say that somehow d’Arnaud just Rip Van Winkle’d his way through an actual 162-game 2020 season, and earned his full salary, while only appearing in the same 44 games. Even if that were the case, and he just slept through all of 2021 as well, he’s probably broken even on his full contract (1.6 fWAR means somewhere around $13M-$14M depending on where you peg the price of WAR). In short, he was amazing. The deal has turned out amazing. It was perhaps supposed to be a maintenance move, but it ended up being a gigantic part of the Braves’ 2020 success. Well done, everyone. High fives all around. You know the scene in Apollo 13 where everyone is real happy? That was d’Arnaud’s 2020 season.
What went wrong? Not much, really. There are things people might complain about, but the complaints don’t really make sense.
One thing, perhaps, was d’Arnaud elevated strikeout and whiff rate. Over his career, d’Arnaud has struck out at around a league-average rate, with whiff rates right around there. In 2020, he fell to the last quartile of both. While this is definitely a thing that happened, it’s not really an issue — you would and should trade his increase in offensive inputs and outputs for that elevated strikeout and whiff rate, so long as he can sustain it. There are some small concerns that his z-contact rate is declining, and has declined year-over-year consistently since 2016. However, most of the strikeout/whiff increase actually came because he was missing pitches outside the zone. This is not much of an issue at all, because (1) his chase rate didn’t increase much if at all, and (2) you don’t necessarily want to make contact on those pitches anyway, especially not to put them in play for a fairly likely out. As d’Arnaud also hit pretty well against every pitch category (his lowest xwOBA-against on a pitch was .309, which is phenomenal for a lowest-among-pitches mark), there’s no evidence he was being exploited by anything in particular. He was just swinging super-hard and hitting it super-hard, and if that came with some whiffs, oh well.
Another potential complaint was him not contributing too much via framing. This, too, is a non-concern. While d’Arnaud’s comparative framing contributions (he was a fantastic relative framer for a while) have declined (-2 framing runs in 2019 per Baseball Savant; +0.6 per the Fangraphs/Jared Cross method), there didn’t seem to be much issue there in 2020, as he was probably average at worst. It’s also hard to say anything about 2020 framing with certainty, given the weirdness of the season (more on that later). In any case, it wasn’t a value suck, and fears that his framing might decline further didn’t make themselves manifest, at least not so far.
Lastly, there was some criticism that d’Arnaud wore down in October, especially given the Braves’ decision to start him in every game. That’s a big workload for a catcher! But, this doesn’t really hold. While d’Arnaud’s xwOBA did drop to around .300 during the NLCS (his wOBA was even lower, but again, that’s not really his fault), it was actually very high in Games 5 and 6, so “wearing down” doesn’t really seem to describe the phenomenon. It was probably just a few bad games, which isn’t weird for anyone. He had a similarly weak seven-game stretch to close out August and in the first few days of September. It’s just the sort of thing that happens with some regularity.
One missed opportunity for d’Arnaud over 2020 was his batted ball profile, relative to how hard he hit the ball. d’Arnaud did a great job hitting balls on a line, but his radial angles tended to err on the side of hitting the ball low rather than high in a way that was never true previously. This was hardly a problem, but it signals a way that he can straight-up wreck opposing pitching in 2021, if he keeps his exit velocity/hard-hit gains, but translates some of his grounders into liners and some of his liners into fly balls. But even if he doesn’t, his gains in hitting the ball hard should keep him a fearsome adversary for the Braves’ rivals. (Among the top 30 hitters in 2020 by xwOBA, d’Arnaud was one of only a couple in each case with a low average launch angle, high grounder rate, and low fly ball rate to his extent).
If we’re talking specific low points, I’d offer the following:
On September 7, d’Arnaud came to the plate with the bases loaded in the ninth and a tie game. He did this:
The Braves lost in the tenth. d’Arnaud had actually gone 1-for-3 with a single and a walk before that unfortunate ball in play, so even his worst game of the season, WPA-wise wasn’t entirely unproductive.
d’Arnaud also ended up having an annoying Game 7 of the NLCS, which netted him his fifth-worst WPA game of the season (-.160) and a whopping -.0838 cWPA. He went 0-for-4 and hit into a double play in the first inning with men on first and second and none out, which was a top-10 WPA swing of that game, despite it coming in the first inning.
Outlook for 2021: As with basically everyone, it’s hard to take d’Arnaud’s performance in a 60-game season to heart. Should it factor into expectations? Sure! But it probably shouldn’t establish some kind of new expectation baseline, especially given that he really only played in 44 of those games. He had similar (and even better) 44-game stretches in terms of wOBA) in 2015 and 2019, and in both cases, his wOBA immediately afterwards slid into the league-average-or-below range.
In any case, he seems like a safe bet to provide something like 3 WAR per 600 PAs (perhaps higher) for the second and final year of his contract with the Braves. That seems like a strong starting point for the Braves at the catcher position next year, perhaps so much so that they may forgo the “veteran catching tandem” stratagem that they’ve employed since 2015 and just pair d’Arnaud with Alex Jackson, William Contreras, and (eventually?) Shea Langeliers to save some spending money in the immediate future. We’ll see. I’m not sure how much of an avenue to racking up massive framing value d’Arnaud has anymore, so it seems like his bat is probably going to be the big anchor point of his 2021 value, and he’s got a great foundation to build on... provided he can carry at least some of his 2020 mashing over across the offseason.