While he has dealt with injuries, when he is on the field he has been one of the best catchers in MLB. Since the start of 2020, d’Arnaud is sixth among catchers in fWAR while ranking just 26th in games played. If we look at fWAR per 162 games played, d’Arnaud ranks fourth in all of MLB for catchers during that span.
Initially, the Atlanta Braves signed d’Arnaud to a two-year contract that guaranteed him $16 million in November 2019. Then, in August 2021 the Braves extended him to a new two-year contract which also guaranteed him $16 million.
What were the expectations?
According to ZiPS, via Fangraphs Travis d’Arnaud was projected to have a slash line of .246/.307/.407 with an eighty-five OPS+ (fifteen percent below average) and 0.7 WAR.
These projections already seemed low, considering his history since the start of 2020. The overall WAR projection is low due to ZiPS projecting only 296 plate appearances, but d’Arnaud had a serious xwOBA-underperforming year in 2021, and had hit much better in terms of both batting inputs and outputs the two seasons prior. The idea that he could only muster a half-season doesn’t seem strange, and didn’t at the time, but other projection systems had d’Arnaud more in the “solid half-time regular” range, i.e., between 1.0 and 1.5 WAR in a half-season.
As far as overall gameplay, d’Arnaud had arguably the best season of his career in terms of total value added, with his highest fWAR of his career: 3.9. d’Arnaud’s 2020 offensive rate stats were better (144 wRC+), but as we know, it was a shortened season, making higher rate stats easier to maintain. (He also had a better batting line in 2015, but that was ages ago, and also over just 268 PAs.)
Travis d’Arnaud ended the 2022 season with a slash line of .268/.319/.472, which equated to a wRC+ of 120. That seems pretty exciting and really helped drive his bus towards the 4 WAR mark, but it came with a pretty giant xwOBA overperformance: .313 xwOBA, .343 wOBA. In other words, his inputs were pretty average-y, but boy did he benefit from balls missing gloves.
That good fortune aside, the biggest boon for d’Arnaud was arguably his defense. Ever since working with erstwhile backstop Tyler Flowers when d’Arnaud joined the Braves, his defense has rebounded substantially. Back in his younger, 2014-2017 days, he also racked up tons of framing value, but that dried up as injuries seemed to take their toll. However, over the last three years, he’s rediscovered that skillset and used it to rack up value once more.
What went right? What went wrong?
A lot of things went right for d’Arnaud in 2022, which is pretty easy to tell with his overall slash line, and defensive numbers.
One thing that went right, perhaps unexpectedly: he got better against the running game. While +1 rSB (runs above average at preventing stolen bases) is nothing to write home about, it was the first time in his career that he actually posted a positive mark in this metric.
Another useful bit of production: among hitters who saw as many plate appearances as d’Arnaud had against a curveball he was 16th among all hitters in xwOBA against them.
As far as what went wrong, he did deal with injuries again. He dealt with a forearm injury in June, and a leg injury in August. Fortunately, the Braves have had a history of having a solid catching corps, and William Contreras stepped up in a big way.
d’Arnaud’s peripherals did not look particularly great in 2022. His average exit velocity, hard-hit rate, xwOBA, and xBA were all in the bottom fifty percent of the league or worse. Why did things look somewhat grim? Well, the biggest downfall for d’Arnaud this year is that his walk rate of 4.5 percent was by far the worst of his career, and in the bottom nine percent of MLB. To put it in perspective, his second-worst walk rate was 6.1 percent way back in 2017. Okay, so why was the walk rate so low? Partially because he started chasing like crazy. He chased pitches outside of the strike zone at a higher rate than eighty-seven percent of the league, while swinging and missing on all pitches (inside and outside of the zone) at a higher rate than sixty-three percent of MLB. He actually posted an elevated o-contact rate relative to the recent past, which depressed his quality of contact.
From a process perspective, when d’Arnaud had his mini-breakout in 2020 (.386 xwOBA, .504 xwOBACON!!!!), it came as a result of taking to the Braves’ approach like a fish to water. He stopped worrying about contact and just swung as hard as he could, posting career-low contact rates but obliterating the ball when he connected. For whatever reason, he wheeled the other way in 2021, going away from the Braves’ approach and prioritizing contact over power. He seemed to protect the zone (perhaps unnecessarily) more frequently, and his quality of contact dried up. His overall xwOBA wasn’t awful, more like average, because his walk, strikeout, and barrel rates all ended up average despite the propensity towards worse contact, but it was still disappointing to see. Then, in 2022, perhaps seeking to re-adjust, he got way more aggressive... just at the wrong pitches. The approach seemed to be one wheeling back to what he did in 2020, but the strike zone recognition wasn’t there.
Perhaps the irony there is that 2022 just repaid d’Arnaud for 2021. In 2021, he had a woeful .291 wOBA to go with an average-y .312 xwOBA, which gave him just 0.6 fWAR, his lowest in a season with more than 112 PAs for his career. In 2022, despite battling different issues than in 2021, he outhit his same-ish xwOBA by the same rate as he underhit it in 2021, giving him a career year. Go figure.
d’Arnaud also struggled on the base paths, which was a theme for the Braves being ranked 23rd among all teams in Fangraphs’ all-encompassing BsR metric with -10.2 runs. If we look at just d’Arnaud, he had a BsR of -3.6 all by himself. This number was also the worst of his career. The second-worst year of his career was back in 2014 when he had -2.9. He was slow on the bases, and his propensity for weak contact made him an easy double play candidate, hence the poor mark.
On the flip side, d’Arnaud was arguably one of the best hitters on the team in the (short, for the Braves) postseason. In four games and sixteen plate appearances he had an exceptional .375/.375/.938 slash line with two HRs and three doubles.
As far as moments of d’Arnaud’s 2022, probably none are more memorable than when the former Met Metsed the Mets at Citi Field. As great evidence of his blessed season, d’Arnaud swung at a pitch he had no business swinging at, and somehow turned it into a incredibly-weak-but-fruitful game-tying double. Two innings later, with the Braves now leading, he hit another flare down the line that extended the lead to three runs. What a day.
There was also this mammoth blast off Kyle Hendricks, with d’Arnaud showing what his approach was still capable of yielding if he actually took advantage of a strike and not something that he should’ve spit on:
Of course, that chasing led to some real issues at times. Here was d’Arnaud’s worst-WPA play of the year, a strikeout in a key situation at a pitch that really was quite high (and hard, and hard to hit when it’s that hard and that high).
2023 is going to be interesting for d’Arnaud. It will be a contract year for him, and some research shows a slight bump, on average, for player performance in contract years. That said, 2024 will not be d’Arnaud’s first trip to free agency, and he is getting up in age (he will be 34 in 2023).
His peripherals show that d’Arnaud is in line for some regression in 2023. However, even if he regresses some offensively, he has re-emerged as a strong defensive catcher. With his floor being high due to defense, we should expect to see d’Arnaud still provide plenty of value to the Atlanta Braves.
Prior to the Sean Murphy blockbuster, we could have said that with William Contreras and Manny Piña in the mix, d’Arnaud projected to have tons of opportunities to rest when he needed it to stay fresh, and hopefully keep the wear-and-tear to a minimum. Even though the depth is not there anymore, Murphy is younger, an elite defender and will most likely get more innings behind the plate. So, the idea is still the same. d’Arnaud will most likely get less time behind the dish, but may not lose many at bats due to the NL having a permanent DH — though whether this is going to benefit the Braves in lieu of another option remains to be seen. Considering his injury history, d’Arnaud not having to be the primary defensive catcher could go a long way in keeping him healthy.
This is not to say d’Arnaud will be the primary DH. He still can hold his own behind the plate. In today’s MLB the era of a true primary DH is quickly fading. The Braves will most likely use the DH slot to keep players rested and have flexibility in its starting lineup.
Overall, Steamer seems fairly cool on d’Arnaud at present, projecting 1.4 WAR in around 400 PAs. This seems to price in a fair bit of DH work along with an average batting line — which is immensely valuable for a catcher and immensely awful for a DH. Something more akin to a two-win guy over a half-season, assuming he is part of more of a timeshare and doesn’t eat tons of the DH penalty over the course of the season, seems reasonable as well if the Braves opt not to make d’Arnaud a semi-fixture at DH.
Time will tell what 2023 will hold for d’Arnaud, but one thing is for sure. The Atlanta Braves once again will be coming out of the gate with an elite mix at the catcher position.