Ostensibly a leader in the clubhouse, Travis d’Arnaud has been a key part of the organization since he came on board in 2020. Though his offensive outputs fell apart amid injuries, he continued to play a key role for the club. Though the Sean Murphy trade and extension relegated d’Arnaud to a timeshare-type role, he still got plenty of playing time and even hit a key postseason homer in 2023.
The Braves initially signed d’Arnaud to a two-year, $16 million deal ahead of the 2020 season. Towards the conclusion of that deal, they then extended him for another two years and $16 million, with a club option for the 2024 season. But, before even exercising that option, they extended him in the middle of the 2023 season for yet another $8 million annual salary, this time with another $8 million option for 2025.
What were the expectations?
d’Arnaud had a pretty insane short season in 2020 when he first came aboard, putting up a 144 wRC+ that only slightly outhit his xwOBA in 184 PAs. He transitioned his approach to the Braves’ preferred “swing incredibly hard in case you hit it” tactic, and it paid massive dividends. Since then, in 2021 and 2022, d’Arnaud ran consistent, league average-ish inputs, with wildly variable outputs: in 2021 he substantially underhit his xwOBA and spent much of the year injured, so that he collected just 0.6 fWAR in 229 PAs; in 2022, he massively outhit his xwOBA and notched a 4.0 fWAR season over 426 PAs as Atlanta’s primary catcher.
Put all this together with the fact that the Braves acquired Sean Murphy to man the catcher position, and d’Arnaud was in a weird place. He clearly seemed like a 4 WAR-ish catcher if playing over a full-season, but given that he was expected to be in a time share, it seemed like he’d be more of a 2 WAR-over-half-a-season-guy, and that’s pretty much where projections had him. Having a well-above-average player as your timeshare partner at a position is an incredible luxury, and it was one the Braves sallied forth with.
Playing time-wise, d’Arnaud really did basically serve as a half-time role, but it happened in strange fashion. First, he suffered a concussion early in April and missed about a month. But, after he returned, he played around one out of every three games early on, and entered more of a every-other-day rotation with Sean Murphy down the stretch. So, d’Arnaud did get 292 PAs in the end, with two-thirds of those coming in the combination of June, August, and September.
In total, d’Arnaud’s season was a disappointment, as he managed just 0.9 fWAR after a 4.0 fWAR season in 2022. But, it largely wasn’t his fault, as he underhit a well-above-average xwOBA of .330 with a wOBA of .297 (83 wRC+). Defensively, he continued his run of above-average framing.
What went right?
Overall, it’s hard to be too upset given that d’Arnaud still provided average-ish production despite the wOBA-xwOBA gap. And, his xwOBA was more than fine, clocking in above his career mark. He continued to provide quality defense, too.
This will be covered in greater detail below, but despite suffering a concussion, d’Arnaud actually had a 127 wRC+ through the All-Star Break, with a nearly-evenly-matched .366 wOBA and .370 xwOBA. He was clearly capable of raking for an extended period, even without regular playing time, as he showed through the first chunk of the 2023 campaign.
For someone that really only got into a game half the time, d’Arnaud had plenty of great moments to choose from. There was his game against the Pirates on August 8, where he hit three doubles, including a game-tying two-run double early, and a ninth-inning one against David Bednar that put the tying and go-ahead runs into scoring position. On April 6, he had a game-tying hit in the eighth that set up a walkoff win:
And, of course, he took Zack Wheeler deep in the NLDS, setting up the Braves’ only win of that series:
What went wrong?
d’Arnaud’s production completely cratered after the All-Star Break, unfortunately. Nor was this entirely a matter of xwOBA underperformance, as d’Arnaud’s xwOBA in the season’s “second half” was just .285 (his wOBA was a much worse .231, hence the end-of-season gap). His monthly xwOBAs from July through September were each between .280 and .310.
All of this was a bit strange to see, because d’Arnaud received regular playing time down the stretch, and was further removed from his early-season concussion. The issues seemed to stem from a chase rate that ballooned in the season’s second half, but probably shouldn’t be a huge concern going forward because d’Arnaud has had lots of elevated chase rate periods and done just fine. If anything, some unexpected extra contact on those chases may have been what ended PAs too early and knocked down his contact quality in that span.
That said, there were definitely some rough games here and there. July 31, towards the beginning of his second-half slide, stands out: d’Arnaud hit into a double play with none out in the second, and then made the last out of the sixth when down by two and the bases loaded, in addition to two other outs. He also had this happen to him before Eddie Rosario’s amazing grand slam, setting up the latter’s chance to be a hero but losing it for himself:
d’Arnaud will return for his age-35 season for the final year of his latest deal with the Braves. Will the Braves give him another $8 million annual salary later? Stay tuned. Also stay tuned for how the Braves will end up using him and Sean Murphy going forward, which remains quite an open question after 2023 and d’Arnaud starting half of the team’s games in the playoffs.
Projections-wise, Steamer seems fairly down on d’Arnaud, seeing him as a below-average bat and defender, perhaps given his age. Its point estimate is 1.3 WAR over 325 PAs for him. ZiPS sees a point estimate more in line with what we’ve seen from d’Arnaud to date, an average-y batting line and somewhat above-average defense, adding up to an estimate of 1.6 WAR over 311 PAs.