Braves: Can Travis d’Arnaud duplicate his 2020 success over a full season?

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Last season was a weird year in baseball as numerous players posted extreme numbers, thanks to the small sample size of playing less than 40% of a full regular-season schedule. Some players finished the year with way better stats than usual, while others ended up on the opposite end of the spectrum and concluded the 2020 campaign much worse. One guy who fits the former of those two scenarios is Braves catcher Travis d’Arnaud, who had a career year a season ago. 

 

With 1.6 fWAR in 2020 (good for 3rd-most WAR in MLB), d’Arnaud broke out and became one of the major’s top-five hitting catchers. A .321 AVG, .386 OBP, .533 SLG%, and a 144 wRC+ were just a few marks he’d previously never been able to accomplish. But in a whacky shortened season, d’Arnaud was an offensive force that helped make up Atlanta’s prolific lineup. 

Braves hitting ranks (d’Arnaud)

  • .321 AVG — 3rd
  • .212 ISO — 5th
  • .386 OBP — 3rd
  • .533 SLG — 4th
  • 144 wRC+ — 4th
  • 1.6 fWAR — 5th
  • 57.8 Hard% — 1st

On a $16 million contract, earning just $8 million in 2020 (as well as ’21), d’Arnaud provided so much value for the Braves at the catcher position that it’s becoming more and more likely the team opts NOT to re-sign former starter and last year’s back-up Tyler Flowers. That means for 2021 — all reps will go to d’Arnaud. 

Can he match what he did last season? Probably not. But that doesn’t mean d’Arnaud didn’t make legitimate improvements at the plate in 2020 that could very well continue into this season.

 

What the projections say

Averaging d’Arnaud’s Steamer and Depth Charts fWAR projections (found at FanGraphs), even with a rather substantial amount of regression relative to last year, the two systems still combine to see d’Arnaud putting together the third-best season of his 8-year career in 2021, at 2.3 WAR. Even ZiPS — a more widely used projection in the industry and much more conservative system — has him essentially matching his 2019 campaign, when he hit .251 with 16 home runs (98 wRC+), tallying 1.6 WAR. The good news is all three projections illustrate not just a realistic expectation for d’Arnaud, but a solid 2021 season, and the Braves should be more than satisfied with a .250 AVG / 15-20 HR performance from their catcher, no matter how good he was the season prior. 

Travis d’Arnaud (2021 projections)

Steamer: .262 AVG, 18 HR, 98 wRC+, 2.4 WAR

DC: .263 AVG, 18 HR, 97 wRC+, 2.2 WAR

ZiPS: .264 AVG, 16 HR, 96 wRC+, 1.6 WAR

The three projections above are all based on d’Arnaud getting roughly 430-450 PA (110-115 games) and agree that his plate discipline will remain similar to what he showed last year (23 K% / 7-8 BB%), plus as you can see, all three are in the same neighborhood when it comes to his contact and power. Like I mentioned above, these are undoubtedly sufficient numbers for d’Arnaud. 

 

Reps will be biggest variable 

The problem with any and all projections is that they aren’t too dependable when it comes to accounting for each team’s situation roster-wise. Unless GM Alex Anthopoulos does something in the coming days, d’Arnaud will not only be Atlanta’s primary catcher again but the guy they depend on for nearly all of the reps. That’s what happens when you’re one of the best in the game behind the plate (which d’Arnaud was a year ago) — you no longer share playing-time. 

The thing is, though, expecting d’Arnaud to get the sort of PA that top-tier MLB catchers get is probably a bit unrealistic when considering his track record. In 2019 (the last full season), the top four catchers in PA — JT Realmuto, Yasmani Grandal, Wilson Ramos, Christian Vazquez — totaled anywhere from 520 to 630 PA (roughly 140-155 games). Meanwhile, thanks to a run of injuries as well as, at times, ineffectiveness at the plate throughout his career, d’Arnaud has never surpassed 421 PA or 112 games in a single season. To match his value from last season (or what he was on pace for), he’d first need to do something in 2021 that he’s never done… which is to receive all of the reps behind the plate for Atlanta essentially. With it looking as if prospects Alex Jackson and William Contreras will be the Braves two main back-ups this coming season (both are either a huge dropoff production-wise or lack enough experience to garner much playing-time), I will say d’Arnaud’s chances of playing every day do seem rather strong, at least compared to last season.

So if everyday-playing-time is the scenario, and Anthopoulos does put it all on d’Arnaud in 2021, what’s a realistic expectation for him? 

 

The verdict 

It may come as a surprise, but last year wasn’t the first time d’Arnaud absolutely raked over a short span. Back in 2015 — while with the Mets — he hit .268 with 12 homers (130 wRC+) and 41 RBI in just 67 games, on his way to a defense-boosted (14.0 Def) 3.4 WAR overall. If d’Arnaud would’ve performed like that in 2017 (when he played in a career-high 112 games), his season totals would’ve been that of a 5.5-WAR player with 20 HR and 68 RBI. 

His 2015 and 2020 performances are certainly d’Arnaud at his best, with the former propped up due to extraordinary defense and the latter from career-best hitting. However, neither year was anywhere close to a full-season’s worth of reps, so both must be taken with a grain of salt. 

I believe to claim that d’Arnaud successfully duplicated his production from 2020 he’d need to at least replicate what he did in 2015 over a full season. And that would be a tall task. For one, d’Arnaud’s no longer in his mid-20s, and though his defense behind the plate is still rated above-average (per FG), it’s not an area of his game that should be expected to improve in 2021 drastically. Therefore I think duplicating such a performance is unlikely. However, counting on d’Arnaud to repeat as one of the three-best catchers in baseball is sort of like expecting Mike Soroka or Max Fried to make another run at the NL Cy Young. It’s just not a rational expectation as very few players garner that kind of projection every year.

The truth is, d’Arnaud remaining healthy is most likely the Braves’ biggest concern, for him staying on the field and at least performing at his absolute floor (talent-wise) is much better than those PA going to someone like Jackson or Contreras. Although, you never know. d’Arnaud’s strides at the plate were special in 2020 and shouldn’t be overlooked. There’s always the chance he keeps it going in 2021, even if it’s a slim chance his level of play remains that high throughout a full season. Regardless, if he’s more normal-d’Arnaud than 2020-d’Arnaud, Atlanta’s offense should once again flourish. And that’s all that really matters.

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