Is It Time to Worry About Travis D’Arnaud? Yes. (Plus A Bonus Lesson In Using Statistics)

By: Brian Mangan

(I just wrote and lost an entire post, so here’s the short(er) version.)

Everyone reading this knows who Travis D’Arnaud is, so I won’t spend much time reminding you that he is a top-flight catching prospect and the crown jewel of the trade which sent R.A. Dickey to the Toronto Blue Jays.  At the time of the trade, D’Arnaud had been ranked as one of the Top 25 prospects in baseball by Baseball America and two years running, and had recently put together an excellent half-season in Triple-A.  Nonetheless, I had my reservations about D’Arnaud, reservations which I wish I had been able to blog about sooner (but really, there is only so much time in the day and Noah Syndergaard is not going to blog about himself).

Let’s begin with the good about D’Arnaud, so we know how those high expectations were formed.  D’Arnaud posted a 914 OPS in 466 plate appearances with Double-A New Hampshire of the Eastern League in 2011.  The next season he was promoted to Triple-A Las Vegas in the Pacific Coast League, where he put up a blistering 975 OPS in 303 plate appearances between injuries.  All along the way, scouts loved his swing and his athleticism behind the plate.Screenshot 2014-04-08 at 10.30.25 AM

Despite D’Arnaud’s success in 2012, there had been reasons for worry, especially as 2013 came to a close.  First, D’Arnaud was felled with an injury again in 2013, amassing only around two hundred plate appearances on the season across all levels.  Despite this, in his limited time in Triple-A Las Vegas, D’Arnaud again posted great offensive numbers, slashing .304/.487/.554, and confirming to his believers that he was ready.

He certainly didn’t do his supporters any favors in the late summer after his call-up, struggling in the majors and posting a slash line of .202/.286/.263 in 112 plate appearances.  He followed that up this spring with a .163/.241/.388 performance.  He is currently batting .000/.118/.000 this season in his first 17 plate appearances, and fans everywhere are sounding the alarm (although Tyler Kepner of the Times, as usual, takes a nice, reasoned approach toward the topic).

Ordinarily, a few short samples in the majors would be nothing to worry about for a prospect with a long track record of success.  However D’Arnaud’s success in the minors is checkered by his health problems and not quite as impressive as you may think.

1. His impressive statistics in Triple-A were posted in a hitters park, in a hitter’s league.  D’Arnaud’s 1041 OPS is nice, but Andrew Brown posted a 1093 OPS there, and Ike Davis posted a 1091 OPS there, and Omar flipping Quintanilla posted a 903 OPS.  Good numbers from D’Arnaud to be sure, but his overall Vegas line is just good.

2.  His impressive stats in the Eastern League, a notoriously low scoring league, are also not as impressive as you might think.  Despite the EL’s reputation, the New Hampshire park is the second-most hitter friendly park in the league, with a park factor of 1.068 for runs and 1.058 for home runs.  Again, it is true that D’Arnaud was the most impressive hitter on that team.  But for those of you hanging your hat on this performance, it was three years ago, and two injuries ago.

3.  Those seasons were in 2011 and 2012 — he barely played in 2013, and his minor league stats from prior to 2011 were simply not good.  D’Arnaud posted an OPS of 726 in High-A in 2010, and posted an OPS of 738 in Low-A in 2009.

The reason for this blog is that there was an article posted at Amazin Avenue called Is It Time to Worry About Travis D’Arnaud?  The writers at Amazin Avenue are smart.  The readers over at Amazin Avenue are smart.  But this article is fairly silly.  It’s not silly because the conclusion is wrong — it’s not wrong, D’Arnaud will be fine — it’s silly because of the way it uses statistics to try and “prove” that D’Arnaud is okay.

First, the author pokes a little fun at the analysis on Metsblog for being not so well thought out, in their opinion:

There’s an increasingly popular idea that the young catcher is ‘lost’ or ‘clueless’ at the plate. To quote the de facto mouthpiece of the online component of the Mets fan base, Matt Cerrone (emphasis mine):

“(d’Arnaud)’s showing no signs of a young hitter with an idea of what he’s trying to do at the plate. His approach is very defensive. He’s reacting, he’s not in command, and that’s never good, especially for a 25-year-old making in his rookie season.”

Unfortunately – or maybe I should say fortunately – that’s just not true.

Unfortunately for the author, he then uses statistics to try and make their case that D’Arnaud isn’t lost.  However in doing so, he commits an even bigger sin than the person who sets forth their opinion just thinking its an opinion — the author draws conclusions from misleadingly small samples and ignores the bottom line to try to make his point.

First the author says that D’Arnaud is not “lost” because he was “ahead in the count” in many of his plate appearances:

Screenshot 2014-04-08 at 10.17.44 AM

However, the author disregards that D’Arnaud has struck out in 35.3% of those plate appearances.  The author could have made a much better argument by pointing out that D’Arnaud’s swinging strike rate is only 6%, or that he has only swung at 18.8% of pitches out of the zone, or that his highest strikeout percentage in the minors was only 21%.  Those things are good.

The author then goes on to do the silliest of silly things, pointing out the following:

In fact, d’Arnaud is currently sporting an 11.1% line-drive rate. While that number is certainly not anywhere near the league leaders (Derek Dietrich leads the majors at 75%) he’s pacing a number of players who have had much better results.

For those of you counting at home, D’Arnaud has put 9 balls into play (15 plate appearances minus six strikeouts) which means that this statistic is based on one line drive.  One.  If you like stats, if you love baseball, for the love of all that is good, don’t do that.

On the topic of sample size, I have a special treat for anyone who might not know this.  In baseball, we know that certain statistics are not reliable until we have reached a certain sample size.  We know Travis D’Arnaud is not an 11.1% line drive hitter simply because he hit one line drive.  We don’t think Collin Cowgill is going to hit 162 home runs because he hit one on Opening Day.  However, after a certain amount of time, statistics tend to stabilize and become reliable.  Below I am reproducing a table from fangraphs which shows when that is:

50 PA: Swing %
100 PA: Contact Rate
150 PA: Strikeout Rate, Line Drive Rate, Pitches/PA
200 PA: Walk Rate, Groundball Rate, GB/FB
250 PA: Flyball Rate
300 PA: Home Run Rate, HR/FB
500 PA: OBP, SLG, OPS, 1B Rate, Popup Rate
550 PA: ISO

How they determined this is complicated– it involves regression analysis and correlation– but it makes sense.  The more time that goes by, the more things we will be fairly certain are true (or close to true) about the player that we are looking at.  This is why looking at D’Arnaud’s overall minor league resume is so much more valuable than looking at a slow 17 plate appearances in 2014.

At the end of the day, D’Arnaud has made it so far that if he remains healthy, he has an almost certain chance of being a useful contributor to this and future Mets ballclubs.  I never thought that D’Arnaud would live up to his minor league billing, but have always hoped to be proven wrong.   Before the season, Steamer projected D’Arnaud to hit .242/.305/.400 with good defense — that sounds about right.  Their rest of season revised stats are down to .226/.295/.374, which account for the slow start and a lower regard for his talent from here on out.  D’Arnaud is still 25 – an age which is “younger” for catchers than other prospects (see: Yadier Molina) — so I’d stick with the former projection as a baseline.

Whether it is time to worry about D’Arnaud depends not on D’Arnaud as much as it depends on what you expected of him in the first place.  If you think he can be a 2-3 WAR catcher who isn’t useless at the dish and plays good defense, you will probably not be disappointed.  If you thought he was capable of hitting 25 home runs with a .380 OBP, you’ll likely be disappointed.

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Brian Mangan would never ever trade for a catching prospect.

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