2020 Atlanta Braves Player Review: Travis d’Arnaud

Amazon.com: 2020 Topps #436 Travis d'Arnaud Atlanta Braves MLB Baseball  Trading Card: Collectibles & Fine Art

Travis d’Arnaud was so good last year that it was a little hard to remember that that was basically exactly how good he was supposed to be.

It also may have been hard to remember that his nickname, according to baseball-reference, is “Lil D,” probably becauase of his big brother Chase d’Arnaud. I will refer to him exclusively by that moniker for the rest of this post.

Lil D was drafted by the Phillies with the 37th overall pick of the 2007 draft, when he was barely 17. He was then traded for two Cy Young Award winners before ever making the majors, going to Toronto in the 2009 Roy Halladay deal, and then to New York along with Noah Syndergaard in the 2012 R.A. Dickey deal. By that point he was pretty uniformly regarded as a top-20 prospect in all of baseball.

And then… well, actually, what happened next wasn’t completely surprising. As John Sickels wrote in 2013, shortly after his callup:

Back in February, I wrote a Prospect Smackdown article comparing d’Arnaud with Mike Zunino of the Seattle Mariners, who is d’Arnaud’s primary competition as the top catching prospect in baseball. I concluded that I preferred Zunino very slightly because he was two years younger. Zunino has had his own set of problems this year. Catchers get hurt a lot and they often don’t have linear development curves.

Exactly: Lil D got hurt frequently, and didn’t have a linear development curve.

After the 2013 cup of coffee, over his next five seasons from 2014 to 2018, when he was age 24 to 29, Lil D averaged 73 games a year with a .248/.307/.418 batting line. Offensively, that’s completely fine — it’s nearly indistinguishable from Matt Wieters’s career .249/.313/.409, or Jarrod Saltalamacchia’s career .232/.306/.408 — and the advanced metrics liked his glove, but he was seldom on the field and his offensive performance appeared to stall.

By the time Lil D’s 2018 season was ended after just four games by a UCL tear requiring Tommy John surgery, the New York Post was calling him “injury-haunted” and criticizing the Mets for relying upon him.

Actually, it’s worth dwelling a bit more on that injury history, which NJ.com helpfully catalogued here in 2016, before the 2018 UCL tear:

  • 2010, Single-A: Herniated disc and back surgery
  • 2012, Triple-A: Torn PCL in his left knee
  • 2013, Triple-A: Fractured foot
  • 2014, MLB: Concussion and elbow bone chips
  • 2015, MLB: Fractured hand after HBP and hyperextended elbow
  • 2016, MLB: Rotator cuff strain

(Whenever you’re talking about injured Mets players, it’s pretty reasonable to assign some blame to the team, as the Mets360 blog does here and Metsdaddy does here. As Jay Jaffe recounts, the team has a shocking history of poor injury management going all the way up to the ex-owners, the Wilpons, who frequently publicly accused star players of malingering. New York Mets players get reinjured a lot.)

Again, Lil D had been productive when healthy, but that caveat had simply become too great for the Mets, and it was hard to blame them: he’s been in professional baseball for 14 years, and he’s had 400 plate appearances in three seasons: 2009 (Single-A), 2011 (Double-A), and 2014 (MLB).

And then he opened the 2019 season 2-for-23.

So, the Mutts cut bait and released him in May, remaining on the hook for nearly $3 million of Lil D’s $3.515M salary, where they’d settled to avoid arbitration with him just a few months prior. The Dodgers picked him up off the scrap heap for the major league minimum, then almost immediately sold him to Tampa Bay. (“Traded for cash considerations.”)

And that’s how Lil D found himself in Tampa Bay, just like Mike Zunino. But unlike Zunino, he finally discovered the offensive potential he’d displayed in the minors. In a new league, facing a new set of pitchers, he again started slowly — 1-for-21 — but then something clicked. He went 2-for-4 on May 24 against Cleveland, and he’s really never stopped hitting. From May 24 to September 29, he hit .278/.336/.487 with 16 homers and 67 RBI in just 84 games, which ain’t bad for the league minimum.

The Braves liked what they saw and gave him his first free agent contract, making him one of Anthopoulos’s first multiyear free agent signings, paying him $16 million for two years of work. All Lil D did was proceed to tear the cover off the ball, to the tune of a .321/.386/.533 batting line — arguably his best full season of work in pro ball, and nearly identical to the .311/.371/.542 line he’d posted in Double-A New Hampshire in 2011 with the Jays, which rocketed his prospect status to the top echelon of minor league baseball.

In early November of this year, he was recognized with a Silver Slugger Award, naming him the best-hitting backstop in the Senior Circuit just a mere 13 years after the Phillies drafted him out of high school.

What a long, painful trip it’s been. He’s come into his own as the man he always was supposed to be. Whatever happens in the rest of his career, he’s earned his moment in the sun.

My advice to Anthopoulos is the same as my advice with Minter: kid gloves. Get him a serious caddy. If they think that’s Flowers, great; if they think it’s Jackson or Contreras, fine. They just need to plan for Lil D to play no more than 70% of the games this season. (That’s about 115 out of 162.) They can’t treat the regular season the way they treated the 2020 postseason, where they asked him to strap on the tools of ignorance every single night. He clearly wore down.

Next year, let’s just take him for what he is: a great hitter who’s over 30 and needs a good amount of regular rest. Don’t push it.

20 thoughts on “2020 Atlanta Braves Player Review: Travis d’Arnaud”

  1. JC’d…

    Alex R says:

    This story is absolutely awesome. The painstaking compilation of Negro Leagues stats has come further than I’d ever guessed. They’ve built a database of Negro Leagues stats with comprehensive leader boards based on painstaking box score research — basically think Retrosheet.

    They’ve established — though it’s no surprise — that the speedy [Cool Papa] Bell holds the single-season record with 49 stolen bases for the Stars in 1929. Josh Gibson holds the all-time home run record with 238 and Smokey Joe Williams struck out 1,571 batters in his 25-year career.

    “But more interesting, in my opinion, are some of the larger patterns we’ve found. So, for example we’ve put together the first comprehensive analysis of Negro League park effects, and incorporated that into our metrics,” Ashwill wrote. “We know which were the pitchers’ parks (Chicago’s Schorling Park, for example) and which were the hitters’ parks (Stars Park in St. Louis and the Catholic Protectory Oval in the Bronx, home of the New York Lincoln Giants). Because we compile fielding statistics, we’re able to know that, for example, Dobie Moore, the Kansas City Monarchs shortstop in the 1920s, was a great fielding shortstop. He was known to be a great hitter, but I don’t think it was fully appreciated how pivotal he was to the Monarchs’ defense.”

    Though there is more information on the Negro Leagues just a click away than ever before, there is still plenty of work to be done. Researchers are still looking to add fielding statistics, left/right splits and secondary pitching and batting stats for many Negro League seasons, especially those in the 1940s.

    “There’s a huge amount of information about Latin American baseball that still needs to be processed — Black Americans played professional baseball in Mexico, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Venezuela,” Ashwill said. “We will also be adding the Puerto Rican Winter League at some point.”

    Story on MLB.com: https://www.mlb.com/news/negro-leagues-statistical-database-uncovers-new-records

    H/t to Craig Calcaterra’s newsletter.

  2. Good job on DeArmond! I kinda think he’s Lil d, because his surname begins with a “lil d.”

  3. d’Arnaud’s Statcast numbers are eye popping:

    Average exit velo: 93.4 MLB (top 2% in MLB)
    Hard Hit%: 57.8% (top 1% of the league)

    I’m with Alex R., but only partially: Find a C that can catch 90 games and have d’Arnaud rest by catching 70 and DHing 70.

  4. Being a sinner myself, I am in no position to judge anyone. That said, there are bad people. Schilling may be one, but he could pitch.

    AAR, that, sir, is fine journalism. Thank you.

  5. Alex, since you’re in the industry, I’ve got a question for you: for the writers leaving the sports websites and going completely independent, running their own website, and requiring subscriptions or requesting Patreons, are they coming out ahead doing it that way vs. being employed by a generic struggling sports website?

    I listen to some podcasts and read some independent websites, and through generic ways of understanding their readership/listenership and the rates of Patreon subscribers, it seems like they’re killing it. If a guy with a huge following like Craig (55K followers on Twitter) goes completely independent, do they end up coming out ahead?

    It’s part of an overall thought of whether people, out of simple necessity (Craig was laid off), end up becoming more successful financially by being independent. Does that happen in the world of journalism?

  6. @5, I’m into that, too.

    Regarding the link… as much as I’ll say is this: the no-character clause is, on balance, a charade that allows baseball writers to apply blinders to their favorite players while hypocritically castigating others. The Hall of Fame is well-represented, indeed overrepresented, by liars, cheaters, wife-beaters, pill-poppers, and worse. So while I understand that there’s a nuanced position to be taken on which sins are venial and which are mortal, I cast a skeptical eye on all of those arguments.

    That said, I think who’s in / who’s out discussions are always kinda case by case and just like coop said earlier, even if you could apply a completely objective standard to baseball, you wouldn’t want to: baseball’s baseball. It’s a bunch of guys who used to be kids who are hitting balls with sticks and smiling on a grassy field. The best part about baseball is it’s baseball. If I had a ballot, I wouldn’t vote for Mark McGwire, but I would vote for Bonds — ‘roids inflated both their numbers, but if you take the drugs away from Mac, he’s just a guy with about 1500 hits. If you take the drugs away from Bonds, he’s still a Hall of Famer.

    Lots of folks, including Ububba, wouldn’t vote for any of ’em — cheating is cheating. I respect that position. I think when it comes to the Hall, you really do have to agree to disagree.

  7. @7, honestly I don’t have a great sense of the economics of going independent via Patreon/Substack/etc. Craig writes about it a bit in his most recent newsletter but I’d basically assume it will follow the same power law dynamics as everything else: probably 90% of the revenue will probably go to 10% of the creators.

    I’ll further assume that it will follow the job dynamics as everything else in journalism: the number of people who can successfully support themselves as independent creators fueled by subscriptions will be far, far, far lower than the number of people who used to be employed by the major media outlets who have shed jobs over the last 20 years or so. Here’s a very depressing list of job losses in journalism this year due to COVID-19. I can guarantee you that there aren’t enough people on Substack to provide each of them with a living wage covering healthcare, groceries, rent, and utilities.

    So my guess is there’ll be a big iceberg of starving newsletter writers (and podcasters, etc.) under the water line. For someone who already has millions of followers, they can probably do decently well. But there aren’t actually that many people in that category. For everyone else, I’d guess this more of an illusion than a solution.

    Don’t know if Craig still lurks on Braves Journal — if so, hi, Craig! — but if he does, I’d love to hear more from him directly. Even if not, I bet he’ll write more about it.

  8. I’m on board with the Ender and Camargo for Gregory Polanco train. No this isn’t a rumor. Yes, I completely made it up.

  9. @9

    Thanks Alex. I’m sure this is an even more complicated question, so no worries it is, but even pre-COVID, why is sports journalism economically dying? The demand for sports has never been higher, so one would assume the market for sports journalism has never been higher.

    Is it just a simple reality that amateurs or sports-journalist-as-hobbyists are providing the same content and coverage for much less, thus the industry is just getting smaller? People are not buying the cow because they’re getting the milk for free elsewhere?

  10. So — journalism is dying, in broad strokes, because of a major disruption in the business model. The vast majority of all journalists have always been and even now still are employed by print newspapers, which mostly derive the bulk of their revenue from print advertising. That print advertising is aimed at a very local audience: the readership of every local paper is very local.

    I.e., if you’re in a small town, you wouldn’t read the paper from two counties over, and so those advertisers wouldn’t reach you. You’d maybe just read your local paper and maybe the biggest paper in the state, or something like that. So every town had a paper with a local monopoly on advertising and enough money to have a newsroom of folks, and in addition to the high school sports that no other paper covered, the sports department would also cover more redundant areas — college sports and pro sports.

    Once the internet comes around, there are way too many people covering the small number of major universities and pro teams in your state, and tiny fractional Google and Facebook ad dollars will decimate their number.

    Think about it: every little paper in Georgia had to have some Braves and Dawgs coverage. Many of them have now gone out of business or laid off most of their newsroom and replaced them with stories from the Associated Press. (Same thing has happened to movie critics everywhere.) There may not have been hundreds of Braves and Dawgs beat reporters across Georgia, but I bet there used to be a bunch more than there are now, beyond just the famous guys at the Atlanta Journal and Atlanta Constitution like Furman Bisher.

    Very few of those folks could go to Substack/Patreon and actually make a living. David Lee is brilliant and I hope and bet he can make it. Compared to the number of sports reporters across America that used to be employed in newsrooms, though, I suspect that the total number of folks like him who actually pull it off will be small.

  11. Anyone interested in a long sleeved Hammers shirt? I LOVE long sleeve tees but would need a minimum of 5 people interested to make an order.

  12. Count me in, Ryan. I want at least one. I just got my Hammers today and am wearing it now. I love it! Thank you.

  13. I would add the following to @12: artificial intelligence is quite good at writing these days. General sports reporting will be almost entirely automated in the next few years. My cites for this are on my desktop and this is my tablet, but the Wikipedia article on automated journalism does a reasonable job on the highlights.

  14. @15
    General sports reporting. General news reporting. Call center cold calls. Most answering services.

    I also see the movie industry moving in this direction, especially as soon as they can create their own movie star who is 100% AI and 100% owned by the rights holders. Easy money, and this sort of thing is already alive in Japan with computer-generated JPop stars.

    Now, what if… and I’m tying this back into the Braves, what if they could get a really good AI commentator for the Braves?? I would be on board for an AI-powered Skip Carey v1.0.

  15. You can automate a commodity, you can’t automate a differentiated good. Beat reporting cannot be automated; aggregation of another person’s reporting can be.

    At the end of the day, it’s actually somewhat similar to statistical analysis: you actually can’t fully automate analysis. Computers can run a regression, but humans need to guide the hypothesis testing. Theory actually requires opinion.

  16. Kyle Muller to the 40-man roster:
    “Muller’s contract was selected by the Braves on Thursday. Muller’s addition to the 40-man roster protects him from being selected by another team in the upcoming Rule 5 draft.”

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