The 2021 season was a story of resilience for the Atlanta Braves, especially as it pertained to their catching situation. The team had to use seven different catchers to get through the campaign; it was remarkable that the team was able to stay within shouting distance of the division lead and weather the storm of the revolving door of youthful and veteran backstops. Travis d’Arnaud came into the season as the starter behind the dish, but ended up missing most of the season, forcing the team to scramble in his absence.
Travis d’Arnaud signed a two-year, $16 million contract with the Braves in November 2019, after spending the majority of prior season with the Tampa Bay Rays, who had acquired him from the Los Angeles Dodgers for cash considerations. He was a Dodger for one day. Prior to 2019, d’Arnaud made a name for himself in New York with the Mets, where he spent six seasons from 2013-2019. He was one of the central pieces in the Noah Syndergaard-R.A. Dickey blockbuster in 2012 that sent him to the Big Apple. He was released by the Mets in May 2019.
Expectations and Projections
The Braves have done a solid job at the catching position for years pairing two veteran guys together to lead the pitching staff. Coming into 2020, the team already had Tyler Flowers in the fold, and needed to fill the void left by veteran Kurt Suzuki, who left in free agency. Travis d’Arnaud fit the bill perfectly as a well-rounded catcher that had posted a 100 wRC+ with a better (.334) xwOBA in 2019.
After signing with the Braves, d’Arnaud had a mini-breakout that resulted in his first career Silver Slugger award. He hit .321/.386/.533 with a pretty bonkers .382 xwOBA over 184 PAs. As a result, the Braves rode him hard in the playoffs, and he was definitely going to be the starting catcher for Atlanta in 2021.
Projection-wise, d’Arnaud was seen as an average-to-above catcher. Steamer had him putting up 2.3 WAR and 3.1 WAR/600, while ZiPS was more cool on him at 1.6 WAR and 2.3 WAR/200. d’Arnaud wasn’t expected, at all, to carry over most of his awesome 2020, but to be the generally-solid, above-average position player he had been for pretty much all of his career.
2021 season results
d’Arnaud was flying high after a phenomenal 2020 and was looking to build off that. The campaign to repeat his awesome stats started off with a bang, as he homered in his first Spring Training at-bat for the second consecutive season. However, once the games started mattering, the entire offense outside of Ronald Acuña, Jr. got off to a rocky start for various reasons. d’Arnaud was no exception, as his start was brutal — a 55 wRC+ that was horrid, yet also a huge underperformance of a perfectly-fine, league average-y, .313 xwOBA. That was disappointing, but d’Arnaud didn’t even get a chance to right the ship and have the bounces go in favor.
On May 2, d’Arnaud was involved in a play at the plate against the Toronto Blue Jays that resulted in him tearing multiple ligaments in his thumb. He ended up missing 86 games, returning only in the second week of August. Backup catcher Alex Jackson hit the IL on the same day, and the revolving door era of catchers in Atlanta was well and truly upon us.
Upon his return, things only kind of got better for d’Arnaud. He posted a 92 wRC+ from August 11 through the end of the regular season, which was way better than the 55 he managed previously. But, his xwOBA actually fell between the two stints, from .313 to .298,
Defensively, d’Arnaud continued his run of being an above-average, but not necessarily great, framer. Put those things together, and factor in that by the end of the season, he was still heftily underperforming his xwOBA (.291 wOBA, .312 xwOBA, amounting to a 78 wRC+), and he posted 0.6 fWAR in 229 PAs. Aside from missing nearly all of 2018, it was his worst output on a rate basis since his rookie year, but it really wasn’t his fault.
What Went Right? What Went Wrong?
Much of this is pretty obvious. What went wrong was d’Arnaud missing most of the season, forcing the Braves to figure out alternative solutions that were nowhere near as appealing. The big xwOBA underperformance that put him in a hole early on didn’t help. Still, that chunk of time on the shelf may have been a blessing in disguise, as d’Arnaud was able to take the brunt of the work after he returned, including in the postseason.
Yet, being available for the playoffs didn’t super-help. In 2020, d’Arnaud terrorized the playoffs the way he did the regular season, posting an absurd .407 xwOBA in the playoffs. Yet, in 2021, his .281 xwOBA and .298 wOBA in the playoffs were more in line with his weak regular season batting line.
The Braves, though, didn’t seem particularly concerned about what he might do for the rest of 2021 or the playoffs when they signed him to a two-year, $16 million extension in August. You can see why: having the option of d’Arnaud for $8 million a season seems a lot less threatening to a team’s success than the procession of alternatives they were forced to employ across most of the 2021 season.
One thing that may have gone wrong for d’Arnaud is that he either returned too early, or the thumb injury lingered a bit and suppressed his stats, even when returning. In August, after he was activated from the Injured List, he posted one of his worst monthly average exit velocities ever. After his return, he had serious issues elevating and barreling the ball. There’s a little bit of evidence that, especially after his return, he maybe tried to compensate for a lack of pop by focusing more on contact and slapping the ball the other way, which is very much at odds with the “swing with reckless abandon” strategy that worked so well for him in 2020. Hopefully that sort of thing doesn’t carry over into 2022.
Road to the Title
d’Arnaud was essentially the captain of the ship, catching every single inning in the postseason. In addition to his presence, he contributed at the plate as well. He had a game-tying single in Game 4 of the NLDS, walked ahead of Eddie Rosario’s game-winning three-run homer in Game 6 of the NLCS, and popped two longballs in the World Series.
Given that he was still playing with his pain in his thumb, he deserves all the credit for playing every single inning. Hopefully the World Series ring is a pleasing salve for his in-game pain, and his uneven regular season.
WPA-wise, d’Arnaud finished both the regular season and postseason with negative marks. This also extends to his cWPA, which was negative in a not-so-great way (nearly 8%) in the postseason. As kind of a bummer, his biggest cWPA swing of the season came in a loss, as he had a game-tying homer in Game 2 of the World Series off Jose Urquidy before the Astros broke it open in the bottom of the second.
Another bummer came for a different reason, after an earlier, but still very awesome d’Arnaud moment. On September 17, the Braves were on their way to losing to the Giants, down by two in the ninth. But, after a couple of batters reached base, d’Arnaud came out of nowhere with a go-ahead three-run homer.
The Braves actually ended up losing that game even after the go-ahead blast, in really stupid fashion, but we’ll ignore that, and just focus on one of d’Arnaud’s best moments of 2021 instead.
Outlook for 2022
Travis d’Arnaud will be the starter for 2022 and he will likely take one of our budding catching prospects under his wing as his backup. d’Arnaud will look stay healthy and produce at the plate somewhere in between his career season in 2020 and down season in 21.
Steamer projects an average-y season for d’Arnaud, currently pointing to 2.0 WAR in 495 PAs. That makes sense, given his dropoff in 2021 but his overall career quality of play.