How the Dodgers jump-started Braves catcher Travis D’Arnaud’s resurgence
There is a fun fact about Atlanta Braves catcher Travis d’Arnaud that his agent likes to share.
Not long after he was drafted in the first round out of Lakewood High in 2007, d’Arnaud was traded for an eventual Cy Young Award winner. The Philadelphia Phillies shipped him in late 2009 to the Toronto Blue Jays as part of the package for Roy Halladay.
A few years later, d’Arnaud again was flipped for a Cy Young Award winner when the Blue Jays acquired R.A. Dickey from the New York Mets. The knuckleballer had just been voted the National League’s best pitcher in 2012.
“One of his claims to fame,” said Joel Wolfe, d’Arnaud’s agent at Wasserman. “It wasn’t like he was being tossed around. He was a part of huge trades.”
Yet, it didn’t seem like much would come of d’Arnaud, a highly touted prospect who performed well with the Mets when healthy, until the Dodgers took a stab at him last year.
A shaky Kenley Jansen shouldn’t prevent the Dodgers from a World Series title. The 2017 Astros, 2018 Red Sox and 2019 Nationals proved a closer wasn’t required.
D’Arnaud appeared in only one game for the Dodgers between the time they signed him May 5, 2019, and sold his contract to the Tampa Bay Rays for $100,000 five days later. But he took from his eyeblink of a stint lessons that helped him emerge as one of baseball’s most valuable catchers and as a bona-fide cleanup hitter for the Braves team the Dodgers trail two games to none in the National League Championship Series.
D’Arnaud had been released by the Mets after batting .087 in 10 games in 2019, his first season back from an elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery — the latest in a long list of ailments that derailed his career. Despite his slow start, the Dodgers were intrigued. They needed a right-handed bat following AJ Pollock’s elbow surgery. They signed d’Arnaud as a third catcher with an eye on increasing his positional versatility.
The Dodgers had sufficient catching depth. They had Austin Barnes and Russell Martin to partner behind the plate until prospect Will Smith was ready to join the team. Smith seized the job in the second half of the season, hitting 15 home runs and driving in 42 runs in 54 games.
Andrew Friedman, Dodgers president of baseball operations, liked d’Arnaud but didn’t have regular plate appearances to give him. Converting d’Arnaud into a utility player — he spent his few days as a Dodger learning to play first base and left field — wouldn’t have guaranteed him significant playing time.
The Rays, meanwhile, had playing time open behind the plate after their top catchers went down with injuries. They offered the Dodgers $100,000 for d’Arnaud. Friedman, who spent 11 years in the Rays’ front office before the Dodgers hired him in 2014, elected to do both parties a favor.
“Andrew called one day and said, ‘Hey, look, we really like this guy and we think he’s going to be good. But there is an opportunity for him to go to a team and catch right now. So what do you guys want to do?’” Wolfe said. “Which was very unusual for a general manager to do because they could have just held on to him in 10 different ways to have roster depth.”
D’Arnaud flourished playing nearly every day for the Rays. When he wasn’t behind the plate, he spelled Ji-Man Choi at first base or served as designated hitter. The Rays kept him healthy and productive.
By season’s end, d’Arnaud had reestablished enough of his value to earn a two-year, $16-million contract, the second-richest deal struck by a free-agent catcher last offseason.
“It made me feel like I was doing something right, [like] something was right in my mind-set,” d’Arnaud said when asked in a videoconference last week what it meant to get playing opportunities after being released. “I knew I had to just keep continuing that and good things would come.
“It’s crazy how things turn out but all you can do is keep moving forward when anything bad happens. Just keep moving forward, keep learning.”
Despite the brevity of his time in L.A., d’Arnaud attributes part of his resurgence to the Dodgers. Hitting coaches Robert Van Scoyoc, Brant Brown and Craig Wallenbrock worked diligently to clean up d’Arnaud’s mechanics.
Learning from past playoff failures, the Dodgers strike out less and do more with the bat than hit homers. Star addition Mookie Betts is a catalyst.
The combined efforts of the Dodgers, Rays and Braves manifested into a standout 2020 for d’Arnaud. He led all MLB catchers in hits (53) and RBIs (34). He made frequent hard contact, created runs at a rate 45% better than average and hit the ball with force. He ended the 60-game season with career highs in average (.321), on-base-plus-slugging percentage (.919) and batting average on balls in play (.411). He also hit nine homers one year after slugging 16 over the course of the traditional 162-game schedule.
He’s also no slouch on defense. He found in Braves catching coach Sal Fasano a mentor who had managed him in the minors with the Blue Jays. Fasano and others recommended d’Arnaud drop to one knee in his receiving position to prevent his legs from tiring and improve his pitch framing.
D’Arnaud’s hot bat carried into October. Among those still playing, he entered Sunday ranked fourth in OPS (1.342) and tied for third in RBIs (7). His .421 average was the highest of the cleanup hitters remaining in the postseason field.
That gaudy line is one the Dodgers are spending the NLCS trying to slow.
Ironically, he’s a monster partly of their own creation.
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