It’s been quite some time since I did one of these, and for that I apologize. We spend a lot of time on this site talking about the Kyle Drabeks and Michael Taylors, and I don’t know if there’s enough occasion to give the other guys their due. When I started this feature, I vowed to look at some of the more under-the-radar guys in the system, and while Travis D’Arnaud may not necessarily qualify, I feel like he’s slipped from our consciousness with his rough start to the 2009 season. But I want to go ahead and dig into his numbers from this year, and see why it’s far too early to be disappointed.
Those familiar with Travis know his story: a supplemental round pick by the Phillies in 2007 with a reputation as a good defensive catcher with a streaky bat. His 145-plate-appearance debut in 2007 was inauspicious: .241/.278/.348 with a .121 SecA and a 23:4 K:BB. Held back in extended spring training to begin 2008, Travis exploded onto the scene with Williamsport in the New York-Penn League. In 193 plate appearances, he posted a .309/.371/.463 line, with a .149 SecA and a 29:18 K:BB. Encouraged by his progress, the organization game him a preview of Lakewood, and Travis responded by hitting .297/.357/.469 with a .172 SecA and a 10:5 K:BB in 69 plate appearances.
Just like that, he jumped onto the prospect radar. Baseball America had him as the Phillies’ #7 prospect; Baseball Prospectus had him as the Phillies’ #4 prospect (and a 3-star); and John Sickels rated him as a B prospect and #3 in the system. Here at Phuture Phillies, the man himself had D’Arnaud at #7, while the readers collectively put him at #8. I’ll admit it right now: I personally had him at #4, above both Dominic Brown and Kyle Drabek.
So it’s fair to say there were some fairly lofty expectations for D’Arnaud heading into this year, so the following line seems to be a disappointment at first blush…
So let’s begin with the most obvious mitigating factor: D’Arnaud’s absurdly low BABIP. It currently sits at .212 for the season, which is obviously dragging down his overall numbers. And it’s not like he’s constantly popping out, or isn’t hitting the ball with any authority. Minor league line drive numbers are notoriously inaccurate, but D’Arnaud is at a respectable 15.5% on the season (for whatever that’s worth); furthermore, his 14.3% infield fly rate, while a bit on the high side, still doesn’t explain the rock-bottom BABIP. Minor League Splits has a neat little tool that allows you to neutralize for luck — which essentially means, normalize the BABIP — and when you click that for D’Arnaud, his BABIP jumps to .330 and his line responds by jumping to the following…
Still, there’s greater cause for optimism than the ol’ “The BABIP’s gon’ normalize” explanation. Let’s go ahead and look at a couple of key statistical categories to see how D’Arnaud’s been swinging the bat this year.
First up: his walk rate and strikeout rate.
2008 (SS, Age 19): 9.3% BB — 16.6% K
2008 (A-, Age 19): 7.2% BB — 15.6% K
2009 (A-, Age 20): 6.7% BB — 15.2% K
On the whole, Travis isn’t being quite as patient as he was last year, but the ratios are actually eerily similar to what he did in his small sample size at Lakewood in 2008. Ideally you’d like him to show a bit more patience, but the fact that he’s making consistent contact is encouraging.
The second factor I’m going to look at is his power — specifically, his ISO and his XBH%.
2008 (SS, Age 19): .154 ISO — 33.3% XBH
2008 (A-, Age 19): .172 ISO — 36.8% XBH
2009 (A-, Age 20): .156 ISO — 40.8% XBH
Once again… eerily similar. Now, at first blush, it seems that a .156 ISO isn’t anything to write home about. But it’s often said that power is the last thing to develop in a catching prospect, and that proposition generally holds up when we take a sampling of what some current MLB catchers did in their respective Age 20 seasons…
Jesus Flores: .123 ISO — 26.2% XBH (A)
Victor Martinez: .091 ISO — 20.0% XBH (SS)
Joe Mauer: .077 ISO — 19.2% XBH (A+)
Brian McCann: .216 ISO — 47.7% XBH (A+)
Mike Napoli: .141 ISO — 33.0% XBH (A)
Jorge Posada: .195 ISO — 40.4% XBH (A)
Carlos Ruiz: .092 ISO — 25.0% XBH (SS)
Geovany Soto: .074 ISO — 19.4% XBH (A+)
I tried not to cherry-pick above, and you can see that there are some catchers for whom power manifests itself quickly — Posada and McCann from the above sample, and they’ve turned into alright catchers. Now, it’s patently ridiculous to compare D’Arnaud’s ISO to Mauer’s and conclude that he’ll ever be in the same stratosphere as the Twins’ backstop, but this little exercise should prove the point that D’Arnaud is hitting the ball with about as much authority as you can reasonably expect from a young catcher.
So what’s the ultimate point? Well, it’s that D’Arnaud’s rough start is only in the surface numbers, and that he’s actually having a pretty decent year with the bat thus far. A 15.2% strikeout rate in conjunction with a .156 ISO is a very solid combination for a catching prospect at an age-appropriate level, and it’s likely that his overall numbers will continue to improve as the season moves on.
So don’t sell on D’Arnaud yet. And perhaps more importantly, keep your fingers crossed that he doesn’t wind up as a throw-in on some deadline deal, because his ugly surface numbers certainly make him undervalued at this point.