For the past four years, the Mets have employed Travis d’Arnaud as their starting catcher. He has had spurts of success, but his career has also been very much hampered by injuries and inconsistencies.
We saw what his bat could be in 2015, when he had a 130 wRC+ in 268 PA, but unfortunately, his best offensive season came when he had the hardest time staying on the field. He missed more time in 2016 due to injuries and severely regressed offensively, with his power completely disappearing. His power came back in 2017, and he did a better job of staying on the field by playing a career-high 112 games, but it was still an underwhelming season in most areas with a mediocre 91 wRC+.
While the Mets have had issues with production from their catchers for the past few years, the position has been one of their least priorities this offseason, and rightfully so. Kevin Plawecki recently spoke about the improvements both he and d’Arnaud have made, and he has a valid point that the Mets should stick with them at catcher.
When Plawecki returned from the minors on August 19th, he came back as a different player. Plawecki had thrived in the hitter-friendly haven of Las Vegas for quite some time, but had never put it together in the Majors, until returning from this rather lengthy stint in Triple-A. He hit .303/.411/.474 from August 19th to the end of the season, showing advanced plate discipline along with great contact skills and acceptable power.
At the same time, the presence of competition in a new and improved Plawecki must have lighted a fire under d’Arnaud, because in that same time frame, d’Arnaud, who had hit for just a 73 wRC+ up until that point, hit .297/.350/.571. His overall numbers for the season were still mediocre, but perhaps 2018 will be the year where d’Arnaud finally puts together a full, healthy, consistent campaign. His progression as a player has been a roller coaster, but there’s hope that he may finally be reaching the top of the hill.
The question now is, were either of these breakouts legitimate and which one of them is better suited to be the Mets’ 2018 starting catcher?
Let’s start with Plawecki. Even before his mid-year turnaround, he had always shown a good eye at the plate while putting up decent strikeout and walk rates. However, it wasn’t until this hot stretch that he made full use of these tools, as he started hitting more line drives (27% line drive rate) and hard-hit balls (30.2% hard contact rate). In addition, he improved his already decent strikeout and walk rates, walking 13.3% of the time and only striking out 14.4% of the time. Elite plate discipline always has value in the Majors, so this is extremely encouraging to see.
Despite starting the season horrifically, putting up an eight wRC+ in 28 PA before getting sent down, his 137 wRC+ down the stretch brought him up to above league average for the season as he finished with a .260/.364/.400 slash line with a 106 wRC+.
d’Arnaud, in the meantime, made just as many improvements of his own. While Plawecki’s power went from nonexistent to good, d’Arnaud’s went from good to great, as evidenced by his powerful .275 ISO from the 19th to the end of the season. He started walking a little bit more, from 5.8% to 7.0%, and struck out a lot less, from 17.8% to 10.0%. He doesn’t have as good of an eye as Plawecki, but has still shown good plate discipline skills overall. d’Arnaud is a power-hitting catcher, and essentially always has been outside of his injury-hampered 2016. Plawecki’s more of an on-base type of guy, with an exceptional knowledge of the strike zone and occasional pop. Plawecki’s statements are true, they both have made improvements, now they just need to find consistency.
So who should be given the starting role, and who should back them up? Personally, going forward, I prefer Plawecki, because I love watching players with great plate discipline, but d’Arnaud’s power potential can’t be denied. d’Arnaud also has a better track record in the Majors, showing that he can at least be a competent starting catcher even if nothing special, while Plawecki has pretty much never accomplished anything in the Majors until the second half of this year. I do think both their breakouts are legitimate and not just BABIP-inflated flukes, as they both had BABIPs under .300, which is about in line with their career numbers and will probably stay that low due to their lack of speed.
Defensively, they have both graded as good catchers in the past, while Plawecki has the edge with his superior arm and ability to throw out runners. d’Arnaud’s struggles throwing the ball have been well documented in the past by Mets fans.
To start the season, I think the Mets should do some sort of 50-50 thing with d’Arnaud and Plawecki, and pretty much just play whoever performs better. It might make sense to give d’Arnaud the edge in playing time due to his longer track record, but they can’t just hide Plawecki on the bench as a rare starter for when d’Arnaud gets tired. Plawecki absolutely deserves a fair shot at winning the starting catcher role. Hopefully, the competition between the two will help elevate their performances as it did in the second half of last year.
Behind d’Arnaud and Plawecki are Tomas Nido, the Mets’ #9 ranked prospect by MMN, and Jose Lobaton, a veteran backup catcher and former Met-killer who was signed as organizational depth. Depending on Nido’s performance in Vegas, he could potentially find himself in the mix for a Major League role. Barring a severe injury or underperformance, Lobaton is a decent emergency option to have.
But despite the past struggles of both d’Arnaud and Plawecki, the Mets need to enter the 2018 season with an open mind and give them both a fair chance at playing time. I’m excited to see what this potentially dynamic duo can bring in 2018.