FanPost

Catch-22: Is Travis D’Arnaud the ‘Next One?’

I recently read an ESPN article about one of the best young catching prospects in baseball and as a long time Blue Jays’ fan and self-admitted prospect junkie it really gave me reason for pause. It seems that in this day and age, of round-the-clock updates and instant information, as sports fans we’re always looking for the ‘Next One.’ The next Strasburg, the next Bryce Harper, the next Buster Posey; this obsession with novelty borders almost on the pathological. Enter, catcher Travis D’Arnaud, the 22-year-old top prospect of the Toronto Blue Jays. Since his breakout 2011 campaign, D’Arnaud has been lauded by scouts and prospect gurus alike as a star in the making; a player that, if he fulfills his immense potential, could become among the very best in baseball.

That "IF" however, is a critical one. One only need be reminded of the many prospects that came before D’Arnaud, who were also gloriously praised, and failed to live up to expectations. But let’s put these thoughts aside for a moment, and take a look at what were really talking about here. The following are excerpts from the aforementioned ESPN article. It is a scouting report written by well-respected baseball analyst John Sickels, whose praise of Travis D’Arnaud in the past has been well-documented.


Background

Devan Mesoraco is universally regarded as the best catching prospect in baseball. But Blue Jays’ farmhand Travis D'Arnaud isn't far behind.

D'Arnaud was drafted with a supplemental first-round pick in 2007, out of high school in Lakewood, California. Considered athletic but somewhat raw when drafted, he's emerged faster than expected, and more than held his own following a promotion to Double-A.

Scouting report

D'Arnaud's athletic tools stand out…He does everything well, and is working hard to improve his catching fundamentals (blocking, game-calling, etc). His work ethic is rated as exceptional.

D'Arnaud has good pop in his bat, and does a fine job driving the ball to the opposite field. He could use additional plate discipline, but his strikeout rate is reasonable, and he is difficult to overpower. He actually showed better discipline in Double-A than in Class A, a good sign. D'Arnaud will never steal many bases, but he runs well for a catcher, and isn't a base clogger.

Performance

D'Arnaud has proven he can hit for average. His home run power should increase gradually. He handled Double-A pitching without difficulty at age 22, the marker of an excellent prospect. He led the Midwest League in catching fielding percentage in 2008, while throwing out 37 percent of runners.

Health record

Weird injuries have cost him playing time. D'Arnaud's 2007 debut season was cut short with a broken hand, and his 2010 campaign was closed early by a back injury. He's recovered fully from both injuries, but nagging wounds are something every catcher must deal with.

Seems like a pretty accurate characterization of Travis D'Arnaud's career and potential, except that it's not actually about Travis D'Arnaud at all. If you're wondering why I underlined specific parts of the text, it's because those were the parts of the article that I altered. If you follow this link you will find the original article:

http://sports.espn.go.com/mlb/columns/story?id=1612228

You will discover that the scouting report you’ve just read actually belongs to catcher Jeff Mathis, whom the Blue Jays acquired from Anaheim on December 3rd 2011, in exchange for left-handed pitcher Brad Mills. The article itself is pretty old. Published on September 9th, 2003 when Mathis was just a 20-year-old prospect in the Angels organization. It provides an interesting window into the past, and a cautionary note, as Mathis, now 28, was once highly-regarded prospect himself, perhaps even more so than D'Arnaud is now.

At the time of Sickels’ article, Mathis was considered by many evaluators to be second only behind Minnesota’s Joe Mauer as far as catching prospects went, and was ranked among the top 10 or 20 prospects overall from about 2001-2004 ahead of the likes of Prince Fielder, Justin Morneau, Zack Greinke, David Wright, Jason Bay, Ervin Santana, Grady Sizemore, and even Felix Hernandez.

(at least according to this Hardball Times list)

http://www.hardballtimes.com/main/article/top50prospects_2004_parttwo/

Now what is the lesson in all of this? That even the most "can't miss" prospects can, in fact, miss? I think we all know that. Then perhaps it's something more prosaic like "we shouldn't count our chickens before they hatch"? Ditto! I think the point is less general and more specific than that. You see what the scouting reports show us is that there are many commonalities between the Blue Jays current top prospect Travis D'Arnaud, and the newly-acquired, former star prospect Jeff Mathis.

Both players were taken in the supplemental first round of their respective drafts (Mathis 33rd in 2001 and D’Arnaud 37th in 2007). Both were considered athletic, all-around catchers; praised for their defence, receiving ability, and leadership behind the plate. Both are right-handed hitters, with strong throwing arms, who for some reason have problems with their release when trying to throw out runners. Both have had their share of injury problems throughout their careers

Mathis: broken hand, back pain, and a dislocated wrist.

D’Arnaud: concussion, tweaked back, herniated disk surgery, and torn ligaments in thumb.

D’Arnaud and Mathis profiles read so similarly in fact that if one looked at the scouting reports of each player out of context, they would have difficulty telling them apart. Here are a couple of scouting reports just as an example. Based on what you’ve heard, read, or seen of D’Arnaud could you figure out which ones belong to him and which belong to Mathis?

One of the position’s top athletes

He's young, plays a key defensive position and wields a very promising bat

Defensively, he grades as above-average as both a receiver and thrower, with a plus arm, soft hands and quick feet. While he’s athletic enough to play an infield spot, he’s too good behind the plate to move

[S]trong hands and plus bat speed allow him to drive the ball with power into the gaps, and eventually will produce home runs. He’s a premium athlete with an aggressive nature and above-average tools behind the plate. He already shows advanced receiving skills, a plus arm and a quick release

There are legitimate knocks against him, including an impatient approach, a need to improve his throwing mechanics, and a tendency to get hurt

I think he's going to be a star!

There are a total of six excerpts; three belonging to D’Arnaud, three to Mathis. Here’s the exact breakdown: D’Arnaud, Mathis, D’Arnaud, Mathis, D’Arnaud, and Mathis. How did you do? I imagine it wasn’t easy. And that’s understandable. I was taken aback myself by the similarities. In fact that last quote about Mathis being a potential "star," has been said of D’Arnaud many times this year, and I could have easily substituted one of those quotes in its place.

Now while it’s one thing to share a similar scouting profile. It could simply be the result of the scouting language being somewhat limited. For a more objective perspective, perhaps we should look at each player’s statistics, to see what they can tell us.

Here are Travis D' Arnaud's defensive stats for his minor league career:

Year              Age           Tm    Lg  Lev    Aff  G CG   Ch   PO   A  E DP Fld% RF/G PB  SB  CS CS% PO Rctch Rtz
2007               18     Phillies  GULF   Rk PHI  C    23  182  167  11  4  0 .978 7.74  7  19   6    24%        -3
2008               19      2 Teams 2 Lgs A--A PHI  C    58  504  453  41 10  1 .980 8.52 16  58  14    19%        -5
2008               19 Williamsport  NYPL   A- PHI  C    42  367  330  31  6  0 .984 8.60 11  41  12    23%        -4
2008               19     Lakewood  SALL    A PHI  C    16  137  123  10  4  1 .971 8.31  5  17   2    11%        -1
2009               20     Lakewood  SALL    A PHI  C    99  891  817  68  6  7 .993 8.94  9 132  40    23%        -1
2010               21      Dunedin  FLOR   A+ TOR  C    58  467  427  38  2  3 .996 8.02  2  38  16              30%
2011               22 NewHampshire    EL   AA TOR  C    98  838  775  57  6  7 .993 8.49 13  66  24              27%

Jeff Mathis's defensive stats in the minors:

Year                      Age              Tm    Lg   Lev    Aff  G CG   Ch   PO   A  E DP  Fld% RF/G PB  SB  CS CS% PO Rctch Rtz
2001                       18         2 Teams 2 Lgs    Rk ANA  C    23  210  184  24  2  0  .990 9.04  5  26   8              24%
2001                       18          Angels  ARIZ    Rk ANA  C     3   21   19   2  0  0 1.000 7.00  1   2   0               0%
2001                       18          Angels  ARIZ    Rk ANA OF     1    0    0   0  0        0                             0.00
2001                       18           Provo  PION    Rk ANA  C    20  189  165  22  2  0  .989 9.35  4  24   8              25%
2002                       19     CedarRapids  MIDW     A ANA  C    80  680  606  70  4  2  .994 8.45  6  47  28              37%
2003                       20         2 Teams 2 Lgs A+-AA ANA  C   105  828  738  83  7  6  .992 7.82 19  89  30              25%
2003                       20 RanchoCucamonga  CALL    A+ ANA  C    82  635  562  67  6  6  .991 7.67 14  73  23              24%
2003                       20        Arkansas    TL    AA ANA  C    23  193  176  16  1  0  .995 8.35  5  16   7              30%
2004                       21        Arkansas    TL    AA ANA  C   104  701  626  61 14  3  .980 6.61                          12
2005                       22        SaltLake   PCL   AAA LAA  C    94  654  598  47  9  5  .986 6.86  6  52  25    32%        -1
2006                       23        SaltLake   PCL   AAA LAA  C    83  614  547  61  6  9  .990 7.33  6  61  31    34%         0
2007                       24        SaltLake   PCL   AAA LAA  C    58  446  383  55  8  7  .982 7.55  6  32  21    40%         6
                                                                                                                            

A few pertinent differences arise when first looking at these charts. Mathis made it to Double-A as a 20-year-old, while D'Arnaud did not arrive there until his age-22 season. D'Arnaud had 47 passed-balls in five minor league seasons, including 13 in Double-A New Hampshire in 2011. Mathis had 61 in eight minor league seasons including 12 in Double-A as a 21-year-old (an average of 7.6 compared to D'Arnaud's 9.4 per season).

Now D'Arnaud did top Mathis in career fielding percentage at 99.0 per cent to 98.8 per cent in each of their respective minor league careers. But considering that Mathis was almost two years younger than D'Arnaud at each level played, the .20 per cent difference is somewhat negligible.

Does this mean that Mathis was better defensively as a prospect than D'Arnaud is now? Not necessarily. Statistics can sometimes be misleading. As far as reputation goes they both were heralded as very good defensive catchers coming up through their respective organizations, with Mathis possibly having a slight edge.

Defensively if there has been one criticism of D’Arnaud, it has been his inability to throw out runners. Though possessing a plus arm, his release times have been consistently average to below average so far in his young career.

[D’Arnaud’s] throwing arm is well above average, and he's ironing out some flaws in his mechanics that inhibited his throwing at times. He threw out just 19% of runners in 2008

The same thing has been said of Mathis now in his major league career, where in 7 seasons he has compiled a mediocre caught-stealing percentage of 24 per cent, mirroring D’Arnaud’s unimpressive career caught stealing numbers, despite his inflated defensive reputation. These concerns were likewise being expressed about Mathis when he was still a prospect. Here’s what Sickels had to say in that old ESPN article:

[Mathis] has a strong arm, but he sometimes has problems with his release. He hasn't thrown out runners at a great clip this year


Now as for their offensive comparison: Physically D'Arnaud presents a more projectable package at 6'2 than the 6’0 Mathis. But their minor league numbers stack up pretty evenly at first glance:


D'Arnaud

Year                      Age           Tm      Lg  Lev Aff   G   PA   AB   R   H  2B 3B HR RBI SB CS  BB  SO   BA  OBP  SLG  OPS  TB GDP HBP SH SF IBB
2007                       18     Phillies    GULF   Rk PHI  41  151  141  18  34   3  0  4  20  4  2   4  23 .241 .278 .348 .626  49   7   4  0  2   0
2008                       19      2 Teams   2 Lgs A--A PHI  64  267  239  33  73  18  1  6  30  1  2  23  39 .305 .367 .464 .831 111   5   2  0  3   2
2008                       19 Williamsport    NYPL   A- PHI  48  197  175  21  54  13  1  4  25  1  2  18  29 .309 .371 .463 .833  81   3   1  0  3   2
2008                       19     Lakewood    SALL    A PHI  16   70   64  12  19   5  0  2   5  0  0   5  10 .297 .357 .469 .826  30   2   1  0  0   0
2009                       20     Lakewood    SALL    A PHI 126  540  482  71 123  38  1 13  71  8  4  41  75 .255 .319 .419 .738 202  10   8  0  9   1
2010                       21      Dunedin    FLOR   A+ TOR  71  292  263  36  68  20  1  6  38  3  1  20  63 .259 .315 .411 .726 108   6   4  0  5   1
2011                       22 NewHampshire      EL   AA TOR 114  466  424  72 132  33  1 21  78  4  2  33 100 .311 .371 .542

Mathis

Year                          Age              Tm       Lg   Lev Aff   G   PA   AB   R   H  2B 3B HR RBI SB CS  BB  SO   BA  OBP  SLG  OPS   TB GDP HBP SH SF IBB
2001                           18         2 Teams    2 Lgs    Rk ANA  29  119  100  15  30   7  3  0  21  1  0  13  17 .300 .378 .430 .808   43   2   2  0  4   0
2001                           18           Provo     PION    Rk ANA  22   93   77  14  23   6  3  0  18  1  0  11  13 .299 .387 .455 .842   35   1   2  0  3   0
2001                           18          Angels     ARIZ    Rk ANA   7   26   23   1   7   1  0  0   3  0  0   2   4 .304 .346 .348 .694    8   1   0  0  1   0
2002                           19     CedarRapids     MIDW     A ANA 128  549  491  75 141  41  3 10  73  7  4  40  75 .287 .346 .444 .790  218   6   8  2  8   3
2003                           20         2 Teams    2 Lgs A+-AA ANA 121  533  473  92 149  39  3 13  68  6  5  47  90 .315 .380 .493 .872  233   6   6  1  6   1
2003                           20 RanchoCucamonga     CALL    A+ ANA  97  422  378  73 122  28  3 11  54  5  3  35  74 .323 .384 .500 .884  189   4   5  0  4   0
2003                           20        Arkansas       TL    AA ANA  24  111   95  19  27  11  0  2  14  1  2  12  16 .284 .364 .463 .827   44   2   1  1  2   1
2004                           21        Arkansas       TL    AA ANA 117  494  432  57  98  24  3 14  55  2  1  49 102 .227 .310 .394 .704  170   5   5  4  4   1
2005                           22        SaltLake      PCL   AAA LAA 111  476  424  78 118  26  3 21  73  4  3  42  84 .278 .342 .502 .844  213   7   1  5  4   1
2006                           23        SaltLake      PCL   AAA LAA  99  417  384  62 111  33  3  5  45  3  1  26  75 .289 .333 .430 .763  165   6   2  0  5   1
2007                           24        SaltLake      PCL   AAA LAA  66  273  250  39  61  14  2  5  26  3  1  17  45 .244 

2011 is largely considered D'Arnaud's breakout season offensively as a prospect. As a 22-year-old in his first season with Toronto’s Double-A New Hampshire affiliate he hit for a triple slash line of .311/.372/.542 with 21 homeruns, 78 RBIs, and a 33-100 ratio of walks-to-strikeouts. Mathis in contrast, arrived in Double-A Arkansas with the Angels midway through 2003 as a 20-year-old. There he hit .284/.364/.483 albeit in only 111 plate appearances after being promoted from High-A Rancho Cucamonga where he had hit .323/.324/.500 in 422 plate appearances along with 11 homeruns, 54 RBIs, and 35 BB to 74 SO.

The next season Mathis again found himself in Double-A Arkansas to start the year. A year older, he struggled for a combination of reasons, including nagging health issues, which resulted in a line of .227/.310/.394, albeit with 14 homeruns, and 54 RBIs, to go with a respectable 49 BB to 102 SO. It had been the first time in his minor league career that Mathis had struggled with the bat. Previous to that he had averaged a triple slash line of .305/.395/.444 over three minor league seasons bettering D’Arnaud’s career average of .278/.336/.452.

Now a couple of important considerations must be made. The first is that Mathis was virtually a year-and-a-half younger at every level he played at (prior to 2006) than D’Arnaud was at every level he’s played. Furthermore, Mathis’ career minor league offensive totals have been marginally better on average than D’Arnaud’s have been so far in his young career. However, Mathis overall numbers may be somewhat inflated by having played in favourable hitting environments in Triple-A Salt Lake of the Pacific Coast League, and High-A Rancho Cucamonga of the California League (often called the PCL of the low minors). In contrast, Lakewood of the Sally (South Atlantic League) in which D’Arnaud played from 2008-2009 while he was with the Phillies, as well as Dunedin of the Florida State League (The Blue Jays High-A affiliate) have long been considered pitcher’s havens that have typically depressed hitting numbers.

Overall D’Arnaud’s offensive reputation is probably slightly ahead of Mathis’s at the same point in their respective careers, despite what the stats might suggest. But Mathis bat was well-regarded in its own right, having been projected (during his prospect days) to be capable of plus power and average, to go along with above average plate discipline. It is highly doubtful that any of the prospect pundits that had predicted future stardom for Mathis (as many of the same pundits do now for D’Arnaud) would have envisioned him becoming one of the worst offensive players in baseball. Here are two scouts’ take on each player:

[H]as all-star caliber tools, on both sides of the game and might hit .275 each season with 20-25 home runs.

At his peak, I would not be surprised to see [him] surface as a .270-.285 hitter with 18-25 home run power while contributing above average defense and plus game management skills.

The first report refers to Jeff Mathis while the second belongs to Travis D’Arnaud; though both reports read almost identical. You would think the scouts were talking about the same player.

But what does this mean for the Blue Jays’ Travis D’Arnaud? Is he destined to be the overwhelming disappointment the once-hyped Jeff Mathis has ultimately turned out to be, just because they share a few interesting corollaries? Of course not! The trajectory of a player’s development is not linear, and thus neither should prospect evaluation.

It’s tough to figure out what really happened to Mathis. What kept him from fulfilling his immense potential? Or did nothing at all happen, and he just wasn’t as good as some people thought he was? Perhaps there are also deficiencies in D’Arnaud’s game which might hold him back from fulfilling his potential the way that Mathis’ did him.

Now offensively D’Arnaud’s profile shows very few weaknesses but if there were one it would have to be his inability to hit hard pitches inside on his hands. As one scout says:

[D’Arnaud] has trouble with cutting, inside fastballs and savvy pitchers at higher levels have clearly learned to exploit this weakness over the past couple of seasons. Instead of keeping his hands inside of the ball, when he’s pressing, he’ll sacrifice his swing mechanics in an attempt to pull an inside pitch to left—leading to strikeouts and foul pop-ups.

Now, if you look at this analysis of Jeff Mathis’ hot and cold hitting zone charts for his major league career, he has likewise shown an inability to handle inside pitches.

.444 .167 .000

.222 .476 .059

.125 .368 .000

His hot zones are pretty much pitches right down the middle and up and away. But as the chart also shows, Mathis is hitting below .059 on pitches inside. He also shows difficulty hitting pitches on the outside, which was once considered one of his strengths. Could his inability to hit the inside pitch have caused him to cheat, and thus lead him to become vulnerable to outside pitches?

One other issue with Mathis throughout his major league career has been his terrible walk and strikeout percentages. Walk and strikeout percentage are advanced offensive stats used to measure a player’s plate discipline. In Mathis’ career both of these have been severely lacking.

Mathis major league walk rate is precisely 7.0 per cent, a point and a half lower than the league average, which is roughly 8.5 per cent. His strikeout rate is even more alarming at 26.5 per cent, well above the league average of 20.7 per cent. But this hadn’t always been the case with Mathis. His minor league stats and scouting reports all spoke of a player with excellent contact ability, and plate discipline. His career strikeout and walk percentages in the minors were an excellent 17.1k to 8.2bb respectively which would rate as above average to average. Again we have to ask what went wrong for Mathis, and further, could it also happen for D’Arnaud.

To find out, we have to compare D’Arnaud’s peripheral numbers. For D’Arnaud’s career his walk and strikeout rates both rank as below average, and were certainly worse on par than Mathis’ at 17.1k and 7.1bb. Moreover, you see D’Arnaud’s plate discipline and contact rate beginning to trend downwards as they did for Mathis as he rose to higher levels, and better competition.

In Rookie ball and A-ball D’Arnaud’s strikeout rate was outstanding at 16.0k, which would qualify as above average. His walk rate remains pretty steady for his career however at 7.0 per cent, which is slightly below average, but not to a significant degree.

Once he was promoted to Double-A New Hampshire however, D’Arnaud’s strikeout rate jumps significantly from 16.0 per cent to 21.5 per cent, a 5.5 per cent increase, which is not offset by the measly 0.1 per cent increase in his walk-rate. It is surprising that even given these contact issues D’Arnaud was able to post impressive numbers during his Double-A debut, but as he moves up to Triple-A next season and potentially the Major Leagues, and those numbers continue to trend towards the negative, he could see similar decline to Mathis, whose contact rate and plate discipline in the Show has been horrendous.

What does this mean for D’Arnaud? We’ll have to wait and see. In 2012 he will still be 22-years-old and will begin his sixth season in the minor leagues playing for the Las Vegas of the Pacific Coast League. Depending on his performance there, he will likely make his debut in the Major Leagues for the Toronto Blue Jays sometime later in the year. When he does he’ll be playing alongside Mathis his scouting doppelganger. In German myth and folklore a doppelganger acts as a person’s supernatural double that is said to be an ominous sign. Perhaps this is what Mathis is now for D’Arnaud, a sobering reminder that being a highly-rated prospect in baseball is about as fleeting as alcohol induced euphoria, because the player the Blue Jays just acquired from the Angels also stood where he does now, in his same cleats, in a manner of speaking.

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