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Travis D’Arnaud, Las Vegas, and Catching Prospects

Posted By Eno Sarris On December 18, 2012 @ 11:00 am In Daily Graphings | 53 Comments

Travis D’Arnaud has always been a highly-regarded prospect. Even before his numbers took a leap forward in Double- and Triple-A, scouts liked his approach at the plate and thought his athleticism would bode well for his developing defense. He was the Mets’ prerequisite for any R.A. Dickey trade, and getting him was an important position-player prospect piece in their rebuilding plan.

And yet, there are plenty of reasons to doubt him, reasons that go beyond his specific track record or the general fact that he is a prospect.

Perhaps the biggest asterisk on D’Arnaud’s production so far comes from his Triple-A park. Las Vegas is a hitter’s park in the most hitter-friendly league in the minors. Front offices, and this site, have tools used to normalize those numbers, but extreme parks sometimes have effects that reach beyond their dimensions. Confidence can breed confidence. Bill Petti found evidence that extreme hitter’s parks have a negative correlation with team wins, which suggests that there are ballpark effects that go beyond our surface park factors.

We won’t solve the small park’s problems here, but there have been a steady stream of Blue Jays’ positional prospects making the trip from Las Vegas to the major leagues since the park was added to the Jays’ system four years ago. What do they teach us? Here are the team’s prospects that played in Las Vegas and in the major leagues — with their team prospect rank according to Marc Hulet, isolated power, plate appearances, and park- and league-adjusted weighted runs created numbers.

Hulet Rank LV PA LV ISO LV wRC+ MLB PA MLB ISO MLB wRC+
Anthony Gose #1, 2012 479 0.133 106 189 0.096 73
Brett Lawrie #2, 2011 329 0.308 163 707 0.168 114
J.P. Arencibia #3, 2011 959 0.263 115 895 0.211 89
Adeiny Hechavarria #10, 2011 606 0.119 113 137 0.111 73
Eric Thames #13, 2011 472 0.228 145 684 0.182 97
Darin Mastroianni #25, 2011 364 0.113 90 189 0.097 87
Brett Wallace #1, 2010 423 0.208 121 792 0.127 92
Moises Sierra #5, 2010 422 0.183 115 157 0.150 76
Average 0.194375 121 0.14275 87.625

If you remove the sole non-top-fifteen player on this list, the average Las Vegas ISO is .206 (125 wRC+), and the average major league ISO is .149 (87 wRC+). D’Arnaud’s slugging percentage should take a hit leaving the friendly confines of Vegas, which has a home run park factor of 116, top five in all of minor league baseball.

It’s not brain surgery to say that an offense-friendly park can help a player put up friendly offensive numbers. It is still sobering to see that D’Arnaud had an almost identical ISO in Las Vegas as Arencibia, at almost identical ages, too. If you characterized them generally, you could say that they were both slugging catchers with below-average walk rates and average-ish strikeout rates that enjoyed friendly high-minors hitting environments. Too many similarities between these two hitters might make Mets fans squeamish.

That one-player comp ignores the scouting, which has consistently favored D’Arnaud’s hitting approach and his developing defensive skills. That isn’t to say that there isn’t some disagreement about D’Arnaud’s ability to receive, even if there isn’t any doubt he’s a top-two catching prospect in baseball.

And yet that designation alone doesn’t come without an asterisk. Catchers have the second-lowest ‘superior’ turnout on the infield. Only 16.7% of catcher prospects in Baseball America’s top 100 turn out to be elite in the major leagues. Second basemen (9.5%) are worse, but second basemen are found, not grown — often, they are defensive-challenged former shortstops and arm-challenged former third basemen.

But look over the list of recent top-100 catcher prospects, and you’ll see it’s a tough position to prognosticate. The catchers that were once on Baseball America’s top 100 list, and also managed 200 plate appearances in a season — they’ve put up a 96 wRC+ on average. All catchers in the league had a 95 wRC+ last season.

So are we saying that, since he was a top-100 catching prospect, Travis D’Arnaud can be a major league catcher? One that has a 16% chance of being superior? That seems like an underwhelming central piece for the reigning National League Cy Young winner.

But we are guilty of comping D’Arnaud to players that are beneath him again. Not only is Arencibia in this group, but so are players like Adam Moore, Guillermo Quiroz, and Austin Romine — catchers that were never elite prospects like D’Arnaud. Limit the list to catchers that appeared in Baseball America’s top 25 since 2000, and you get much more exciting outcomes. Mostly:

G PA HR BB% K% AVG OBP SLG wRC+ WAR
Joe Mauer 1065 4552 94 12.2% 10.4% 0.323 0.405 0.468 133 40.1
Victor Martinez 1149 4819 143 9.5% 11.1% 0.303 0.37 0.469 121 29
Buster Posey 308 1255 46 9.3% 14.7% 0.314 0.38 0.503 142 13.7
Matt Wieters 509 2031 65 9.0% 18.5% 0.26 0.328 0.421 100 12.9
Carlos Santana 344 1459 51 15.4% 18.0% 0.247 0.363 0.443 124 8.9
Jarrod Saltalamacchia 474 1733 64 8.1% 29.4% 0.239 0.302 0.418 88 3.9
Jesus Montero 153 622 19 5.8% 18.6% 0.267 0.31 0.408 99 0.4
Devin Mesoraco 72 237 7 8.4% 18.1% 0.205 0.274 0.353 63 -0.1
J.R. House 32 63 3 1.6% 25.4% 0.167 0.206 0.367 46 -0.3
Jeff Mathis 496 1587 34 6.6% 27.0% 0.198 0.256 0.314 51 -0.5

If we give Devin Mesoraco and Jesus Montero ‘incompletes’ as grades, you’re left with five superior outcomes, one decent catcher who’s basically been league average twice, and two busts in Jeff Mathis and J.R. House.

Mathis is *probably* a false comp. He only once had an ISO over .200, and though that came in the PCL like D’Arnaud’s excellent 2012, it was more of out an outlier. D’Arnaud ISO’ed over .200 in the Eastern League in 2011. Mathis had an 8.2% walk rate and a 17.2% strikeout rate in the minors, and D’Arnaud… 6.9% and 17.8% respectively. That’s a bit of a skin-crawling comp, but even the more glowing Mathis scouting reports didn’t talk of his bat the same way as scouts talk about D’Arnaud now. House? He’ll remain a boogeyman for catcher prospects, the TINSTAACP-inspiring question mark placed on the knees (and labrums) of players that have to come out of a squat and throw to second base so often.

And all of this is without really tackling D’Arnaud specifically. The player himself provides one last possible issue: he’s a large man. At six-foot-two, there’s a chance that his size will limit his longevity. He’s 24 next year, and may see a drop-off in his ability to stay on the field before his years under team control are over, or so suggests that research from Jeff Zimmerman.

Prospects are iffy. Prospects whose best offensive seasons came in hitter-friendly parks might be more so. And (large?) catching prospects might even provide an additional layer of uncertainty. By all accounts, Travis D’Arnaud is an excellent all-around catcher and a great get for the rebuilding Mets. Given all those question marks, though, it’s still good news that there are other interesting names coming back to the Mets in the R.A. Dickey deal.

[ISO = isolated power, or slugging percentage minus batting average (an attempt to isolate power). wRC+ is indexed weighted runs created, a stat which weights each offensive contribution and then park- and league-adjusts it. You could say a player with a 110 wRC+ has shown offense that is 10% better than league average.]


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