Fantasy Baseball: Can Travis d'Arnaud Finally Be a Top Offensive Catcher?

Travis d'Arnaud has gone from being a prized prospect to an enigma for the New York Mets and fantasy baseball owners. The 2017 season could finally be different, though.

To say that the 2017 season is a make-or-break year for New York Mets catcher Travis d'Arnaud is quite an understatement.

He's fresh off the most disappointing offensive performance of his career (wRC+ of 74), which just so happened to be shortened once again by multiple stints on the disabled list. A top-50 prospect -- and top catching prospect -- in baseball as recently as 2014, his offensive ability is what made him the centerpiece in two separate trades for former Cy Young winners.

After posting a meager .323 slugging percentage with a total of just 11 extra-base hits in 2016 (7 doubles and 4 home runs), it's no surprise that his fantasy baseball stock has plummeted.

According to National Fantasy Baseball Championship (NFBC) data, he's the 21st catcher off the board with an average draft position (ADP) of 288.86. He's currently sandwiched between Mike Zunino, who's also been a disappointment in his own right, and Devin Mesoraco, who's only accumulated 106 plate appearances since the start of 2015.

Heck, Wilson Ramos is getting taken a full 30 picks before him, and he's not even expected to return from his ACL injury until May.

D'Arnaud isn't an enticing fantasy baseball option for various reasons, but why could 2017 finally be different?

A Horrendous 2016

There's really no way around it -- last year was a dreadful one for the Mets' backstop.

Not only was he limited to 75 games, putting his name in the lineup seemed like a waste for manager Terry Collins. While he played in only 67 games in 2015, he did still manage to put together some solid numbers.

Since the sample sizes are nearly identical, it helps us see just how much he regressed from one year to the next in OPS, Isolated Power (ISO) and wRC+.

Year Plate Appearances OPS ISO wRC+
2015 268 .825 .218 130
2016 276 .629 .076 74

Furthermore, the impact of his performance can easily be seen in his batted-ball numbers, including line-drive rate (LD%), ground-ball rate (GB%), fly-ball rate (FB%), homer-to-fly-ball ratio (HR/FB) and his soft-hit rate (Soft%).

Year PA LD% GB% FB% HR/FB% Soft%
2015 268 21.4% 37.0% 41.7% 15.0% 17.7%
2016 276 16.9% 52.2% 30.8% 6.5% 22.5%

In what was his age-27 season, d'Arnaud's production was heading in the opposite direction of where it was supposed to be going.

Probably the best way to sum up his 2016 was that when the Mets took on the San Francisco Giants in the one-game National League Wild Card game, Collins decided to start Rene Rivera, a career .213/.264/.332 hitter, over d'Arnaud.

So, yeah, it was a bad year. But it wasn't all bad, at least.

Finding the Positives

Throughout all this depressing data we sifted through, there were a couple positives to glean from it.

Sure, that 22.5% soft-hit rate was easily the highest of his career, but at least his hard-hit rate increased between 2015 (29.2%) and 2016 (32.4%). The problem was that over half of all his batted balls ended up on the ground, an event that resulted in a wRC+ of just 30.

When hitters struggle as much as d'Arnaud did last season, it's not uncommon to see their plate discipline erode while trying to fight themselves out of it. Thankfully, his plate discipline actually improved a bit across the board, including pitches outside the strike zone (O-Swing% and O-Contact%) and inside the strike zone (Z-Swing% and Z-Contact%).

Year O-Swing% O-Contact% Z-Swing% Z-Contact% Swing% Contact%
2015 27.7% 62.9% 67.3% 86.1% 46.6% 78.9%
2016 25.3% 77.2% 67.5% 88.0% 46.0% 85.0%

It would've been nicer to see his Z-Contact% take a bigger jump than his O-Contact%, but we're looking for glimmers of hope here, and that's what this is. At least his plate discipline didn't suffer as much as one would think while being mired in probably the worst slump of his professional career.

Since his actual approach wasn't the problem, what was? If you watched d'Arnaud's swing from one year to the next, the main issue would be clear.

New Swing, Better Results (So Far)

For whatever reason, the young catcher's swing became very long and loopy, which can be seen in the below video.

The result here was a good one, but we can easily see how far his hands need to travel from the time he began loading to when he actually makes contact.

The below video was his second home run of the spring, hit on Monday. It's a different angle, but notice the difference in where his hands are right before bringing them through the hitting zone. The head of the bat doesn't point toward the pitcher's mound before starting his swing.

Much different, and quicker to the ball. Spring Training stats don't count, but it shouldn't be surprising that d'Arnaud is one of baseball's hottest hitters at the moment. He spent a lot of time working with hitting coach Kevin Long over the winter to eliminate that "bat wrap" for a more traditional-looking stance, hoping it'd enable him to be more compact.

So far, the results have been fantastic, including a .450/.450/.800 line with 3 extra-base hits (2 homers, 1 double) in 20 at-bats entering Wednesday. And yes, spring stats should be taken with a grain of salt (although they are important), but compared to what he did last season during spring training (.178/.269/.222 in 45 at-bats), it's like night and day.

He still needs to carry this over into the regular season, but the results sure have been encouraging to this point.

The X-Factor

According to numberFire's projections, d'Arnaud is expected to be the 23rd-best catcher with an nF score of -1.15, powered by a .246 average, .705 OPS, 11 homers and 36 RBI's in 379 plate appearances.

Based on his new swing and early results in Port St. Lucie, he has a good chance of outperforming those projections and even ending up as a top-10 fantasy producer at a position that's rather top-heavy. What could prevent him from accomplishing that?

His health, of course.

D'Arnaud debuted in August 2013, so 2014 was his first full season in the bigs. Since then, he's played in just 250 of a possible 486 regular season games, with his single-season high being 108.

If 2017 is truly going to be the year for this 28-year-old former top prospect to finally make good on those initial expectations, he needs to stay on the field. Given his current ADP, he doesn't need to be a priority on draft day, but if his spring production keeps soaring, he's worth selecting very late or claiming off the waiver wire to stash on your bench.

He's got a great chance of finally being a valuable piece to contending fantasy baseball teams, as long as he's healthy. Based on the changes he's made at the plate, that could be the final piece to the puzzle.