-The K Zone-
October 20, 2017
Finding the Mets a Starting Catcher, by Mojo Hill
In the middle of the 2017 season, it looked as though the New York Mets were in dire need of a serviceable catcher. Now, heading into the offseason, it looks as though the position will actually be one of their last priorities.
For the past four seasons, the Mets’ catchers have been the led by the inconsistent and oft-injured Travis d’Arnaud. D’Arnaud was called up in 2013 and struggled mightily right out of the gate with a 60 wRC+, but figured things out a bit in 2014 when he played in 108 games while providing roughly league-average offense and an overall 1.3 WAR season. He had his best offensive season in 2015, but he missed a lot of time due to injuries, playing in only 67 games with an impressive 130 wRC+. 2016 was a down year for him as he played in only 75 games and had a down year at the plate. 2017 was the best year for him health-wise, as he set career highs in most counting stats. However, he had mediocre and inconsistent year at the plate, and until August 19th, he was batting just .231/.279/.400 (76 wRC+). D’Arnaud was once a well-regarded prospect, but he seemed to molding into an inconsistent mediocre offensive catcher. And this doesn’t even include his struggles with throwing out runners.
And the problem was, there was nobody behind him who could do a serviceable job at catcher every day. D’Arnaud’s offense may have been underwhelming, but it was at least good enough to keep him in the lineup regularly. From 2014-2016, the Mets ranked 26th of the 30 teams in cumulative catcher wRC+ and 27th in cumulative catcher WAR. D’Arnaud was mediocre and oft-injured while the six other catchers who filled in for him in that time frame ranged from bad to downright awful. Five of those six were veteran backup/Minor League catchers who you shouldn’t have expected much from, but one of them was particularly disappointing, and that was former 2012 2nd round pick Kevin Plawecki. Like d’Arnaud, the Mets once viewed Plawecki as a potential future franchise catcher, and while Plawecki did prove to be better defensively than d’Arnaud, with a much better arm and better pitch framing, his hitting was unfortunately pathetic, as in this three year time span he collected 409 plate appearances and a terrible .211/.287/.285 batting line. Unsuprisingly, Plawecki also collected a lot of time in Triple-A during this time, and he continued to mash down in the hitter-friendly environment of Las Vegas, but he just could never things out with the bat at the Major League level.
Plawecki started the 2017 season in the Majors, and through May 21 he collected 28 plate appearances and batted just .125/.214/.167. One noticeable thing about his offense despite his struggles was that he continued to post a pretty good walk rate of 8.2% and a surprisingly respectable 22.1% strikeout rate. His overall batted profile looked pretty mediocre overall, and his batted ball direction profile was pretty even in terms of using all fields. The main problem for Plawecki was that he just wasn’t hitting the ball hard enough or hitting enough line drives.
Plawecki then spent a huge chunk of the season in Triple-A, where, as always, he hit really well, and then returned on August 19th and completely turned things around. The sample size was still relatively small, but in the 90 plate appearances Plawecki had to close out the season, he hit .303/.4.11/.474, good for a 137 wRC+, and he did this while posting a fairly normal .333 BABIP. His walk rate went from good to great, as he walked 13.3% of the time while striking out only slightly more at 14.4% of the time. This is a manager’s dream nowadays, in an era where hitters are striking out more than ever, and Plawecki managed to do this while improving greatly in the contact he made, the quality of contact and most importantly, his power. Until his late-season turnaround, he had always had an ISO far below .100, which is awful, and he improved that mark to and above average .170. Plawecki had finally converted his success in the Minors to the Majors, and it’s really impressive how he improved in every area of his game. He increased walks, decreased strikeouts, increased contact and increased power. Obviously he still has a little ways to go before he establishes himself as a reliable starting catcher, but if this hot streak proves to be more than just a fluke, Plawecki could actually blossom into one of the most well-rounded catchers in the game. The charts below show how significant and surprising Plawecki’s resurgence was.
Kevin Plawecki From 4/21/15 to 5/21/17
Kevin Plawecki from 8/19/17 to 10/1/17
Relatively small sample size aside, this was still extremely encouraging of someone who was seemingly molding into a classic AAAA hitter and disappointing prospect. He looked like a completely different hitter when he came back, as he was more selective and had a quality at-bat seemingly every time he came to the plate. So all hope is in fact not lost for Kevin Plawecki.
But what’s just a notable about Plawecki’s hot streak is that it must have fired some competition into d’Arnaud, who turned his season around with an even hotter streak of his own in this time period. From when Plawecki returned from the Minors, August 19th, until the end of the season, d’Arnaud slashed an impressive .297/.350/.571 (141 wRC+) after that bad start I mentioned earlier of only a 76 wRC+ until that point. Like Plawecki, d’Arnaud accomplished this new level with a sustainable BABIP (.279). Here’s a chart of what d’Arnaud did through August 19th vs. what he did after.
Travis d’Arnaud From 4/3/17 to 8/19/17
Travis d’Arnaud From 8/20/17 to 10/1/17
Like Plawecki, d’Arnaud began walking more, striking out less, and hitting for power, all extremely good signs. D’Arnaud is more of a power-hitting catcher than Plawecki, as he is below average in drawing walks, while Plawecki is more of OBP-centered player who also happens to have an above average amount of power with his big, muscular body type. If they can really use these tools to their full potentials like they did in their late-season surges, they can both be quality starting catchers or at the very least, one can be a solid backup for the other.
In addition to d’Arnaud and Plawecki, the Mets also have a catcher rising through their farm system to keep an eye on named Tomas Nido, an eighth round pick in the 2012 draft (the same draft that Plawecki was picked in). Nido’s not a huge prospect, but the Mets are still excited and optimistic with him and believe that he has the tools to be a starting catcher. Nido is described by fangragsports.com as “a very strong and powerful catcher. He has an ideal frame to be a catcher in professional baseball.” The 23-year-old is 6’0” 210 lbs., so he has the frame and strength, but it is also mentioned that he has an aggressive approach at the plate and has a long swing that he uses to try and blast home runs, and scouts wish he could tame that swing a little to try and hit for a better average. Nido didn’t hit much in Rookie ball or A ball, but he hit very well in High-A ball in 2016 when he hit .320/.357/.429. Unfortunately, he didn’t make a great transition to Double-A this year, where he hit just .232/.287/.354. He got a late September call-up to the Majors at the end of the season and got three hits in his first six at-bats before collecting a tough 0-4 day in the final game of the season, so he ultimately went 3-10 at the highest level. Nido is a good defensive catcher, and figures to spend all or most of 2018 in Triple-A Las Vegas, where hopefully the hitter-friendly environment will allow him to really find his swing and have a chance to produce at the Major League level. Nido has no one tool that overwhelms, but if he puts it all together he has a chance to be a solid Major League catcher.
Overall it seems as though the Mets have more depth at the catcher position than they realized if d’Arnaud and Plawecki’s late-season surges mean anything. D’Arnaud is an established mediocre starting catcher with potential for much more, while Plawecki and Nido are still yet to really establish themselves in the Majors and are going to need a little more development before the Mets can commit to either one of them as a starting catcher. But these hot streaks and the continued development of Nido should leave Mets fans excited for the potential of a great Major League catching tandem. And due to this newly realized depth at the position, it would no longer make sense to spend money on someone like Jonathan Lucroy in free agency, as it may have made sense three months ago. At this point in Lucroy’s career, the extra money spent wouldn’t be worth the slight upgrade, or possibly even downgrade, of Lucroy compared to what they have now. What the Mets need to do next season is give both d’Arnaud and Plawecki a fair shot, and whoever hits more gets to play more, while keeping note of Nido’s development in case he is needed at the Major League level. But the Mets should feel fairly comfortable with their in-house catching options and it should be one of their last priorities heading into the 2017-2018 offseason.