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Backup Backstops

I feel like every year we’re out here saying Travis d’Arnaud has had a lost season. He has injured a different part of his body each time, too.  That is probably the most gut wrenching part.  This isn’t a guy who suffered some chronic issue, like a bad back or a bum knee.  Instead, he suffered a broken wrist from a hit by pitch, and a broken foot from a foul ball, and a hyper extended elbow from a collision at the plate.  Every year it is something different.  In 2016, he had four problems:

  1. Travis d’Arnaud has had a slight hitch in his swing throughout his career, and it has gone through phases of prominence. Earlier in his career it was quite blatant, then he made an adjustment to remedy the problem, only to have it reappear during 2015. After the 2015 season, the coaching staff went through the video and determined the actions that once remedied this hitch was now exacerbating it, and they advised him to stop. As such, he entered 2016 with this problem on full display, with no apparent remedy of any sort. You may have noticed him pointing the head of the bat at the pitcher prior to his swing, which, well, let’s just say it didn’t help one bit.
  2. His stride length increased dramatically. In 2015, the goal was to keep his stride between 4 and 6 inches. He didn’t always manage this, but that was the stated goal. In 2016, he increased his stride length to 12 to 16 inches. Kevin Long preached to Travis to shorten this, and in June he seemed to shorten up a bit, which helped drive a four week period in which he hit .294/.231/.412.
  3. Shoulder injuries, they are killers. Travis Strained his rotator cuff, received a platelet rich plasma rejection, and spent some time on the disabled list to recoup his strength. While this injury is nowhere near as severe as other injuries could have been, this is a far cry from a torn labrum, for example, it did significantly reduce his strength and arm speed. His throws behind the plate became suspect, with both far below average pop up/release times and wild inaccuracy. His bat speed surely didn’t fair much better.
  4. RBIs! How is it possible to have 2 RBI in 99 plate appearances?! It strains the imagination, even pitcher’s luck into RBIs every once in awhile. For reference, of the 39 pitchers who had 50 PA in 2016, 36 had at least two RBI. Zach Davies, Chase Anderson, and Dan Straily were the only hold outs. Travis had 2 in his final 99 plate appearances, while playing for a playoff team! He had chances, believe me.

Alright, so those were d’Arnaud’s problems. Two problems with his swing mechanics, an injury, and an odd statistical anomaly. As a result, his ADP has dropped from 145-150 to 290-300, but the question remains: how should he be your second catcher in a two catcher league? I just described four “Ifs.”  If he can get rid of the hitch, if he can shorten his stride, if his shoulder is healthy, if he can get some RBIs.  Is his competition much better?

Second Catcher Competition

Stats are averaged from Steamer, ZiPS, and xStats

A bunch of these guys, in my opinion, are stretches for value.  Sandy Leon and Derek Norris are both back up catchers. Wilson Ramos is in a rocky place at the moment, recovering from a significant knee injury. The recovery time is around 6-8 months, on his timeline that means April to June. Ramos currently aiming to return in May, which is very optimistic, but considering this is his second ACL surgery it is easy to envision getting pushed back towards June or July. Ramos will miss anywhere from 16 to 60% of the season, and there is no telling how he will perform after missing this much time. Mesoraco hasn’t had a single healthy season in years, but unlike d’Arnaud his injuries are much more severe.

Zunino’s Power Surge?

Zunino raised his average launch angle by quite a bit in 2016. Not so much in the good ways, either, he pushed more for the extremes of hitting the ball above 36 degrees, which is where home runs begin to turn into fly outs. In 2015 he hit 19.9% of his balls between 21 and 36 degrees, which isn’t that great. You really want to see guys hitting at least 22% of their balls in that area. In 2016, this number raised to to 22.6%. This is better, certainly, but he also hit 29.9% his balls above 36 degrees. That is bad. I have three main categories of batted balls above 36 degrees.

Zunino Balls hit Above 36°

2015 BIP% 2016 BIP% lg wOBA lgDist
70-90mph 5.0% 5.5% .035 236.0
90-100mph 6.1% 5.5% .092 299.8
100+ mph 1.3% 2.7% .636 352.7
All 21.7% 29.9% .084 236.6

Hitting a lot of these balls is far from ideal, and to make matters worse many of them have very low exit velocity. He hit a few more above 100 mph, which is great, but, but balls hit on a lower launch angle are much more valuable, even at lower exit velocities. Those hit between 21 and 36 degrees between 70 and 90 mph have an average wOBA of .212, and those hit between 90 and 100 mph have an average wOBA of .648. Raising your launch angle to this degree is not great for overall performance. He has crossed a line.

These are league average stats, though, and horizontal angle matters quite a bit. Maybe he’s just hitting all the balls at, say, 37 degrees, so hits balls are more similar to the lower trajectory? I’ve calculated his average results below. Also note, these exit velocities and distances are corrected for any potentially missing statcast data using a method similar to what Jeff Zimmerman described here.

Zunino Power Surge?

Player Year HR Number HR% % >36° HR% >36° Distance EV xOBA
Zunino 2015 10 27 37.0% 25.9% 0.0% 384.7 101.3 1.017
MLB 2015 4661 12767 36.5% 15.8% 6.5% 382.7 100.2 .954
Zunino 2016 12 19 63.2% 8.9% 0.0% 390.1 103.8 1.235
MLB 2016 5172 13060 39.6% 8.9% 6.5% 384.3 100.8 .985

Balls Hit at least 350 feet

Notice how zero percent of his home runs are hit about 36 degrees. All of those balls are lost, they have low success rates and no way to benefit him, especially in a fantasy setting. He could get a few sac flies out of it, that’s about it.

His home run rate per ball hit further than 350 feet did jump quite a bit in 2016, but compare that to the league average, it is nearly 50% above average. That seems like it is probably a small sample size issue.

I have seen a lot of talk of Zunino’s power production picking up in 2017. It is possible, sure, his exit velocities are up. That’s very good. But his launch angles need to come down dramatically. You cannot survive by hitting 29+ percent of your balls above 36 degrees. If he hits 29% between 21 and 36 degrees, then we’re talking.

Yan Gomes: Are Injuries Going to be Under Control?

Rolling Exit Velocity data is rapidly becoming a useful tool for measuring batter injuries, especially those to areas of the body that supply power such as the wrists, shoulders, hips, knees, and ankles. I feel like I just listed every part of the body. Anyways. Take a look at Yan Gomes’ rolling velocity over the past two years. I marked two of his injuries with vertical black lines. His knee injury happened just prior to the first data point on this chart, so keep in mind the Y axis should be regarded as an injury.

Like I said, Gomes suffered an injury just prior to what I have labeled Plate Appearance 0.  Zero represents the first plate appearance back from the disabled list.  The two other lines represent his other injuries. One around plate appearance 257, and the other around 424.  Both of these injuries required prolonged stints on the disabled list.

Looking at this chart, you get the sense that Gomes was rushed back from his first knee injury in 2015, and his exit velocity stagnated around 83 to 87 mph, which is very low.  Average exit velocity should be closer to 88 or 90 miles per hour.  Low 80mph exit velocity translates to batting averages close to .100 or maybe .120 on a good day. Towards the end of the 2015 season, between plate appearances 190 and 240, you can see his exit velocity returned to what should be roughly is his normal, healthy range, only to drop off badly when he suffered another injury in early 2016. Judging by this, you’d be hard pressed to call any significant period of time in the past two years even remotely close to “healthy production”.

Where does d’Arnaud Stand?

These guys are all lower ranking catchers for a reason, we all know that, and Cameron Rupp is the only one on this list I truly feel comfortable throwing my support behind. However, if you’re in a league that requires the second catcher, d’Arnaud may be the least risky of the bunch.  Yes, he has injury and hitting mechanics problems, and I would certainly keep an eye on his batting mechanics through spring training up through to the date of your draft.  If his swing is  still loopy or if he points his bat at the pitcher, then pull the ejection cord.  Likewise if he starts having trouble throwing to second base.  But, if you’re torn between him and guys like Mesoraco, Zunino, or Gomes, well, I’m personally siding with d’Arnaud.

Creator of and I play around with statcast data for fun. I very occasionally tweet on @AndrewPerpetua.

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