d'Arnaud impressing Mets with framing skills
Pitchers have noticed rookie has ability to make close pitches look like strikes
NEW YORK -- Mere minutes had passed since the Mets lost a tough one-run game to the Padres last Sunday, and few would have blamed Travis d'Arnaud for taking a moment to soak in the residue. In his second game as a big leaguer, d'Arnaud had hit into a double play and allowed a passed ball. Only one game remained before John Buck was to return from paternity leave, putting d'Arnaud's immediate future in doubt.
But instead of withdrawing into himself as teammates milled around a quiet Petco Park clubhouse, d'Arnaud sought out the next day's starting pitcher.
"He comes to me and starts talking about how I like to pitch guys, what I like to go to, just trying to figure me out," Dillon Gee recalled. "Just the willingness to want to come to me first and try to get on the same page, instead of me having to go to him …"
Gee did not finish the sentence, because he did not particularly need to. Every member of the Mets' pitching staff understands what it means to have a strong catcher behind the plate, and d'Arnaud's eagerness to develop into one has collectively impressed them.
"He's just smooth back there," rookie Zack Wheeler said.
Anecdotal evidence aside, the attributes of a strong catcher always seem up for debate. A decade ago, many evaluators preferred a backstop who could play the position competently while hitting the cover off the ball. Some organizations now seek out catchers with excellent reputations for game-calling, like Buck, while others still look for offensive-minded backstops.
But d'Arnaud's most impressive skill, at least according to his pitching staff, may be the one gaining significant traction throughout advanced statistical circles: the art of receiving, including pitch framing.
Simply put, receiving is a catcher's ability to catch the ball. It is the very definition of a catcher's job, and yet its intricacies -- which d'Arnaud seems to have mastered -- are difficult to quantify.
The common thread, which multiple Mets pitchers referenced in talking about their new catcher, is d'Arnaud's ability to make low pitches look like strikes. It is a skill that d'Arnaud believes he learned as a teenager, watching then-Dodgers catcher Russell Martin on television, then perfected in 2011 alongside Double-A New Hampshire manager and former big league catcher Sal Fasano.
"When I was younger, I pretty much tried catching just like [Martin]," d'Arnaud said. "I liked the way he caught that low pitch, so I just tried to catch like him."
Asked how he was able to do so, d'Arnaud laughed.
"I can't give my secrets away," he said.
In today's game, those "secrets" are largely becoming well-known facts, thanks in large part to increased emphasis from coaching staffs and front offices. Mets bench coach Bob Geren, for example, keeps statistics on pitch framing that corroborate most anecdotal evidence.
In a small sample, Geren's numbers on d'Arnaud are off the charts. Anecdotally, Wheeler and Gee both recalled being surprised in their most recent starts about how well d'Arnaud made their low pitches seem higher.
"When the balls are down, he does something that makes them look like they're strikes," Wheeler said, referencing his Tuesday start against the Braves. "It's ridiculous. I had a couple that I threw and I knew they were balls, but they looked like strikes after he framed them up."
Matt Harvey remembers being amazed during the All-Star Game at Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina's ability to frame pitches -- something Harvey was able to notice in two short innings. d'Arnaud, he says, "has a lot of those qualities in him as well."
"It's hard not to notice when you throw a borderline pitch low in the zone and they can kind of bring it up a little bit," Harvey said. "It's a big confidence booster as a pitcher."
Other abilities, Harvey said, such as game-calling prowess, will come in time for d'Arnaud. Even Gee, who threw his best game of the year to the rookie in Minnesota, admitted to shaking d'Arnaud off more often than he typically did with Buck.
That's fine for now, Gee said. d'Arnaud's innate abilities behind the plate are what have him excited.
"He's in it with you," Gee said. "He wants to be a big help. He wants to be that guy behind the plate."