Travis d'Arnaud can't stop hitting
A glut of stars, both established and burgeoning, propelled the Atlanta Braves to a third straight National League East title in 2020.
Freddie Freeman, a four-time All-Star and the franchise's longtime linchpin, will likely take home the National League MVP for his otherworldly performance throughout the truncated season. Ronald Acuña Jr., the effervescent 22-year-old who nearly went 40/40 last year, posted the highest OPS and wRC+ of his nascent career. Ditto for Marcell Ozuna, the once-scuffling All-Star who transformed into one of baseball's most dangerous hitters after acquiescing last winter and accepting a one-year, rebuild-your-value deal with Atlanta.
Meanwhile, after flashing top-of-the-rotation potential over the previous three years, left-hander Max Fried realized it in 2020 while finishing fifth in the NL in ERA and ninth in FIP. And over only a half-dozen regular-season starts, rookie right-hander Ian Anderson - summoned from the alternate training site just ahead of the trade deadline - cemented himself as a cornerstone of the Braves' future.
With all that going on, it was easy to overlook the outsized contributions of Travis d'Arnaud, who landed a modest two-year deal with the Braves in November following a modest resurgence in 2019. He quietly ranked among the game's most valuable catchers in 2020 after a remarkable offensive turnaround.
He can't be ignored any longer, though.
Throughout the Braves' thus-far perfect postseason, in which they've swept the Cincinnati Reds in the wild-card round then did the same to the Miami Marlins in the league division series, no player has shined more brightly than d'Arnaud.
While Atlanta's mighty offense has actually been rather quiet so far, with a couple of terrific pitching staffs stymieing it to the tune of a .708 OPS, d'Arnaud has steadfastly refused to get out. He's been delivering one big hit after another, and ultimately dispelling suspicion that his mammoth regular season - in which, by wRC+ (145), he outhit the likes of Eloy Jimenez, Justin Turner, and Rhys Hoskins - was a small-sample fluke.
Most recently, in his club's decisive Game 3 victory over Miami on Thursday, d'Arnaud collected a pair of hits (while also drawing a walk), including a two-run double off a 95-mph fastball from rookie phenom Sixto Sanchez that was practically at eye level.
A day earlier, d'Arnaud nearly earned himself a citation for noise from the city of Houston for the ringing solo shot he cranked off Pablo Lopez at Minute Maid Park during a 2-0 victory, his second homer in as many days. In Game 1, d'Arnaud smoked a three-run dong in the bottom of the seventh to break a 4-4 tie and cap a three-hit, two-walk performance.
Through five playoff games, d'Arnaud - who's started behind the plate and hit cleanup in every contest so far - is rocking a .421/.500/.842 line with four extra-base hits and seven RBIs, more than every player this postseason except Giancarlo Stanton, Carlos Correa, and Chad Pinder. And while October has the power to elevate schlubs into heroes, d'Arnaud's postseason onslaught is distinct from the ephemeral glory of, say, David Eckstein, the famously punchless shortstop who took home World Series MVP honors in 2006 after hitting .364 with an .891 OPS. Unlike Eckstein's run, d'Arnaud's monster October isn't out of nowhere.
After puttering along as essentially a league-average hitter through the first seven seasons of his mostly disappointing and injury-plagued big-league career, d'Arnaud morphed into a hard-contact machine in 2020 following his move to the Braves. Without even meaningfully altering his approach (beyond jumping on the first pitch more often), d'Arnaud upped his average exit velocity into Mike Trout territory, nearly doubled his career "barrel" rate, and stopped popping up almost altogether.
|Average exit velocity (MPH)
To be sure, an inflated batting average on balls in play (.411) factored into his breakout season, but the changes in d'Arnaud's batted-ball profile are still real and spectacular, and he's continued to scald the ball this postseason. Of the 14 balls d'Arnaud put in play against the Reds and Marlins, six registered a triple-digit exit velocity, according to Baseball Savant, and five came off his bat at 106.2 mph or faster. The only players to hit that threshold as many times this postseason are Stanton, the undisputed exit-velocity king, and Manny Machado.
D'Arnaud inarguably played a bigger role than any other Braves position player in nudging the club to its first National League Championship Series berth since 2001, and the veteran's ongoing tear is the pinnacle of a season that's completely changed the narrative of his career. Until a few months ago, d'Arnaud was a bust, and a chronic disappointment who would never be healthy enough to realize the potential that compelled the Philadelphia Phillies to take him 37th overall in the 2007 draft. He was so frustrating that the New York Mets, of all teams, opted to release him last spring.
Since then, however, the 31-year-old has done more than merely stay on the field. He's blossomed into the kind of impact talent that evaluators once envisioned, actualizing the offensive ceiling that made him such a highly touted - and highly coveted - prospect all those years ago. D'Arnaud was traded twice before making his big-league debut, coming over to Toronto in 2009 as part of the Roy Halladay trade, then getting shipped to New York along with Noah Syndergaard three years later for R.A. Dickey.
Now, d'Arnaud is an integral part of an elite team with an elite lineup that suddenly sits eight wins away from its first championship in two-and-a-half decades. His performance in the NLDS wasn't an anomaly so much as a coming-out party. And if some of d'Arnaud's more celebrated teammates, like Freeman, Ozzie Albies, and Nick Markakis, start performing up to their capabilities moving forward, the Braves could be doing a lot more partying before the year is out.
Jonah Birenbaum is theScore's senior MLB writer. He steams a good ham. You can find him on Twitter @birenball.
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