Wednesday, December 19, 2012

D'Arnaud Hoping To Go Where No Met Has Gone Befo'

The Mets have had a number of great catchers in their half century of existence.  Jerry Grote was behind the plate for two pennant winners, nurturing a young and dominant pitching staff.  John Stearns was a four-time All-Star who was at times the best player on his team.  Ron Hodges was always No. 2 on the depth chart but in his 12 seasons in New York, but was the perfect complement to Grote and Stearns.

Gary Carter was a tremendous leader, who molded a young staff into an elite squad and ignited a memorable World Series rally.  Todd Hundley evolved from a good-field, no-hit catcher to a two-time All-Star and one of the best power-hitting catchers the Mets had ever employed to date.  Of course, the best power-hitting catcher in team history replaced Hundley, as Mike Piazza made the position his own for eight seasons.

All six of those catchers combined to crouch behind the plate for approximately forty seasons, making the catcher's position one of the most stable in team history.  But Jerry Grote wasn't a homegrown Met, playing for the Houston Colt .45s in 1963 and 1964 before being traded to the Mets in 1965.  John Stearns played in 810 games over his major league career, but 809 of them came in a Mets uniform, as he made his major league debut as a member of the Philadelphia Phillies in 1974 before being traded to New York in the Dave Schneck trade (although most of you might refer to it as the Tug McGraw trade).  Gary Carter and Mike Piazza were All-Stars in Montreal and Los Angeles, respectively, before going on to great things with the Mets.

Of the six main catchers in team history, only Ron Hodges and Todd Hundley made their major league debuts as members of the Mets.  But Hodges was mostly a backup catcher, surpassing 155 at-bats in a season only twice in his 12-year career.  That leaves Todd Hundley as the most productive catcher in franchise history who made his way onto the major league scene as a member of the New York Mets.  But even Hundley didn't become a star until half a decade into his Mets career.

Over his first five major league seasons, Hundley batted a mere .219 with 35 HR and 136 RBI, reaching base at a .271 clip.  Although Hundley was showing signs of having some pop in his bat, he was pretty much an automatic out when he wasn't hitting the ball over the wall.  But in 1995, Hundley started to show signs that he was about to break out, hitting a career-high .280 and showing a more selective eye at the plate, as evidenced by his .382 on-base percentage.  Sure enough, his next two seasons were some of the best produced by a catcher in team history.

In 1996, Hundley went where no Kingman or Strawberry had gone before, becoming the first player in club annals to reach and surpass the 40 HR plateau.  Hundley also set a franchise record for catchers by driving in 112 runs.  In 1997, Hundley became the first Met catcher to hit 30 or more home runs in consecutive seasons, despite collecting 123 fewer at-bats than he did in his historic 1996 campaign.  He also set a career high with a .394 on-base percentage, a far cry from the .271 mark he posted from 1990 to 1994.  For his efforts, Hundley was selected to play in the All-Star Game in both 1996 and 1997.

In nine years as a Met, Hundley hit .240 with 124 HR and 397 RBI to go with a .323 on-base percentage.  No other catcher in Mets history who began his major league career in New York has been able to approach those numbers.

Enter Travis d'Arnaud.

Although it took a Cy Young Award winner (and two catchers) to pry d'Arnaud and friends away from the Blue Jays, the 23-year-old has the credentials to become the most successful catcher to make his big league debut as a Met.  In 2011, his first season above A-ball, d'Arnaud had a .311/.371/.542 slash line.  He also collected 33 doubles, 21 HR and 78 RBI in 114 games.  In 2012, d'Arnaud improved his slash line to .333/.380/.595.  A knee injury limited him to 67 games, but not before he amassed 21 doubles, 16 HR and 52 RBI.  If you double his games to 134 (which is about average for a No. 1 catcher in the major leagues), his cumulative numbers would project to 42 doubles, 32 HR and 104 RBI.  And this is for a catcher who is still years away from entering his prime.

As a 23-year-old in 1992, Hundley hit .209 with 17 doubles, seven homers and 32 RBI in 123 games for the Mets.  At the same age, d'Arnaud surpassed all of those numbers while playing in only 67 games at AAA-Las Vegas.

It's true that playing in the altitude of Las Vegas helps a hitter's offensive numbers.  But if that's the case, then what's the explanation for d'Arnaud collecting 38 doubles, 13 HR and 71 RBI as a 20-year-old in 2009 for the Lakewood BlueClaws?  For those who do not know, Lakewood is in New Jersey, a state that's known more for its attitude than its altitude.

Lakewood's height might not have helped Travis d'Arnaud, but d'Arnaud helped Lakewood reach new heights.

Travis d'Arnaud will make his major league debut for the Mets at some point during the 2013 season.  Whether it be on Opening Day or midway through the season, d'Arnaud will bring his potent bat to Citi Field when he steps up to the plate for the first time.

The Mets have had some excellent catchers in their 50-plus seasons.  Some of them have been defensive stalwarts while others have been powerful producers at the plate.  But most of them played elsewhere before coming to the Mets.

Todd Hundley is the best hitting catcher who made his major league debut as a Met.  And that's with a .240 batting average over nine seasons in New York.  If Travis d'Arnaud can produce anything near what he has shown he's capable of doing, then he can potentially surpass all of Hundley's marks before he's out of his twenties.  If he does, d'Arnaud can indeed go where no Met catcher has gone before. 

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