As the New York Mets rose through the standings and stormed through the National League during August and early September, a discussion began in earnest over whether Yoenis Cespedes—who had spent his entire season in the American League before joining the Mets at the trade deadline—should be the National League Most Valuable Player. He shouldn't, of course: Bryce Harper exists, and his 200 OPS+ in 2015 is six points shy of the career OPS+ of Babe Ruth.
Cespedes might be the most exciting player in the league, but he also may not be the most valuable player on his own team. On that front, Cespedes and the rest are all looking up at catcher Travis d'Arnaud. This is the same d'Arnaud who was sent down to Triple-A by a losing team just last year.
"This was the player I thought I was," d'Arnaud said, standing in the home clubhouse at Citi Field prior to Monday night's game against the Braves. "And it was getting the self-doubt out of my head. Once I was sent down, I was really humbled. When I came back up, I believed in myself, the work that I do, and my process."
For d'Arnaud, at least part of the lack of recognition stems from the circumstances surrounding his 2015 with the Mets. No one expected him to be a star—not after looking at his middling 2014 season stats, weighed down by his abysmal pre-demotion production. And while he got off to a hot start this year, he was stopped cold after just 11 games when he fractured his hand. Then d'Arnaud sprained his elbow on a play at the plate in late June, and missed another five weeks.
By the time d'Arnaud returned on July 31—just hours after the Mets acquired Cespedes—the team was 52-50. They proceeded to run off a 24-9 clip in the games that d'Arnaud started, and quickly took control of the National League East. Over that time, while national writers made cases for Cespedes as an MVP candidate and indispensable Met, Cespedes hit .309/.356/.691, while d'Arnaud posted a line of .303/.377/.588, all while playing a position where those numbers are effectively unheard-of.
Despite that production, d'Arnaud has received just a fraction of the attention that Cespedes has generated. Which is not to say that he hasn't been noticed by those paying the most attention. Unprompted, both Michael Cuddyer and Bobby Parnell referred to d'Arnaud as "our unsung hero."
"He deserves more credit than he's getting," Cuddyer said last Monday. "But the thing about him is, I don't think that worries him, or bothers him. He just goes out and helps us win, both behind the dish and at the plate. And that's hard to find."
That's the major advantage d'Arnaud provides with his elite offense: the combination with his plus defensive work at catcher. He's eliminated his past problem with passed balls—12 last year, one this season—while elevating his ability to throw out base-stealers to 30 percent from 19 percent; 28 percent is the league average for a catcher.
"It's a mental thing," d'Arnaud said. "Rather than try and make a pitch look good, when there's a runner on first, runner on second, to make sure to receive the ball, instead of giving the runner an opportunity to advance a base."
His OPS+ of 129 is behind only Buster Posey among regular catchers, and it's puts him in the conversation for the league's most valuable catchers—in roughly half the playing time of the other top contenders.
"Offensive catchers are a bonus," Cuddyer said. "Because let's face it, the job of a catcher is to manage a pitching staff, particularly when your team is built on pitching."
Or to put it in the terms used to push Cespedes' MVP case. As of Wednesday, the Mets are 40-21 when d'Arnaud started. They are 49-47—essentially the .500 team most expected they would be this year—without him in the starting lineup.
One reason for that success is another d'Arnaud skill that's deceptively easy to miss—his ability to frame pitches. He is among the league leaders in this category, too, which is an achievement that, as Cuddyer noted, is all the more impressive catching one of the game's hardest throwing pitching staffs.. The added value of this skill extends beyond just extra strikes. It alters how hitters need to approach Mets pitchers, knowing there's an extra inch or two off the plate to protect. It helps Mets pitchers, too, who understand that they don't have to be as fine.
"I don't let it affect the pitches I swing at—I try not to," Cuddyer said. "But you definitely notice when guys are good at it back there. It helps the pitcher more than the hitter expanding the zone because of it."
Parnell, the veteran reliever, described a change in approach that comes directly from d'Arnaud's skill. "For me, as a pitcher, having a guy back there who can do that makes me feel like I can throw it anywhere," Parnell said. "I think over the long season, you're definitely aware of it, and you build on it, expand the zone more quickly."
To the extent d'Arnaud deserves credit for Mets pitching, the staff has certainly responded: the team's ERA of 3.44 is fourth-best in the National League. And he's doing this while putting up an OPS+ approaching Mike Piazza's 1999-2002 production.
He's coming by it honestly, too. He's hitting for power to all fields, but d'Arnaud has also been pulling the ball more, hitting more line drives and fly balls and fewer ground balls. D'Arnaud attributed essentially all of this to confidence—he's maintained his approach at the plate throughout his career, he said, and simply isn't letting questions cloud his mind as he applies it.
"Last year, the day I got back up, I just said, 'I'm never going back.'," d'Arnaud said of his return from the minor leagues. "All the self-doubt was gone, and I believed in myself." The extent to which this mirrors the seeming moment one year later the Mets themselves experienced this summer is impossible to miss.
"You know, back in spring training, everyone asked us what our goals were," d'Arnaud said. "And they were to get to the playoffs, get to the World Series. So in my mind, we're doing what we've been trying to do all year."
The flip side of d'Arnaud's success, beyond the boost he's given the team this year, is the Cespedes-style conundrum he presents in the long term. The Mets would love to keep both, but it seems unlikely that Mets ownership can or will pay up. While fans are clamoring for the team to re-sign Cespedes, a more effective use of the team's limited money might well be locking in the 26-year-old catcher for his prime years. Really, only the injuries he's suffered—none of which are part of a chronic condition—qualify as an argument against signing d'Arnaud long-term. And the time he's lost to injuries this season are the only thing that keeps his own manager from touting d'Arnaud for MVP consideration.
"Well, you've got to put up some pretty large numbers," Terry Collins said Monday, of what it takes to merit MVP consideration. "And I would say, he's been a huge help to us, but I think you've got to get 400, 500 at-bats to qualify for those things."
Then again, it didn't take a full season to turn the Mets into these Mets. It's hard to argue any single player did more to make that happen than Travis d'Arnaud.