As a baseball fan, I like to evaluate things based on my lifetime. There is some honor to saying, that is the greatest player I have ever seen, or, that is the worst performance I can ever remember. Having turned thirty this past year, I consider the previous twenty or so years of my life as baseball devoted. I may have been playing with an oversized glove, swinging a tee-ball bat, or flipping through baseball cards before then, but it wasn't until I was in the third or fourth grade when things really started to click, when baseball made sense, mind you, long before the other necessities of growing up, such as homework or girls, ever did.
So when I look at Travis d'Arnaud, the prized prospect the Mets acquired by trading R.A. Dickey, and think about how his lack of performance at the plate stacks up against the myriad poor performers that my favorite baseball team, the Mets, have put before me, I am considering a historical reference of about twenty years, dating back to 1994. And I can say, with some certainty, that d'Arnaud has been the least exciting, worst hitting, prospect I have ever seen.
Travis d'Arnaud has an OPS+ of 57 through 70 games in the big leagues. He is only 25, having appeared in a mere 257 plate appearances. Obviously, both traditionalists and sabermetricians alike would scream for sample size. 'Let's see how he looks over 1,000 plate appearances', we could say. While that is fair, it doesn't overlook the fact that in those first 70 games, he has been downright awful. The worst. And if we want to consider how often a player starts their career as slow as d'Arnaud and still turns into a good hitter, we have a starting point by his age and limited plate appearances.
Before we consider how d'Arnaud compares historically across baseball, let's keep our focus on the Mets. Why don't I remember a player starting as poorly as d'Arnaud in my lifetime? Well, because literally no Mets player with at least 250 plate appearances by their age-25 season has had as bad of a start at the plate since 1994.
Even Rey Ordonez, who hit like a pitcher, found more slugging success early than d'Arnaud.
David Wright had an OPS+ of 139 by his age-25 season; Mike Piazza's was 140. It seems that the cream rises to the top fairly quickly, and looking at the names on the list above - Kelly Stinnett, Ruben Tejada, Josh Thole - with the hopeful exception of Juan Lagares, it seems the bad stay bad, too.
So how about for players across baseball, and not only Mets? Using OPS+, since that accounts for league average, neutralizing the offensive bonanza that was the late nineties, d'Arnaud is off to the 34th worst start since 1994 for a 25-year-old player in their first 250 trips to the plate. In the past 20 years, over 700 players have made at least 250 plate appearances by the time they turned 25, and only 33 were less difficult to get out than d'Arnaud.
Is there any hope? Let's rethink the sample size we are considering - only 250 plate appearances. Surely, there are instances when players started off poorly but found their groove, once they got more at-bats.
Rather than compare d'Arnaud to the best of the best—in other words, concerning ourselves with whether he will turn into a Mike Piazza—let's refine our criteria to search for instances where players have started as poorly as d'Arnaud, and maybe never turned into Hall of Famers, but at least, for one season, got their act together enough to turn into All-Stars. Since 1994, of the players with at least 250 plate appearances through their age-25 season, only three eventually made an All-Star team while starting their career with an OPS+ of 57 or lower. Since 1994, there have been 215 players who made at least 250 PAs by the age of 25 and eventually became an all-star. Again, only three did so with an OPS+ as low as d'Arnaud's.
Travis d'Arnaud is a catcher; we shouldn't overlook the fact that he has done completely the opposite of what the scouting reports suggested he would do. As bad as he has been swinging the bat, he has been as good framing pitches for the Mets' staff. There is definite value to a catcher who is defensively sound, but that is not what d'Arnaud was brought to New York to do; he would have to be a defensive genius to justify his meager offense.
After batting .180 on the season, with three home runs and nine RBIs, having played, essentially, everyday, the Mets were forced to send d'Arnaud back to the minors (where he has found some recent success). Having watched him play most of those days, I can tell you that he is one of the least exciting prospects I have ever seen. It turns out the numbers back that up.
. . .
Jeffrey Bellone is a writer and editor at Beyond The Box Score and can also be found writing about the Mets at Amazin' Avenue and Mets Merized Online. He writes about New York sports at Over the Whitestone. You can follow and interact with him on Twitter @OverWhitestone.