'Guys look up to him': d'Arnaud dedicated to craft

March 16th, 2023

ST. PETERSBURG -- played only 92 games for the Rays in 2019, yet as he looked around Tropicana Field on Thursday, he couldn’t help but smile.

“A lot of great memories,” d’Arnaud said, pointing at the 2019 American League Wild Card banner hanging in left field. “A lot of laughs. It was a really good time.”

The five-month stint with the Rays also helped resurrect d’Arnaud’s career around in the aftermath of his release in early May from the Mets, the only team he played for during the first six years of his Major League career.

Two days after his release, d’Arnaud -- who missed all but four games of the 2018 season following Tommy John surgery -- signed with the Dodgers, who traded him to the Rays five days later for cash considerations. He didn’t know it at the time, but the move to Tampa Bay would be a turning point for him.

“I was very lucky to be welcomed with open arms, not only from the coaches, but from the players, staff, everybody,” d’Arnaud said before the Braves’ 5-1 loss to the Rays on Thursday. “I think that was a big thing; it made me feel comfortable right away where I kind of cleared my head a little bit.”

Once his head was clear, d’Arnaud was able to focus on his work behind the plate, soaking in everything he could from manager Kevin Cash and field coordinator/catching coach Paul Hoover, both former big league backstops.

d’Arnaud contributed to that Rays club offensively, bashing 16 home runs with 67 RBIs and a .782 OPS in 365 plate appearances, but it was his defense that opened some eyes.

“That year could have been shaky, and it could have crumpled the success that I've had,” d’Arnaud said. “The foundation that I built here has helped with everything.”

The Braves signed d’Arnaud as a free agent after the 2019 season, introducing another important figure into his life: Sal Fasano.

Atlanta’s catching coach since 2018, Fasano -- an 11-year veteran who caught for nine teams -- continued to work with d’Arnaud to further his defensive prowess. If d’Arnaud could hold up his end at the plate, Fasano would make sure he was able to deliver the goods behind it.

“Being able to work with Sal every day, I feel like my catching has grown tremendously, especially with game-calling,” d’Arnaud said. “It doesn’t look sexy on paper, but that's how you win. I take pride in [defense] more than the offense; you can score 10 runs as a team, but if you give up 11, you lose. I think it's the biggest part of the game. It's a chess match.”

“One of the gifts that Travis always had was his ability to connect with pitchers,” Fasano said. “His relationship of understanding the pitchers, what their strengths and weaknesses are, and getting the most out of them in-game and making adjustments now, that’s been the biggest difference.”

Manager Brian Snitker watched d’Arnaud develop defensively in 2020, though it wasn’t until the catcher missed more than three months with a left thumb injury that the manager truly understood how much d’Arnaud meant to the Braves.

“I didn't realize how much I missed him until he came back; the calmness I had with him being back there,” Snitker said. “He’s improved because he cares; he’s worked at it. It didn't just happen. … You love to see veteran guys that care about their job. He’s so invested in our pitching.”

When the Braves played in Oakland last September, d’Arnaud and Fasano paid close attention to the way Sean Murphy called a game and worked behind the plate, marveling at what they were watching.

So when Murphy was acquired by Atlanta this offseason, d’Arnaud didn’t view it as a threat to his job. He looked at Murphy’s arrival as an opportunity to learn.

“I look at the front of my jersey, not the back, in that aspect,” d’Arnaud said. “I'm learning stuff from him now all the time about throwing, about receiving, just little things I would never think about. I'm really happy he's here. He's making us better as a team and he's making our pitching staff better.”

In addition to his importance to the pitching staff, d’Arnaud has emerged as a leader within the Braves' clubhouse, most notably since the departure of Freddie Freeman and Dansby Swanson in the past two offseasons.

“Guys look up to him,” Snitker said. “He’s not the guy who stands on a chair and beats his chest, but how he prepares, how he carries himself, how he's always ready, he’s one of those guys that leads by example.”