The 2009 season was a breakout year for Chase d’Arnaud, who was selected the previous season in the fourth round of the 2008 MLB draft. After putting up a .286/.333/.423 line in 168 at-bats in State College during the 2008 season, d’Arnaud made the jump to West Virginia, where he hit for a .291/.394/.427 line in 213 at-bats, with three homers and 17 stolen bases. The performance was enough for d’Arnaud to be promoted to high-A for the final two months of the season, where his .295/.402/.481 line in 210 at-bats helped lead the Lynchburg Hillcats to the 2009 Carolina League championship.
D’Arnaud started receiving a lot of attention due to his 2009 season. He was named the best defensive shortstop in the South Atlantic League by Baseball America. He was sent to the Arizona Fall League in the off-season, where his performance drew a lot of praise from scouts. Coming in to the 2010 season, d’Arnaud was named the fifth best prospect in the Pittsburgh farm system, according to Baseball America.
“It was nice to be recognized for all the hard work and everything that I accomplished last season, but this year just taught me that I really need to just bear down,” d’Arnaud said to me in an interview last week. ”You still have to work just as hard, if not harder, at the next level, because all of us are trying to get to the big leagues, but the hardest thing to do is to get there and stay there, and that’s what I want to do.”
At the start of the season, many looked at d’Arnaud as the shortstop of the future in Pittsburgh. His .255/.337/.375 line this season has many questioning whether he will become the future starter, much less make the majors at all. Not everyone is off the bandwagon though, myself included.
Chase started out the season in a big slump, hitting for a .209/.301/.308 line in 206 at-bats during the first two months of the season. So what led to the initial struggles?
“Just inexperience I guess. It’s a new group of guys and a different feel in the clubhouse, but I don’t think those should be reasons at all. I think I just needed to make adjustments to compete at the AA level, and I’m getting used to it as the season goes on. It’s becoming a second nature to compete in these games, and I have faith in myself to continue to make progress and make the adjustments necessary to be successful at this level and the next, and in the bigs.”
D’Arnaud has been getting better as the season goes on. After struggling the first two months of the season, he rebounded big time in June, with a .316/.383/.500 line in 114 at-bats. Chase cited a few corrections in his swing for the turnaround. He specifically mentioned cutting out excessive movement with his head, in order to allow him to see the ball better.
But did the adjustments hold? D’Arnaud struggled in the start of July, going 6-for-38 (.158) with no extra base hits leading in to the All-Star break. Chase was named to the All-Star team, and ended up being the hero, hitting a grand slam and winning the Eastern League All-Star MVP award. Maybe that was the spark to get him back on track, as he went 17-for-67 (.254) with seven extra base hits to cap off the month of July, including a 7-for-17 performance with three extra base hits in his final four games.
Offense hasn’t been the only problem for d’Arnaud this season though. He has also committed 25 errors, and while the field conditions in the minor leagues make errors mostly irrelevant, that’s an awfully high amount for a strong defensive shortstop who only committed 10 errors in almost the same amount of plays at shortstop in 2009 between low-A and high-A. There is an interesting explanation for the errors and the defense though.
“Earlier in the year, the first month or two, I had quite a bit of throwing errors. It was different throwing in that kind of temperature. I never really played in that kind of weather before, but I’m going to have to learn, because Pittsburgh is two hours away from Altoona.”
D’Arnaud is from California, went to college at Pepperdine, started his professional career in State College during the summer time, and played his first Spring in West Virginia, where it is slightly warmer than Altoona. This is the coldest weather d’Arnaud has played in, although as he mentions, he will have the same weather in Pittsburgh. So what has he done to solve this problem?
“There are a couple of tricks I’ve learned though. I like putting a sleeve over my right arm so it feels warmer than my left. I definitely got used to playing in the cold after awhile, and got comfortable with it. I’m just continually working on my defense. I take a lot of ground balls every day at short and second, and I just want to make all the routine plays.”
This isn’t an uncommon problem to have. Andrew McCutchen, for example, saw major struggles at the plate in Altoona to start the 2007 season. That was McCutchen’s first experience with cold weather at the start of the season.
As for second base, d’Arnaud played 51 games in high-A last year, splitting them 50/50 between shortstop and second base. Heading in to August, d’Arnaud had played 101 games at shortstop. He has since started the last seven games at second base, and will be rotating between short and second the remainder of the season, rotating every 4-6 games.
D’Arnaud obviously has the defensive skills. I’ve seen them first hand on several occasions, and there’s no shortage of reports on how good he is defensively. The big concern this year has been his offense. D’Arnaud is drawing walks at a good rate (9.4%), although that is down from his 11.9% ratio in 2009. He’s not striking out a lot, with just a 15.6% strikeout ratio. He’s hitting for a lot of doubles, with his 31 doubles ranking fifth in the Eastern League this year.
One glaring issue is his batting average per balls in play (BABIP). This measures how often a batted ball hit in to the playing field falls in for a hit. Hitters usually fall in the same BABIP range their entire careers, regardless of the level. For d’Arnaud, that range was in the .330-.352 range. So far this year he’s been hitting for a .303 BABIP. Even his June through August numbers have been low, at a .318 BABIP.
Usually a low BABIP for hitters is considered unlucky, while a high BABIP is considered lucky. I tend to give more credit to luck when a player is having a high BABIP, or good luck. When there’s a low BABIP, I’m looking for a problem with the player, rather than blaming it on luck. So after explaining BABIP to Chase, and telling him that his BABIP was about 40 points lower than normal, he had the following response:
“That’s what happens when your swing is not right. You can make contact, but you’re not going to hit the ball square enough to get through. At this level it’s you getting yourself out. The pitchers make less mistakes and get you to chase pitches, and you’ll hit it in play, but you’re going to feed right in to what they’re trying to do. You see a lot of sinker/slider guys in this league, and a sinker will just go down and in and try to get underneath your barrel and ground out to short, and contribute to a (poor BABIP).”
As mentioned, D’Arnaud has been working on the swing, and it seems to be paying off, with his excellent month of June, and his performance since the All-Star break (.307/.375/.436). D’Arnaud has struggled this year, and some people have erased him from the future shortstop role, but a big finish to the 2010 season could go a long way toward d’Arnaud salvaging this season.
“That’s exactly what I want to do. I want to finish strong. You hear people say this all the time ‘it’s not how you begin, it’s how you finish a season’, and I intend to finish strong. I’m just really focusing and bearing down and I just really want to show people what I can do at the level.”
It seems these days that if a prospect has any type of struggles, even if it’s only for a month or two, they suddenly lose their prospect status. The big question is whether the struggles were limited to the two months, or whether they reflect a problem with the player. In the case of d’Arnaud, he’s got the defensive skills, although he needs to adjust to playing in cold weather. He had the rough start at the plate in 2010, but he’s been hitting much better since the calendar turned to June. My only concern with d’Arnaud at this point is his hitting, although a strong finish to the 2010 season, like we’re seeing now, would definitely make his poor start look more and more like a two month struggle, rather than a problem with his game that can’t be corrected.
Long term, I still view d’Arnaud as the best shortstop prospect in the system, and I think he will be the player who takes over for Ronny Cedeno. If he continues his strong finish in 2010 at the AA level, and gets some more time in the Arizona Fall League this off-season (assignments won’t be given out until later in August), then d’Arnaud could very well start the 2011 season at the AAA level. From that point, all one needs to do is look at what former “failed prospect” Neil Walker did this year in AAA to see how d’Arnaud could find himself starting in the majors by June 2011.