Mets' Travis d'Arnaud has rediscovered his swing since trip to minors

Travis d'Arnaud of the Mets celebrates his fourth-inning Travis d'Arnaud of the Mets celebrates his fourth-inning home run against the Texas Rangers at Citi Field on Saturday, July 5, 2014. Photo Credit: Jim McIsaac

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Travis d'Arnaud found relief almost immediately, and looking back at it now, that might have been the most critical part of his turnaround.

He had just gone from a clubhouse in San Francisco to one in Colorado Springs, from the big leagues to the minor leagues, and it had all happened in the blink of an eye. On June 7, the Mets could take no more, demoting the player they hailed as their catcher of the future.

Feel has always been at the core of d'Arnaud's identity as a player. He had advanced through the ranks because of what he could do by instinct. And now with every awkward at-bat, it was clear that he had lost that feel.

"I've had a lot of support," d'Arnaud said recently. "And I had a lot of help immediately, which was huge for me."

That support came in the form of a meeting, a roundtable session to clear his head, the first thing he did upon joining the Triple-A Las Vegas 51s little more than five weeks ago. With Las Vegas manager Wally Backman, hitting coach George Greer and pitching coach Frank Viola acting as his sounding board, d'Arnaud talked through the anxieties that weighed him down.

That night, d'Arnaud remembered making hard contact. He hasn't looked back since.

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As the Mets begin the second half Friday, d'Arnaud's resurgence has been one of the most critical developments of the season.

Since returning on June 24, d'Arnaud is hitting .295 with three homers and 10 RBIs.

It took a while, but the 25-year-old has been exactly what the Mets had hoped for when they acquired him in a trade with the Blue Jays for reigning Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey.

"He just needed to slow things down and understand that he was good enough to be who they wanted him to be," Viola said. "But he had to be good enough for him first. He was putting so much undue pressure on himself that he just had to take a little time to step back."

Meeting is a turning point

The meeting lasted two hours, though it didn't take d'Arnaud that long to realize that somewhere, he had lost an essential part of himself.

D'Arnaud's actions on the baseball field had always been guided by dynamic sensation, not rigid instruction.

He considers himself both a kinesthetic and a visual learner. It had been this way for as long as he could remember. And now, he was sitting in Colorado Springs, his mind cluttered with swing thoughts. That lack of feel triggered a wave of harmful effects on his hitting mechanics and even on the way he approached the game.

In good times, d'Arnaud took satisfaction from making good contact, regardless of the results. The sensations shaped his understanding of where he stood. Without that feel, numbers became his guide.

On the day he was demoted, d'Arnaud was hitting .180.

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As his season spiraled, the Mets grew concerned that d'Arnaud was trying too hard to reverse his fortunes. He made changes to his swing on a daily basis, desperate to find an answer. Only later did d'Arnaud realize he was only hurting himself.

"It hit home," Viola said. "He realized, 'You know what? I am my own worst enemy right now.' He got down here, he took care of his own little demons whatever they might have been, he saw the ball, hit the ball, and called the game. He did everything that was asked of him."

From that meeting grew the foundation that d'Arnaud would use to regain that feel.

Greer and Backman went to work on d'Arnaud's swing, leading to a simple but effective fix. By moving closer to the plate, he began hammering the outside pitches that had been giving him so much trouble.

But some of the most helpful advice came not from a hitting expert but from a former pitcher. It was Viola, d'Arnaud said, who encouraged him to "stop thinking mechanical."

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Said d'Arnaud: "It just changed my whole mind-set."

Finding his stroke

In 15 games with Las Vegas, d'Arnaud hit .436 with six homers and 16 RBIs.

"I did not see a hotter player in the Pacific Coast League," Viola said. "We just knew it was a matter of time before that would translate to him doing it in the big leagues. Did we expect it that quickly? I don't know. But we knew it was in there."

The transformation has only continued with the big-league club. In May, d'Arnaud's line-drive rate was just 12 percent. In June, it dipped to 9.1 percent. So far in July, d'Arnaud's line-drive percentage is 32.1 percent.

Though that's an unsustainable number, it's evidence that d'Arnaud has benefited from a return to basics.

"If I have a good at-bat, I'm happy now," d'Arnaud said. "Before, if I had a productive out, if I lined out, I would get on myself so much because I was so worried about getting a hit. It helps me to stay even-keeled."

More importantly, d'Arnaud has regained his feel for the game.

The hitting drills he uses to keep his swing sharp place an emphasis on feel instead of mechanics, which increases his chances of taking those sensations into an actual game. He has applied those same principals to his defensive work with Mets bench coach Bob Geren, his primary catching instructor.

"It gave me even more insight to the way he works," Geren said. "It made me think about some of the teaching I've done with him and the way I might in the future work better with him."

Already, Geren said he has been more conscious of how he gives instructions. He has placed more emphasis on the task and less on technique. During block drills recently, Geren said he made an effort to make his points in "two words instead of 50."

"We can talk about 'he needs to push off this leg' or 'he needs to get to this angle' this or that," Geren said. "But he can just see the ball and his mind tells him to get in front of it and he just does it. Without thinking about the mechanics, he can do it better."

Everything relates to feel, and with d'Arnaud, that's the key.

"Mentally," he said, "I'm definitely in a much better place."

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