The Mets have invested a great deal in the success of catcher Travis d'Arnaud.
To acquire his services, they traded a reigning Cy Young Award winner, R.A. Dickey. The deal came at a time in which top-shelf catching is scarce. The Mets believe that d'Arnaud will develop into one of those prized commodities.
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But first, they must keep him in one piece.
In the last several weeks, d'Arnaud has absorbed a level of physical abuse that is above and beyond the scope of those who wear the tools of ignorance. He has been a magnet for scorching foul tips and long backswings that have conked him over the head.
"Sometimes you go through a week -- for this example almost a month -- where you get hit by every foul ball," d'Arnaud said before last night's 5-4 walk-off win over the Giants. "That's just part of it. Then you can go for a whole month and not get hit."
But lately, getting hit has been a frequent occurrence. As the Mets rallied from three runs down in the ninth, with Josh Satin's bases loaded, two-run single knocking in the winning run, d'Arnaud watched from the bench. His right shoulder was still tight from the night before, when he absorbed a foul tip.
Bench coach Bob Geren, a former big-league catcher, doesn't know what to make of d'Arnaud's string of calamities.
"Conventional catching wisdom will tell you that if you're getting too many foul tips you need to move closer to the hitter, and if you're getting hit by too many backswings you're too close and you need to back up," Geren said. "And he's been getting hit by both, so we're in a really interesting conundrum."
Geren hopes that d'Arnaud's propensity for getting hit is just random misfortune.
He noted that three of the backswings that have clipped d'Arnaud came from one player -- the Indians' Carlos Santana -- and only when he's batted righthanded.
"I haven't seen anybody get hit that much with backswings," Mets manager Terry Collins said.
Still, the Mets don't know for sure whether d'Arnaud is doing something to invite more backswings and foul tips, or whether the young catcher is simply the victim of a crummy run of luck. In the meantime, they have explored ways to better protect d'Arnaud, beginning with upgrading his equipment.
But even adjusting d'Arnaud's headgear has created a quandary.
Goalie masks are usually one-size-fits all and they're usually too snug for d'Arnaud's head, which is why he prefers the standard two-piece helmet and catcher's mask. But for the first time in a few years, he is looking into a hockey-style model that the Mets have modified for a better fit.
Yet, d'Arnaud has endured bad experiences with goalie masks.
"I know in the past, the couple of times I've worn it, I've gotten concussions from it," said d'Arnaud, who has taken two foul balls squarely in the mask. "That's one of the reasons why I wear the two-piece because when it hits your face it falls off. It takes all the blow."
It is yet another conundrum in the challenge of protecting the prized catcher.
Said d'Arnaud: "I've just got to find a happy medium."