Bow Down to Jonathan Lucroy

We’ve known for some time that the best catcher in baseball plays in the National League. There’s only been a small pool of candidates, and for a long time, the debate was more about No. 2 than about No. 1. No. 1 was thought to be a virtual given — it doesn’t get much better than Yadier Molina. But every so often, a position needs to be revisited. Players and player pools are always changing, and right now there’s an extremely compelling argument to be made that the best catcher in baseball is Jonathan Lucroy. Hell, the way Lucroy’s been playing, he doesn’t want there to be an argument at all.

For years, people aware of pitch-framing research have been plugging Lucroy as underrated. He’s among the game’s most anonymous stars, as evidenced by the probability you might not have considered him a star in the first place. From analysts, he’s drawn attention for his defense, so perhaps not enough attention has gone to his offense. And his offense has been very good. At the moment he’s got an average starting with 3, an on-base percentage starting with 4, and a slugging percentage starting with 5. This is the build of an MVP candidate. In the 2007 draft, Lucroy was considered the second-best offensive catcher, behind the allegedly god-like Matt Wieters. It’s Lucroy who’s been the better hitter each of the last three seasons.

Understand that we can’t actually answer the question of who’s the certain best catcher in baseball. All we can do is weigh the various probabilities. Before the year, one would’ve thought about Molina and Buster Posey. Lucroy was in the discussion, but that required particularly heavy weighting of his pitch-framing numbers. Now the picture’s a little different. Now things are tilted more in Lucroy’s direction. While Molina’s been fine, and while Posey’s been fine, Lucroy’s been tremendous, and he turned only 28 just last week.

If you go just by FanGraphs WAR, this year Lucroy has been easily the game’s most valuable catcher. Derek Norris and Devin Mesoraco have hit just as well, but Lucroy has the superior defensive skills, and then you get into the track records. Over the past calendar year, Lucroy has a 1.9-WAR lead on second place. Over the past two years, Lucroy’s behind Posey and Molina, but he’s behind by not much, and we’re looking at some different trajectories.

Molina’s almost 32, and he’s having his worst offensive season since 2010. Posey is younger than Lucroy is, but seemingly every week in my FanGraphs chats, I get questions about when the Giants will finally change his position. Something strange is going on with Posey’s bat. In last year’s second half, he hit just two home runs. This year he has nine, but his numbers are well south of 2012′s. Posey’s edge on Lucroy was offense. Lucroy, lately, has hit better, and based on our updated projections, Posey projects for a .360 wOBA, while Lucroy comes in at .352. The gap has narrowed. The gap might not even actually exist, or it might exist in the opposite direction.

On track record, Lucroy’s still part of a three-headed beast. If you more heavily weight recent events, Lucroy separates himself. He’s a catcher who doesn’t really have any flaws. Power’s there, and walks are there. Contact’s there, and he can hit both lefties and righties. He’s an excellent blocker and he’s an excellent framer, and while he doesn’t have an outstanding arm, a lot of base-stealing is really against pitchers more than catchers. The part we can’t quantify is game-calling, but there’s little reason to believe this is a weakness of Lucroy’s, and at least he figures he’s getting better:

“I remember Jason Kendall telling me it took him six years in the big leagues before he learned how to call a game,” said Lucroy.
[...]
“It took him so long because of all the experience he had to gain. It took him six years. This is my fifth. I think it’s one of those things that with experience comes confidence in your ability to call a game and to prepare yourself the best that you can to call a game.

“For a young player, I know, it was really hard to do. And now that I’ve got a good system down of being able to remember and recall things and how to go about it in certain situations, I think it gives you that confidence to do better.”

It’s funny — when Lucroy was drafted, he was an offensive catcher with defensive questions. As things turned out, he became a defensive catcher with offensive questions, but a few years ago he made a sensational leap. This table should be revealing:

wRC+ 2010-11 2012-14
vs. RHP 74 124
vs. LHP 118 165
Pull 178 186
Middle 99 134
Opposite 52 120

Young Lucroy could hit lefties, but now he dominates lefties. He struggled badly against righties, but now he crushes them, too. He’s always been able to pull the ball with authority, but something clicked and now he’s driving the ball to all fields. The revenge grand slam he just hit in Arizona flew out to center field. It came against one of the most dominant groundball pitchers of recent years, and Lucroy hit the ball 445 feet. He’s gone deep six times in the month, and he went deep four times in the span of six days. Lucroy, for what it’s worth, believes he dealt with a little suboptimal coaching:

“A long time ago I had a hitting coach tell me that I needed to pull the ball more. That’s not what I do, and that messed me up. Once I got back to doing what I do — hitting line drives up the middle — everything else fell into place.

“(Pulling) is not who I am. I’ve been a line-drive hitter since I was in Little League. I’m not going to go up there and try to hit like Aramis Ramirez because that’s not what I do. You’ve just got to be who you are and try to stick to that approach and not try to do too much.”

When he came up, Lucroy’s strength was to left field, and he couldn’t go the other way with much force. He’s developed that part of his game, and since the start of 2012, Lucroy has batted more than 1,200 times. He’s hit .306/.363/.491, good for a .370 wOBA and a 134 wRC+. This year he’s got almost as many walks as strikeouts, and his contact rate when swinging is closing in on 90%.

It’s long been clear that Lucroy could receive pitches with the best of them. It’s long been clear that Lucroy could block pitches with the best of them. It’s becoming more clear by the day that Lucroy can also hit pitches with the best of them, and for all these reasons, it’s increasingly looking like Jonathan Lucroy is the new best catcher in baseball. It’s not an assertion that can’t be argued; Molina’s very good, and Posey’s very good, and some other guys are very good, too. But calling Lucroy the best is less crazy than ever. As far as this conversation’s concerned, it might be the least crazy you can be.




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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

39 Responses to “Bow Down to Jonathan Lucroy”

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  1. Ruben Amaro says:

    I’ll boil down this article for ‘ya:
    Catchers RBI Leaderboard with qualifying…AB? PA? Either one.
    1. Miguel Montero, 40.
    2. Jonathan Lucroy, 37.
    3. Buster Posey, 35.
    4. Brian McCann, 33.
    5T. Kurt Suzuki, 31.
    5T.Jason Castro, 31.

    +46 Vote -1 Vote +1

  2. jim S. says:

    Jeff, this article is a prime example of why you are one of the best.

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  3. Dees says:

    No mention of the number two catcher in baseball by WAR, Evan Gattis?

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    • AK7007 says:

      Gattis is good, but probably not quite as good as he’s been this season. That said, we don’t have that much prior data on him, so he could surprise and end up hitting like Posey. Additionally, his defense is not widely recognized as being exceptional – Lucroy and Molina have that. What it comes down to is this: do you believe that Gattis is as complete a player as the top-tier catchers? He probably is a notch below the big trio right now. That could change, but it’s going to take more than 600 plate appearances for him to enter the conversation as one of the best.

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      • Anon21 says:

        Agreed. His blocking and receiving is still kind of rough. I’ve heard he’s actually a pretty good pitch framer; no Lucroy, but above average.

        As an aside, it feels like the “Best Catcher in Baseball” title gets passed around fairly frequently (e.g., http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs/carlos-ruiz-phillies-best-catcher-in-baseball/
        https://twitter.com/joe_sheehan/status/68861741714509824 ) I would guess it’s because each “best” guy has down years when the wear and tear pulls him below his established level of performance.

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        • Travis says:

          To be fair the fangraphs article actually was going against Ruiz. Questioing things about him and actually calling him overrated basically.

          And a Tweet? Really?

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      • Dan Ugglas Forearm says:

        We do just have to wait and see on Gattis. But Lucroy has never hit this well, either. And they’re both 28. They have a lot of the same things going for them. Gattis is still learning, and he’s already an above-average defensive catcher. He claims that developing as a catcher has given him insight into how pitchers will attack him, and that’s helped him at the plate. I think there’s still some upside left in Gattis, while this may be Lucroy’s max level. For now, Lucroy is out of this world. I do think Gattis deserves a mention with the Molina’s and Posey’s and Lucroy’s, though.

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  4. Andy says:

    The scary part is that if the pitch framing analysis published earlier this year is correct, it could add a couple of WAR by seasons end to Lucroy’s total above and beyond what Molina/Posey get. I’m not a fan of pitch framing–it seems to me it screams out for technology to call balls and strikes–but there is no question Lucroy is the complete catcher. He and Gomez are both MVO candidates that are driving the Brewers now.

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    • Brandon says:

      I think this is why “pitch framing” is a poor term. As Lucroy himself has said many times, its not “framing” like when you see younger HS or College guys pulling in outside or inside pitches over the plate. It’s catching the ball to give the ump the best view of the pitch and NOT moving his glove after he catches it.

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    • Cool Lester Smooth says:

      I’d say it screams out for technology not to call balls and strikes. It’s an important skill to the game, and it’s awesome.

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      • bmarkham says:

        pfft..

        More awesome that a pitcher hitting the black of the plate? More awesome than a hitter than knows the pitch is just off the plate? You really think it’s “awesome” that a hitter can know the ball is off the plate and still get hosed because the ump had an incorrect view on it? I think that’s retarded.

        Plate discipline and superior command are the skills that should be rewarded in my opinion, not the angle and position that a catcher is in when he receives a regular pitch.

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        • Cool Lester Smooth says:

          But it’s far more interesting to see the interaction of all three factors than it would be to see just the two. A pitcher using his command to expand the zone, knowing that his catcher can do it, or having to keep the ball closer to the plate, because Ryan Doumit is catching. Likewise, it forces a hitter to decide whether he should foul a borderline pitch off or take it based on the ability of the player behind him.

          You should have to be good at catching to be a major league catcher. Really, “pitch framing” is about punishing bad catchers more than it is about “rewarding” good catchers.

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  5. Andy says:

    MVP. Though it may work for most valuable offense.

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  6. Ryan says:

    Better not show this to Dave Cameron or he’ll throw a fit. Posey has better projections. You’re not ever allowed to say something that goes against the projections.

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    • Mr baseball says:

      Ha! True. Though I think Dave is slightly more nuanced than that, even if he is dogmatic about projections.

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    • JS says:

      Plus Dave is a Brewer hater.

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      • Ender says:

        Yeah pretty much, he is butt hurt that he was wrong about the Brewers being a bad team and will never let go of the fact.

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      • The Party Bird says:

        I feel like parts of every fanbase think Dave Cameron hates their team, save maybe the Mariners. Maybe.

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        • AK7007 says:

          If you take “parts” to mean like 90% of the online commenting community of each fan base thinks their team is “hated” by any neutral analyst.

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        • Dan Ugglas Forearm says:

          WEST COAST BIAS

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    • Cool Lester Smooth says:

      …but Posey doesn’t have significantly better ZiPS projections, and the 3 run difference is well below the expected difference in pitch framing, which ZiPS does not account for.

      ZiPS backs up Jeff, so it’s quite possible to argue that he is trusting the projections.

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      • Ryan says:

        Oh I know, it’s practically a toss-up. So’s Nelson-Estrada by the projections. That’s the point!

        I like this article and Jeff’s writing style in general. My comment wasn’t a critique of him.

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  7. JS says:

    Great article, I’ve been saying Lucroy belongs in the argument for best catcher in baseball for a few weeks now and generally getting laughed at, hopefully more and more people will start to realize just how good he is.

    The Brewers also came out with a funny ad trying to get people to vote for Lucroy: http://mlb.mlb.com/news/article/mlb/st-louis-cardinals-manager-mike-matheny-irked-by-milwaukee-brewers-all-star-vote-video?ymd=20140618&content_id=80433698&vkey=news_mlb

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    • D Braden says:

      What a punk, that’s not the right way to things. Someone needs to suspend that punk.

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    • Uncle Randy says:

      Damn, several WEEKS?! You’re on the cutting edge!

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    • Lis says:

      I’ve been debating my friends in bars & in convo’s since 2011 that he’s THE one to watch! He gets better & better. He may not be a celebrity like Braun but Lucroy’s the team player who gets the little hits & makes the big plays possible! Now he’s making the big plays too! I saw his potential back before “Luuuuuuc” became a cheer. :)

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  8. Brett says:

    I don’t agree that Yadier Molina was a “virtual given” as the #1 catcher. Look at their numbers from 2011-2014. Molina has 18.0 WAR to Posey’s 15.5, but Molina played in 17.7% more games and got 14.8% more PAs. I’m not sure why Posey gets more PAs per game (1B time? Batting slot? Team PAs per game?), but let’s split the difference and say Molina got roughly 16% more playing time. If we give Posey a 16% bump in WAR, that puts him exactly even with Molina’s 18 WAR.

    This doesn’t include pitch framing, but that doesn’t change the picture dramatically in either direction. Using Matthew Carruth’s pitch framing data, Posey has been 46.3 RAA over 2011-2014, while Molina has been 51 RAA. That doesn’t include the playing time adjustment from above, which would also be in Posey’s favor, although less so when you consider his extra time at 1B.

    I picked 2011 since that’s the year Molina turned the corner with his bat, but the numbers were similar for any starting point from 2010-2012. The only thing that made a difference was the extra playing time Molina got, and Posey always came out as good or better when you adjusted for that. Posey got screwed by the arbitration process (2010) and Scott Fucking Cousins (2011), neither of which you would ascribe to the true talent level of his reliability.

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    • Iron says:

      You don’t get to give a bump in WAR for playing time not accrued. Getting more plate appearances has value.

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      • PackBob says:

        I’d say there is a difference between WAR accrued and true talent level. If Mike Trout got injured tomorrow and missed the rest of the season, it wouldn’t mean that any center fielder with >4.7 WAR for the entire year was a better center fielder than Trout. Value is different than talent.

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    • Cool Lester Smooth says:

      So, what you’re saying is, Yadier Molina is a better catcher than Buster Posey, since he plays more and doesn’t spend time at 1B.

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  9. Lis says:

    Awesome article. And besides the metrics for measuring his skill as a catcher, you have to take into account the value added to the team with his 1st base flexibility. That versatility doesn’t make him the best catcher but it does make him highly desirable as you get more bats out of him & a value added player. IMHO.

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  10. Travis says:

    I liked this article because even though he had an opinion it seemed to be very unbiased. People need to start realizing Lucroy is one of the best and this just isn’t a fluke season. He has been doing this for quite a few years now.

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  11. Dan Ugglas Forearm says:

    Lucroy’s contract alone should qualify him for MVP every single season.

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