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:
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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