Jonathan Lucroy on the Art of Receiving

Maybe you’ve heard. Jonathan Lucroy is good at framing pitches. According to Jeff Sullivan’s most recent post on the subject, third-best in the league and the current first-best starting catcher. So he’s good at framing. But he doesn’t call it framing. And when he describes how and why he got good at it, it doesn’t sound like much of a mystery. It’s just the natural result of years of hard work.

“Framing is a term that is totally overused — I don’t like to call it framing,” Lucroy told me before a game against San Francisco this week, “I like to call it receiving.” The problem with calling it framing seems to be that people associate the term with “college crap” like trying to bring the ball back into the strike zone. If you remove that idea from the equation, ‘receiving’ is very simple according to the Brewers’ catcher: “I try to catch a ball and stop it. I don’t try to make a ball look like a strike, I try to catch the ball and stop it the best I can and give the umpire a good look.”

Now that we defined the skill better, I asked him what made a good framer. “The less movement you have, the more likely he’s going to call it a strike,” Lucroy said. If your glove moves around, or your body lunges after the pitch, or even your head is on a swivel — these things make the pitch look like it didn’t hit the target.

Another important aspect is angle. Like Jason Castro pointed out to us before, the catcher’s angle to the plate is a big deal. Lucroy agreed: “If you scoot to one side of the plate and turn your body a little, the more the umpire can see, and the more the umpire can see over your shoulder, the more likely he’s going to give you that pitch because he can see it better.” And this is something that Lucroy has added during his time in the major leagues.

Much of what he’s learned, he learned from roving catcher instructor Charlie Greene in the Milwaukee minor leagues. One thing that Greene emphasized was getting low. “Look at every single home run and where the pitch is at,” pointed out Lucroy, answering emphatically: “high.” So it doesn’t make any sense to give the pitcher a high target from that standpoint anyway — “You want your pitcher to be down.” So Lucroy set out to get good at catching the low pitch and holding it and “sticking it.” A side benefit of the approach is that it’s “easier to come up to a pitch than go down.” And your glove is moving toward the strike zone in that case, so it improves the likelihood of a strike call even if your pitcher missed your low target.

Thanks to Jeff Sullivan’s GIF abilities and fantastic writing on the subject, we know that Lucroy is especially good at picking and sticking low pitches:

LucroyFrame.gif.opt

Was it just practice? Turns out, some of it might be innate. Other than the fact that Lucroy has been catching since he was twelve, he also has strong hands and is limber in his quads. “You gotta stretch a lot and you gotta be flexible,” Lucroy says of his exercise regimen, but adds: “some guys can’t do it, some catchers are too big to get low.” Listed at 6’0, 190 pounds, Lucroy certainly comes up leaner and shorter than most. In fact, among first-string catchers born since 1970, only Ivan Rodriguez and Gregg Zaun were shorter and lighter than Lucroy. He can get low.

But Charlie Greene helped them learn the setup. And the low target. And that the most important things for a catcher, in order are: “receiving, blocking, throwing… and then hitting.” These are the things that Greene taught Lucroy.

And sometimes it was painful gaining this knowledge. Like when they practiced blocking. “Our catching instructor is a little crazy,” Lucroy laughed, “I’m serious, he does pitching machine blocking.” After dialing the machine up to 98 for fastballs and targeting the plate, Lucroy started racking up the bruises. He showed me some of the most recent ones. But that wasn’t enough — 88-90 curveballs in the dirt in front of the plate, too. “If you can block that, you can block anything,” Lucroy said. To wit:

LucroyBlock.gif.opt

You get a sense of his style. Lucroy: “You don’t want to hockey goalie it. If you’re standing up like this, you don’t know where it’s going to go. You want to absorb it. You want to suck it in. You want to be relax. You don’t want to be stiff.”

It’s clear that Lucroy helps his pitchers with the blocking and the framing. He sees it as a collaborative process that starts before the game. “We — the pitcher, the pitching coach and me — we all work together to get one guy out. We talk about things a lot. I don’t know everything, I don’t act like I know everything. If a pitcher knows what he wants to do and feels comfortable doing it, then I let him do what he wants to do,” Lucroy said about preparation. He lets his pitchers shake him off — “I’m not like Yadi, man, he’s psychic,” Lucroy laughed about Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina‘s ability to convince his pitchers not to shake him off.

And when it comes to getting extra strikes, it’s the same attitude: “I take a lot of pride in getting that low strike, and really getting any strike I can. If I take a pitch out of the zone, and it’s a ball because of me, I take that personally. It’s hard enough for a guy to throw strikes anyway.”

Framing, blocking and game calling may not be the sexiest parts of the game, as much as some might like them to be. But Jonathan Lucroy is great at them — if because of his experience, training, attitude or stature — and that helps the team. As he says, “every pitch counts.”




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Graphs: Baseball, Roto, Beer, brats (OK, no graphs for that...yet), repeat. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris.


21 Responses to “Jonathan Lucroy on the Art of Receiving”

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  1. David M says:

    He is so compact in that first gif, I’d have to wonder how the umpire’s strike zone is affected by tall / short guys and how big their frame is while looking over the shoulder.

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  2. Andy5Schwall says:

    Great article, Eno! I’m a high school coach, so I love when FanGraphs posts stuff like this. I love hearing this type of insight from the players that goes along with the data. This article and Jonah Keri’s basestealing article with Coco Crisp have been my favorites this year.

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    • chuckb says:

      I feel the exact same way. I help coach my son’s 11 year old team and there’s always stuff in posts like these that we can use (without overwhelming them).

      Super stuff, Eno.

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  3. Mike Green says:

    Agreed. Excellent piece.

    Bob Boone was famous for his receiving despite being 6’2″. Peter Gammons wrote a piece on it for Baseball Digest, but it is apparently no longer accessible online.

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  4. CSJ says:

    One slight disagreement: home runs are definitely given up on pitches down, as seen in my viz.

    Pitches low and away are very rarely hit for home runs, but low-inside and low-middle are.

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    • Baltar says:

      Yeah, I’ve noticed that a lot of good HR hitters like to golf the pitch. Vlad Guerrero was, of course, the best at that.

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  5. rusty says:

    The second gif is very well-chosen — his block held a runner on third with two outs …

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  6. Ferment's Last Beerem says:

    But does he know the more important Art of Giving?

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  7. grandbranyan says:

    Obviously this article is about Lucroy behind the plate, but he’s pretty darn good when he is standing at it too. Yadi, Mauer and Gerald Posey get most of the hype as elite catchers (and rightfully so) but Lucroy isn’t too far behind.

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  8. StrikeThree says:

    Wow…receiving. What a new concept!
    http://www.beyondtheboxscore.com/2012/12/19/3786388/am-i-being-framed

    http://www.beyondtheboxscore.com/2012/12/29/3814572/am-i-being-framed-ii

    Please, next time ask Lucroy what umpires say about framing…about what they want to see… What they expect. If he wants to give the umpire the best look, current trchniques do not apply!

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  9. smocon says:

    “The Art of Receiving” better known as “Catching”.

    The problem here is that Lucroy is not a very good catcher. He is very good at one skill that plays a very minute part in his overall job description.

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    • Eno Sarris says:
      FanGraphs Supporting Member

      Weird, from watching him personally and talking to people around baseball, I have not gotten this impression at all. He does well in blocking metrics, and I’ve seen him block some tough pitches. If you mean he’s arm’s not great, I’d say *that* is the least important part of his defensive job description.

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    • JSprech says:

      That’s a shortsighted comment. He’s actually quite a good hitter as well. I take it you have not looked at his stat sheet.

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    • SRB says:

      Over the last two seasons (2012-2013), he is fourth in the major leagues in catcher fWAR (behind Posey/Mauer/Molina), which doesn’t even include the skill mentioned in this article which may be one of his best attributes. So… ?

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  10. channelclemente says:

    Trouble with Lucroy’s comments is there is to much film of him with that ‘pinch and pull’ move back to the SZ. Does he think there is no CF camera?

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  11. StrikeThree says:

    Better yet… How about an interview with an umpire!?

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    • AC of DC says:

      Oh, I saw that. It was all about having Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt in long hair and loose, frilly chest protectors. And Kirsten Dunst was way too young to be a ball girl!

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  12. Keegs says:

    Eno, this and the grips piece last week were both tremendous. This is a very fun kind of sportswriting that’s not a game recap from a beat guy and its not stats-heavy big picture analysis (that Cameron has mastered) or the tremendous stuff we get from funny guys like Brisbee and Sullivan, or a tearjerking piece of feature art in a magazine. Just really clean, really in-depth baseball.

    Thank you.

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