Jonathan Lucroy and the New Decline

Here’s a graph posted at Baseball Prospectus a week ago:

lucroy-framing-runs

You see, for each of the last six years, an estimate of Jonathan Lucroy’s pitch-framing value. Now, there are freely available pitch-framing numbers you can browse through at StatCorner. Those will give you a good sense, but the numbers at Baseball Prospectus are the gold standard, with countless variables and adjustments, and what we observe when we look at Lucroy on Baseball Prospectus is that, statistically, it seems like his pitch-receiving has dropped almost all the way to league average. It was only a few years ago he ranked as one of the best, if not the best, so this is fairly astonishing. And Lucroy is said to be on the market, so this is also relevant. What are we supposed to believe as far as Lucroy and pitch-receiving go?

This is kind of new to us. It’s new to us because quantifying pitch-framing is still pretty new to us. It was exciting when people did that, because it introduced new contributions, new stars. Lucroy was one of them, even if Jose Molina was the initial face of the field. It took a little getting used to, but eventually enough people recognized Lucroy as one of the great all-around backstops in the sport. It was clear that, not only could he hit, but he could preserve a lot of strikes. We all got used to that, but as we were getting used to that, Lucroy’s framing skill was going away. By these numbers, anyway.

First, you have a new statistic. Then you can start seeing players getting better and getting worse in the statistic. This is a case of Lucroy getting worse in a new statistic, which we haven’t seen very much. I’m not sure it’s all that intuitive — it feels like framing should be one of those things that ages well. It’s not like a player forgets how to do it, and Lucroy hasn’t even yet celebrated his 30th birthday. Jose Molina was 33 in 2008. But it could be like any other skill, right? A small difference could be a big difference, like how a pitcher could be a lot worse throwing 89 than 91. We should be prepared to think Lucroy isn’t a star anymore. A few years ago, Lucroy was outstanding. A few years ago, Joe Mauer hit .324.

To start with, here’s evidence Baseball Prospectus has been measuring something real, or at least sticky. This shouldn’t be new to many people. I took data for the last eight years and calculated framing runs above or below average per 7,000 chances. This is a plot of how those numbers have held up year over year:

framing-runs-year-to-year

Obviously a strong relationship. Obviously, players who look like good framers tend to continue to look like good framers. This isn’t proof the numbers are measuring something real and significant, but it’s awful suggestive. It’s against this backdrop the Lucroy decline is stunning. You’d expect him to get worse by maybe a run or two each year, but he’s been sinking a lot faster than that.

I found 253 cases of a catcher having at least 2,500 framing opportunities in consecutive seasons. Again, for every year, I calculated runs/7000. Lucroy has three of the 53 biggest year-to-year declines. Between 2011 and 2012, he dropped almost 11 runs per 7000. Between 2013 and 2014, he dropped 14. Between 2014 and 2015, he dropped 12. There was also a drop between 2012 and 2013, of about six runs. Lucroy has steadily rated worse and worse, and he’s declined much faster than many of his peers.

So, a critical question: how significant is a drop like this? I mean, with Lucroy alone, we see him continue to decline, but what’s happened with other catchers who’ve had similar drops? There are 167 cases of a catcher having at least 2,500 opportunities in three consecutive years. In 36 cases, there was a drop between the first two years of at least 10 runs per 7000. Where did those catchers come out in the third year? I calculated some averages:

  • Year 1: +10.3 framing runs per 7000
  • Year 2: -4.1
  • Year 3: -3.2

Just in case you’re a bigger fan of medians:

  • Year 1: +7.3 framing runs per 7000
  • Year 2: -4.2
  • Year 3: -4.7

There’s no meaningful observed bounceback. On average, when these catchers have rated worse as framers, they’ve continued to rate worse as framers. This is why there should be some Lucroy concern — he might not actually rebound. Many other catchers haven’t in the past, himself included. Obviously, there are some success stories, like Derek Norris. Norris got worse between 2013 and 2014, but then he got way better in 2015. But these declines seem important. I don’t know what would be causing Lucroy to decline, but he has had his injuries. Why wouldn’t injuries matter?

Just for the sake of showing the opposite end, there are 18 cases of an increase between the first two years of at least 10 runs per 7000. The same idea as above:

  • Year 1: -13.8 framing runs per 7000
  • Year 2: +0.6
  • Year 3: -1.9

The bulk of the improvement sticks. So declines in framing seem pretty real, and improvements in framing seem pretty real. This is good news for Chris Iannetta and the Mariners — Iannetta just had the biggest season-to-season improvement for anyone since 2008. He got better by 27 runs per 7000, and he’s in line to do most of the receiving in Seattle until or unless Mike Zunino proves himself successfully overhauled. Norris, incidentally, is tied for the third-biggest improvement. So it hasn’t all gone rotten in San Diego.

None of this is to say Jonathan Lucroy can’t rebound. He’s not yet old, and he could have a much healthier season. He still knows all the techniques, and there’s some chance the numbers are actually missing something. Maybe, for example, they’re not giving Lucroy enough credit for catching a pretty lousy staff. But the numbers do try to control for that, so it’s worth entertaining the possibility that perhaps Lucroy is just finished as an elite receiver. He might even be finished as a good one. Catchers who have declined before haven’t often bounced back, and Lucroy himself is among them. You could also think about Brian McCann and Ryan Hanigan, who once looked like framing wizards, but who now appear mostly average. We’re still learning about this as a skill. Maybe some peaks just happen to be awful short.

It all makes the Lucroy trade talks so complicated. The Brewers want to sell him as a catcher who can do just about everything. Teams have reason to question how well he can do anything. Every trade negotiation is fascinating. This one is a little more so.

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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.

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APV
Member
APV

I am not in a position where I can easily look through BP’s data, but is it possible that some of Lucroy’s decline relative to the league is increasing awareness of pitch framing and an overall increase in the average framing ability since 2011?

alang3131982
Member
Member

I have a similar question – could it be umpires? Is it that far fetched to see a scenario where the umpires know which catchers are “making them look bad,” i.e., stealing more balls for strikes. If you know that Lucroy is at the top and there is a borderline pitch, wouldnt the umpire assume Lucroy was “stealing” it and then call a ball?

I have no idea if this is possible. I’d imagine umpires have to make relatively quick intuitive/reflexive decisions on balls/strikes and the time put into might not be enough to think oh but Lucroy is catching i’m calling that a ball.

Wouldnt surprise me tho…Just curious what others might think or figure out anyway to prove? Maybe compare Lucroy catching to other catchers in a game or similar umpires?

Hamba
Member
Hamba

I actually think the reflexive decision idea goes both ways. If you have a preconceived notion before the game that the catcher is a “framer,” then you might be subconsciously more inclined to call balls. So I definitely see merit to this and OP’s comment.

TKDC
Member
Member
TKDC

Isn’t one thing working against this that framing is way more about preventing strikes from being called balls? Almost all real balls are actually called balls these days.