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Jonathan Lucroy, the Rockie, Is Baseball’s Best Contact Hitter

It’s no secret that Jonathan Lucroy is having a subpar season.

The two-time NL All Star was projected to be a top-three catcher in 2017.  Before the start of the season, Steamer pegged his value at 3.6 wins above replacement, while ZiPS had him at 3.2.  His .242/.297/.338 line and 66 wRC+ in 306 plate appearances as a member of the Texas Rangers produced 0.2 WAR.  No one really expected that.

Lucroy was eventually traded to the Colorado Rockies.  The Rockies, who had the worst catching tandem in baseball, instantly viewed Lucroy as an upgrade, while many other playoff-bound teams would have viewed him as a liability.  With the hitter-friendly environment of Coors Field and poor pitching staffs among the San Francisco Giants and San Diego Padres, the team figured that Lucroy would return to his All-Star form once again.  Although he has not returned to being the power threat that he once was, he has changed his game ever so slightly, such that he might have become the game’s best-hitting catcher.

His basic stat line is not reflective of his plate discipline as a member of the Rockies.  His slash line has gone back up to near his career average (.279/.384/.377), but what is most impressive about him is his actual hitting ability.  Always a good contact hitter, he has changed his game to be more selective, get more contact, and put the ball in play.  His 92 percent contact percentage ranks first in baseball since the trade, and his 88 percent contact percentage of pitches outside the strike zone also ranks first.  The result: a high walk rate (12.3 percent) and fewer swinging strikeouts (6.3 percent of plate appearances resulting in a strikeout).  All of this while swinging at fewer pitches outside the strike zone (18.6 percent) and fewer swings in general (38 percent).  You may be asking “Why isn’t he leading the league in hitting with numbers like that?”  Well, the answer is rather simple.

While he is making more contact than anyone in baseball, most of the balls in play are hit to the defense.  This season, he is hitting more ground balls than ever before.  As a Rockie, 50 percent of the balls he has hit in play have been ground balls, well above his career average of 42.8 percent.  As a result, he has hit fewer fly balls (28.7 percent) which has led to fewer home runs (3.2 percent HR/FB).  This explains his lack of power this year.

He has hit the ball in the wrong place more this season than any other.  For his career, Lucroy has had a tendency to drive the ball up the middle — that has not changed much this season — but this season he has hit the ball softer than in any previous season.  His average exit velocity (85.0 miles per hour) is more in line with middle infielders and outfielders than catchers.  In fact, he has the fourth-slowest average exit velocity among all qualified catchers.  His average exit velocity last season was 87.6 miles per hour, and it was 88.6 in 2015.  Without the wheels of a speedy outfielder or infielder capable of beating out a ground ball (or at the very least forcing the defense to rush the throw), a ground ball for Lucroy is as good as an out.  Just as the saying “baseball is a game of inches,” it’s a game of miles per hour, too.

Fewer ground balls are going through the holes in the infield, and fewer ground balls are becoming hits.  His batting average of balls in play as a Rockie is similar to his career average (.308 as a Rockie and .306 for his career), but his RBBIP — percentage of balls in play that go for a hit or an error — is .318.  While it is above league average, it is well below his RBBIP numbers of both his All Star seasons and 2012, when he hit .320.  Has Lucroy been entirely unlucky with his balls in play?  No; pitchers have pitched to him largely down and away, which has resulted in a horrible contact percentage on those pitches, and he has also regressed slightly in every season since 2015.  But if Lucroy can keep his contact percentage up, hit fewer ground balls, and stay selective at the plate, then he could be one of the best-hitting catchers in the game again.