Jonathan Lucroy, MLB’s most underrated catcher

Christian Petersen

It’s time we start appreciating just how good Milwaukee’s Jonathan Lucroy is.

Any serious discussion of baseball’s best catchers generally includes a list of familiar names: Buster Posey, Yadier Molina, and Joe Mauer (until those Twins moved him to first base) are always among the first to be mentioned. Sometimes Brian McCann gets included in the action, and increasingly, youngsters like Carlos Santana and Salvador Perez have received well-deserved praise for their great work behind the dish.

One player rarely mentioned, however, is Jonathan Lucroy, who has quietly become one of MLB’s best backstops. Fans in Milwaukee, who get to watch Lucroy play every day, are likely well aware of just how good the 27-year-old is, but that hasn’t quite trickled down to a wider baseball audience.

This is partially because Lucroy plays for a Brewers team that hasn’t contended the past two seasons, but this is also due to how well rounded and subtly excellent Lucroy is.

His offensive numbers—Lucroy hit .280/.340/.455 with 18 home runs and 118 wRC+ in 2013—don’t jump out at you by any means. Yet let’s remember that, on average, MLB catchers batted just .245/.310/.388 last season. The unique duties required of catchers along with the daily physical toll their bodies undergo often precludes any type of offensive excellence. Still, Lucroy’s .345 wOBA ranked fifth-best among big league catchers last year.

Even more encouraging, Lucroy has improved his batting every season since debuting for the Brewers in 2010. Initially a glove-first catcher who posted a 21.2% strikeout rate and 6.2% walk rate in 2011, Lucroy has enhanced his plate discipline, made more consistent contact, and belted more extra-base hits as he has gained further experience in the majors.

In 2012, Lucroy sliced his strikeout rate nearly in half down to 12.7% and batted .320/.368/.513 for Milwaukee in 346 plate appearances. He continued those plate discipline improvements last season, cutting down his strikeout rate further to 11.9% and also increasing his walk rate to a career-best 7.9%.

In some ways, his offensive production dipped in 2013, but much of this was due to a BABIP that regressed back to league average (falling from .338 in 2012 to .290 last year) and Lucroy’s shouldering of full-time catching duties for the Brewers. At the very least, Lucroy remains an above-average catcher with the bat.

Lucroy really excels with the glove, though, and as Harry Pavlidis and Dan Brooks showed at Baseball Prospectus in March, he has arguably been the best pitch framer in baseball dating back to 2010. According to Pavlidis and Brooks, Lucroy’s framing skills are so good, the 27-year-old contributed roughly 39 more runs to his team than Carlos Santana in 2011, which is somewhere in the neighborhood of four wins. This isn’t to say that Lucroy is worth four wins per season for his pitch framing alone, but at least he has a positive and valuable impact on his pitchers through his framing abilities.

Indeed, as Pavlidis and Brooks acknowledge, both Yovani Gallardo and Kyle Lohse have benefited greatly from Lucroy’s pitch framing excellence in recent seasons, ranking among the league leaders in framing runs added from 2008-2013.

Lucroy’s exceptional framing skills, his otherwise strong defense (he has a good arm and has shown strong blocking skills), and above-average production at the plate make him one of the most well-rounded and valuable catchers in the game. Since the start of the 2012 season, in fact, Lucroy is fourth overall among catchers in total WAR at 7.2 and trails only Buster Posey, Yadier Molina, and Joe Mauer.

Always a strong defender, Lucroy’s bat has begun catching up with his defense, something that often happens with catchers, who are tasked with other responsibilities when they arrive in the majors. With three full seasons of experience and youth on his side, Lucroy could be in for a career year, one in which his defense continues to be elite and his offensive production takes a leap as he keeps refining his plate discipline.

At the minimum, Lucroy will continue to greatly aid the Brewers pitching staff, which, with the addition of Matt Garza in free agency and a potential rebound from Gallardo, could be among the best rotations in the NL. Like Lucroy himself, in fact, the Brewers have a chance to surprise people this season.

...

All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs unless otherwise noted.

Alex Skillin is a writer and editor at Beyond the Box Score. He works as an Editorial Producer for MLB.com and also writes for SB Nation's MLB hub. You can follow him on Twitter at @AlexSkillin.

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