Jonathan Lucroy is a player whose value has collapsed recently. There’s no one aspect of his game that can take all the blame — his wRC+ is currently a 74, compared to the 121 he ran from 2012 through 2016 — but after being one of the very best framers in the game several years ago, he’s been one of the very worst in all of baseball this year.
Baseball Prospectus is the leader in catcher framing stats. The core is CSAA, which tracks a catcher’s average per-pitch contribution to the likelihood that it is called a strike rather than a ball. Starting in 2010, the year that Lucroy debuted as a major-leaguer, and continuing through 2013, he consistently ranked at the very top of MLB by CSAA. His ranking started to fall in 2014, but it wasn’t until this year that it truly tanked.
Thus far in 2017, he’s dead last among fulltime catchers in framing. What happened? How does a player lose this much value, in such a relatively short period of time? We still don’t fully understand framing — how it develops, what happens to it over time — so those questions aren’t easy to answer.
But I wanted to try. It’s not as impossible as it once was to pinpoint framing ability, thanks to the advent of Statcast. Baseball Savant’s Statcast search allows you to pinpoint specific pitches, in specific locations, and involving specific players. Usually, that means thrown by a pitcher, but for 2016 and 2017, that also can mean received by a catcher.
I used that function to download each called ball or strike received by Lucroy in 2016, when he was a middle-of-the-pack framer, and in 2017, when he’s been downright terrible. My goal was to estimate how Lucroy has lost his ability. What parts of the zone has he begun struggling with? What kind of pitches? I made a quick and dirty framing metric, calculating the rate at which pitches of a certain type (that weren’t swung at) were converted to strikes, and compared it between the two years. This metric doesn’t account for all the various confounding factors that go into framing, so it’s certainly not precise enough to, e.g., estimate the value of Lucroy’s receiving ability in a given part of the zone. But that’s not the point; the point is only to figure out what locations and pitches Lucroy is newly struggling with, and this measure is precise enough for that.
So what does it show? First, the results by pitch type (sorted by the frequency with which Lucroy received them):
Lucroy’s receiving by pitch type
This paints a pretty clear picture, it seems. Lucroy’s skills appear to have remained stable or even slightly improved on hard pitches: fourseamers (33 percent to 34 percent), twoseamers (33 percent to 32 percent), sliders (28 percent in both), sinkers (36 percent to 40 percent), and cutters (28 percent to 33 percent). The losses have come on curveballs (33 percent to 28 percent), changeups (21 percent to 17 percent), and the infrequent knuckle curve (39 percent to 30 percent). Offspeed and breaking pitches are turning into strikes less often; hard pitches have stayed the same.
I did the same calculation by part of the zone, and rather than a boring old table, put together some pretty graphs. The 2016 zone is on the left, with the 2017 zone in the center; the difference between the two is presented on the right.
Again, we see that, in some respects, Lucroy has improved in 2017; pitches low in the zone and closer to the lefthanded batter’s box are more likely to be called strikes than in 2016. He’s lost called strike percentage in almost every other part of the zone, with the worst damage coming exactly opposite where he’s gained: high in the zone and closer to the righthanded batter’s box, on Lucroy’s glove side.
As I said above, we don’t understand framing well, but this analysis seems to provide a decent starting point. I wanted to go a step further, so I pulled footage of Lucroy receiving pitches in each of those zones — changeups and curveballs in the two relevant corners of the zone — in 2016 and in 2017. Is there some difference in how he’s receiving these pitches that’s discernible with the naked eye, and might give further clues about precisely how his skills have eroded?
Let’s start with the high pitches, that Lucroy has gotten worse on. Here’s Lucroy receiving a curveball or changeup thrown to a righthanded hitter in that zone (Zone 1, on Savant) in 2016, followed by 2017.
They’re not in precisely the same location, and there are a lot of commonalities between Lucroy’s receiving style; he frequently drops to one or both knees as a pitch is coming in, seemingly as a way of keeping his upper body stable. But there appears to be more noise in his glove hand in the 2017 gif. The first pitch is cradled, and caught while moving the glove in the same direction as its natural arc, while the second pitch is halted in its tracks, with a bit more glove snap as a result.
Now for the lefties (which I looked at separately, in case Lucroy sets up differently based on handedness).
Again, they’re not in identical locations, which is probably why Lucroy turns his glove in the 2016 one and not the 2017 one. His receiving on the second pitch looks a little more herky-jerky, again, but I can’t place my finger on why, and it might just be that I expect it to look worse.
On to the low zone (Zone 9, in Savant). Righthanders:
There’s less of a bounce to Lucroy’s glove on the 2017 pitches (and remember, this is the zone where he’s improved this year), but without precisely lining up the location of the comparison pitches, I hesitate to read too much into that.
Ultimately, I found less than I hoped for. In everything I looked at, Lucroy was Lucroy; he appeared to be a good receiver, with a quiet body and hands, but the numbers differ drastically from one year to the other. When I did see a difference, it was never stark enough for me to be sure it wasn’t just because I expected to see one.
So I want to do a brief experiment. There are four gifs below this, of Lucroy receiving pitches; two are from 2016, and two from 2017. (He’s with the Rangers in all of them.) I’m also putting a set of polls below them, where you can guess what year each pitch is from. I’m not sure entirely what I expect, but if the results are more accurate than random, it might be a sign that there’s something visibly different in Lucroy’s receiving, even if I can’t identify or describe it. I’ll put the answers at the bottom of the article, and if you think you see something in Lucroy’s mechanics that I missed, drop in a comment.
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Henry Druschel is the co-Managing Editor of Beyond the Box Score. You can find him on Twitter at @henrydruschel.
Answers: 2017, 2016, 2017, 2016