Lucroy works to become one of league's top catchers

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By Todd Rosiak
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Tuesday, June 10, 2014

NEW YORK--On a Milwaukee Brewers team filled with unabashed free swingers, Jonathan Lucroy is a definite aberration.

The fifth-year catcher works counts, willingly draws walks and sprays the ball from foul line to foul line.

As a result, Lucroy has been a perfect fit as the No. 3 hitter—a spot owned by Ryan Braun since Lucroy arrived in Milwaukee in 2010—in a Brewers lineup that, since being shuffled by manager Ron Roenicke about three weeks ago, has been among the most potent in the National League.

“He’s been the most consistent hitter we have,” Roenicke said of Lucroy, who had at least one hit in each of the first five games of Milwaukee’s current eight-game road trip, which concludes with three games against the New York Mets at Citi Field beginning today.

“Part of that is because of the approach he has. He’s not a wild swinger like we know a lot of our guys are. He’s a guy that will hit to all fields. He uses the other field very well and if you look at every other third and fourth hitter, all the good ones really use the whole field well. He stays on pitches well, so he doesn’t chase pitches too much out of the zone.

“He’s a tremendous offensive player.”

After collecting three of the Brewers’ four hits in a 1-0 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park on Sunday, Lucroy was looking up at just two players in the NL—Colorado’s Troy Tulowitzki and Los Angeles’ Yasiel Puig—with a .335 average.

He also was tied for second in the majors with 23 doubles and on a pace to surpass Lyle Overbay’s team record of 54. He is also among the league leaders with 24 multi-hit games, 75 hits and a .398 on-base percentage.

It’s been a steady ascent for Lucroy, who thanks mostly to that offense, is consistently being mentioned in the same breath as St. Louis’ Yadier Molina and San Francisco’s Buster Posey as one of the top catchers in the NL.

He hit .253 with four homers and 26 RBI in part-time duty in 2010 before jumping to .265/12/59 in his first full year as a starter in 2011. A broken hand cost him what could have been a breakout season in 2012, when he finished at .320/12/58 in 96 games, but last season his .280/18/82 made him among the most productive catchers in the game offensively.

His four homers and 27 RBI this season aren’t eye-popping, but his steady-as-she-goes approach at the plate allows him to avoid long droughts; his longest stretch without a hit has been two games, and it has happened only twice.

“As long as I keep doing that, I know I’ll be OK,” said Lucroy, who collected the 500th hit, 50th homer and 250th RBI of his career all on a ninth-inning homer to right in an 8-5 victory over the Minnesota Twins at Target Field on Thursday.

“Not trying to do too much, staying within myself, realizing what kind of player I am, and that’s a line-drive, gap hitter. That’s what I do. I hit a homer every now and again, but most of the time I hit the ball in the gap and on the line.

“That’s why I line out all the time.”

Lucroy’s smooth, compact stoke in the box stands in stark comparison to the back-breaking, corkscrew swings from Carlos Gomez, who often winds up on one knee as his helmet falls off. With Lucroy’s closed stance there’s little movement, other than his bat waggling up and down a bit as he cocks it behind his head.

Lucroy does admit to having strayed from his approach at the plate at times, although he’s mature and experienced enough now to know that’s one of the surest ways to get himself into trouble.

“Absolutely, I’ve done it before,” he said. “’Man, I need to hit more homers. I need to do this or I need to do that.’ A long time ago I had a hitting coach tell me that I needed to pull the ball more. That’s not what I do, and that messed me up. Once I got back to doing what I do—hitting line drives up the middle—everything else fell into place.

“(Pulling) is not who I am. I’ve been a line-drive hitter since I was in Little League. I’m not going to go up there and try to hit like Aramis Ramirez because that’s not what I do. You’ve just got to be who you are and try to stick to that approach and not try to do too much.”

Lucroy has caught 462 1/3 innings in 50 starts behind the plate. His .995 fielding percentage is second to only Molina’s .996 and he’s throwing out would-be basestealers at a 26 percent clip, up from his 22 percent success rate in 2013.

He also continues to evolve as a game-caller, which is often the last piece of the puzzle for catchers.

“I remember Jason Kendall telling me it took him six years in the big leagues before he learned how to call a game,” said Lucroy, who is also regarded as the best in the game at framing pitches and gaining borderline strike calls for his pitchers.

“It took him so long because of all the experience he had to gain. It took him six years. This is my fifth. I think it’s one of those things that with experience comes confidence in your ability to call a game and to prepare yourself the best that you can to call a game.

“For a young player, I know, it was really hard to do. And now that I’ve got a good system down of being able to remember and recall things and how to go about it in certain situations, I think it gives you that confidence to do better.”

Lucroy also has had five starts at first base this season, all of which came when Ramirez was on the disabled list, Mark Reynolds was playing third base and the Brewers were facing a left-handed starter.

It’s that do-anything attitude along with the productivity that’s made Lucroy a favorite both of fans and teammates. Lucroy doesn’t view himself as a leader so much in what has been a much-improved clubhouse atmosphere, but the nature of his position definitely affords him respect.

“Since we’re the only people that see the whole field, I think that I’m considered to be a leader,” he said. “But I think it’s more along the lines of guys that go out every day and play hard and say, ‘Hey, let’s go, come on, don’t let up.’ I just try to keep a grip on reality and keep everything in perspective of what we need to do—not get too high, not get too low. Just try to stay consistent.

“My job—especially with the pitchers—is to keep them locked in as best I can.”

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