Lucroy refining his game behind home plate
PHOENIX—Slowly but surely, things are coming together for Jonathan Lucroy.
After producing a career-best year at the plate for the Milwaukee Brewers in 2013, the 27-year-old’s next goal is to further his development behind the plate and get his name into the discussion as one of the best all-around catchers in the National League.
“I’ve always felt like I was a good hitter,” Lucroy said. “Every level I’ve ever been at, I’ve always been a successful hitter. I’ve always felt like I was a hitting guy before a defense guy. When you get to the big leagues you want to be a well-rounded player.
“That’s what I’m trying to be.”
Lucroy’s offensive skills have been evident almost from the time he reached the major leagues with the Brewers in 2010.
He hit .253 in a part-time role over 75 games that year and then .265 in 2011 in his first season as Milwaukee’s primary catcher. Lucroy was off to a great start in 2012 before a fractured right hand caused him to miss 50 games, but he finished with a .320 average and a pair of seven-RBI games.
Last season, Lucroy’s .280 average, 18 home runs, 82 RBI and .795 OPS ranked him as one of the best offensive catchers in the major leagues. In playing a career-high 147 games, Lucroy also was a much-needed anchor in a Brewers lineup that was decimated for much of the year by the losses of Ryan Braun and Aramis Ramirez.
In the NL, Lucroy ranks right up there with the likes of St. Louis’ Yadier Molina, San Francisco’s Buster Posey and Colorado’s Wilin Rosario with the bat.
As a backstop, the development hasn’t come as easily for Lucroy.
Catcher is considered the toughest position in baseball, and with it come myriad responsibilities. There are the obvious ones such as throwing out would-be base stealers and blocking balls in the dirt, and then more nuanced ones like footwork, calling games and framing pitches.
By the numbers in the most obvious categories, Lucroy struggled mightily in 2013. He threw out 20.8 percent of base runners (21 of 101), worst among qualifying catchers in the NL, while also being charged with career highs with seven passed balls (his previous career high was two) and eight errors.
There are factors that play into a catcher’s success throwing out runners that catchers can’t control, such as how well pitchers hold runners on and the speed of their deliveries, but Lucroy takes full responsibility for his struggles in that area.
“Slide steps are always great, but it’s hard for a pitcher to execute pitches with a slide step,” he said. “Some guys can do it, some guys can’t. I’d rather have a guy steal a base on me than give up a homer on a hanging curveball or hanging changeup. A slide step, it’s hard to get that ball down.
“That’s one of those things where I’ve identified what I’ve been doing wrong throwing and I’m going to really work on it to try to improve it.”
Lucroy then revealed his discovery: he has inadvertently been throwing something of a changeup himself.
“Really all it is, is the way I hold the ball,” he said. “For some reason I got into the bad habit of holding the ball with three fingers.”
Not blessed with a rocket launcher like Molina or teammate Martin Maldonado, Lucroy needs all his mechanics—footwork, transfer and release—to work in perfect harmony to be able to give him a chance to throw out runners.
“My release has always been quick. My feet,” he said. “I don’t have a strong arm. I have a very average arm for a catcher, so I have to make it up in my feet and my transfer. You’ve got a guy like ‘Maldy’ who has a hose, he can take longer getting rid of it because he can make up for it with his arm.
“Guys like Yadi and ‘Pudge’ (Rodriguez), they have both. That’s the elite level.”
That’s not to say Lucroy doesn’t have his strengths behind the plate. Quite the contrary, actually.
He’s generally considered a solid game-caller who last season appeared to be very much in tune with the whole of the staff. Maldonado, because of his relationship with Wily Peralta, caught the big right-hander most games.
Where Lucroy really shines is the subtle art of framing pitches. In fact, according to one sabermetric breakdown, Lucroy is the best in the major leagues by a fair amount when it comes to getting strike calls on borderline pitches.
“I take a lot of pride in getting those pitches for guys,” he said. “It’s hard enough for pitchers to throw strikes anyway. I try to do my best not necessarily framing the ball, but giving the umpire a good look. A lot of catchers will take the ball away. You want to give the umpire a good look. That’s all you want to do. I’m not trying to steal strikes.
“I’m just trying to give the umpire a good look at it.”
Lucroy credits Brewers minor-league catching coordinator Charlie Greene for his tutelage in the finer arts of framing. The two worked together closely from the start after Lucroy was drafted in the third round in 2007.
“His setup allows him (to be so good) because he sits so low and quiet, and I think that really helps umpires call strikes,” Greene said. “He developed his stance probably in his first month or two as a pro. He’s really able to get underneath the pitch, which I think is the key.
“Low fastballs, he gets a lot of calls on those.”
Lucroy’s overall athleticism as a 6-foot, 195-pounder with good quickness also benefits him behind the plate.
“The receiving aspect greatly affects the outcome and how the pitcher does,” Greene said. “I know he’s spent a lot of time on it over the years, and I know he’s still getting better at it. Soft hands factors in, the setup, flexibility—a lot of things factor into it.
“When the ball hits his mitt, it stops. There’s not a lot of excess movement. That’s what ‘Luc’ does probably as good as anybody—he makes it look like he’s catching back there with tweezers. To me, that’s the sign of a confident catcher.”
And it’s a big part of the overall excellence Lucroy is still trying to achieve.
“Hitting, calling games, throwing, framing, blocking—it’s not easy,” he said. “Guys like Yadi, they’re rare. (I’m hoping) I can get to that point where I can be consistent on all levels.”
Maldonado remains entrenched as Lucroy’s backup and Peralta’s personal catcher. He’s coming off a brutal 2013 in which he hit just .169 in 183 at-bats, but is still highly thought of by the Brewers because he’s above-average defensively and has hit in the past.