On March 26, 2012, the Milwaukee Brewers inked Jonathan Lucroy to a five-year, $11M contract extension. The deal includes a $500k signing bonus and a club option for 2017 ($250k buyout), which could push the overall value of the contract to six-years and $16.25M.
Although the bought-out arbitration years make the calculations much more complicated, the Brewers essentially signed Lucroy to be a one-win player each year between 2012 and 2017. They rolled the dice a bit and signed Lucroy when he was coming off a very mediocre year in 2011. Simply put, the organization hit the jackpot in terms of surplus contract value.
The 27-year-old catcher was signed to be a one-win player, yet since the beginning of the 2012 season, he’s been worth +6.8 wins above replacement. In terms of raw numbers, he’s already justified (and outperformed) the contract extension. He enjoyed a breakout season at the dish last year, hitting .320/.386/.513 with 12 home runs, and his numbers could have been even better had he not missed time with a broken hand.
Because of that injury, many fans didn’t know what to expect from Lucroy coming into this season. His .338 BABIP suggested his batting average would slightly come down, but the real questions surrounded his power. Was he a legitimate 15-20 home run threat? Was he truly one of the better offensive catchers in Major League Baseball?
A year later, Lucroy has convincingly proven his 2012 season wasn’t a fluke. In fact, he’s building upon his breakout season and solidifying himself as one of the better catching options in the league. He only played 96 games last year, and through his first 97 games this season, he already has 16 home runs and his .216 ISO is even higher than his previous career-high .193 ISO. The decreased ground-ball rate has aided that power spike, as it’s given him more opportunity to hit for power.
His batting average has come down, as expected, but he’s otherwise been the same player he was in 2012. His walk rate is almost identical, and his plate discipline numbers haven’t changed much.
Lucroy has not only backed up his impressive 2012 season. He’s also taken a step forward in some ways — such as lowering his strikeout rate — which is encouraging for any hitter who’s entering the prime of his career. The power appears to be legitimate. The Brewers have what the franchise has lacked for many years: an above-average catching option with skills both at the plate and behind it. The Brewers haven’t had a long-term answer at catcher since arguably B.J. Surhoff in the late ’80s and early ’90s.
On a team featuring Ryan Braun, Carlos Gomez and Jean Segura, the Brewers’ catcher often gets overlooked by both local and national markets. It hasn’t been talked about much, but Lucroy has been a near-elite catcher this season. Check out how he stacks up in comparison to the rest of the league:
Of 32 catchers with at least 200 plate appearances this season, Jonathan Lucroy currently owns the fifth-best WAR in all of baseball. His .358 wOBA ranks sixth in the league, and his 128 wRC+ also ranks sixth. His UZR is above-average, though that doesn’t take into account his ability to frame pitches, which is regularly considered to be superior to his peers. There is certainly a line in the sand between the top three and the remainder of the league, but Lucroy has begun to insert himself into the discussion of upper-echelon catchers.
Placing him in context of the franchise, Lucroy’s +3.7 WAR in 2012 was statistically the best-ever season by a Brewers’ catcher, along with Ted Simmons’ 1983 campaign.
This year, though, Lucroy is poised to blow that number out of the water with approximately two months remaining to accumulate value. Even as it stands, he already has the eighth-best single season by a Brewers’ catcher. And if he can continue to produce past this season — and there doesn’t seem to be any reason why he shouldn’t be able to produce — he may finish his career as the greatest catcher to ever don a Brewers’ uniform.
That wasn’t even in our collective consciousness a year ago when he signed that five-year contract extension for only $11 million, but it may turn out to be one of the best extensions in Doug Melvin’s tenure in Milwaukee. Jonathan Lucroy has been a real treat to watch develop with the Brewers. It’s time we start recognizing his production for what it’s worth.