Jonathan Lucroy’s One Weakness | Disciples of Uecker

Disciples of Uecker

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In his 2013 post-season Brewers grades, one sentence from Journal-Sentinel beat writers Tom Haudricourt and Todd Rosiak jumped out at me:

Catchers Jonathan Lucroy and Martin Maldonado again formed a nice duo behind the plate though Lucroy had trouble throwing out runners.

The reason this caught my eye is because while nobody considers Lucroy to have a particularly great arm, people haven’t much discussed how good (or bad) his arm actually is.

In general, baseball analysts spend their time talking about the things Jonathan Lucroy does right, and with good reason. Although he started slow in 2010 and 2011, over the last two years he has been one of the most valuable catchers in the game.

Lucroy’s most obvious value has been in the batter’s box. Over 2012 and 2013, he has produced at a rate of 125 wRC+, as tracked by Fangraphs. That is impressive not simply because his offense is 25% better than the average MLB position player, but because his high production comes while playing baseball’s most difficult position. Catchers are hired primarily for their defense, and average a meager 92 wRC+. On a related note, while Lucroy’s power is not often discussed, it should be. Although his home run/fly ball rate is somewhat low for a catcher, the home runs he does hit are not cheap. According to ESPN’s Home Run Tracker, Lucroy’s “true” average home run distance in 2013 — adjusting for temperature and sea level — was over 400 feet.  When he hits one, it goes.

Of course, Lucroy is a catcher, and catchers who cannot effectively minimize steals should not be catching. But how do you evaluate steal prevention? Different catchers face different base runners and receive from different pitchers. Beyond the inequities of the schedule, many bases are as good as stolen by the time the catcher receives the ball, thanks to the inability of some pitchers to hold runners or minimize their pitching motion.

The folks at the Fielding Bible came up with a metric called Catcher Stolen Base Runs Saved (“rSB”), which as far as I can tell, normalizes a catcher’s performance to each pitcher, but does not appear to similarly normalize for differences among base runners. The statistic is tracked by Fangraphs. While some of their scores seem reasonable, the scoring tends to be inconsistent from season to season. I couldn’t find anyone else who had studied this, so I ran some quick calculations myself.

Comparing all catchers with at least 700 innings pitched, the Pearson correlation between their 2011 and 2012 rSB scores was only .3, with an r2of .09. Comparing the 2012–13 rSB scores with the same criteria gave a correlation of .22 with an r2 of .05. For those of you who hate math, that means either that (1) catchers show little, if any consistency in throwing out base runners from year to year, or that (2) rSB, despite its best efforts, may be throwing darts.

In general, I’d like to think that Yadier Molina and Matt Wieters are consistently pretty good, and that if a system is having trouble recognizing that, we shouldn’t be relying on it, at least not without double-checking.

So, let’s go back to the raw base-stealing statistics, using multiple years of data as our best “check” on complicating factors like base runners and pitching rotations.

Lucroy has been essentially a full-time catcher since 2011. Even with the bizarre suitcase incident of 2012, Lucroy has been provided with over 1000 of what Baseball Reference calls “stolen base opportunities” (SBO) each year since 2011. Let’s compare his success rate to other catchers, by their data:

2011 Caught Stealing Table

Name SBO CCS % Rank CCS% C2B% Rank C2B% C3B% Rank C3B%
Matt Wieters 1858 36% 1 36% 5 31% 9
Miguel Montero 1741 35% 2 42% 1 23% 14
Lou Marson 1023 33% 3 39% 2 31% 9
Jonathan Lucroy 1530 21% 20 28% 18 27% 12
League Average: 25% 27% 0%

2012 Caught Stealing Table

Name SBO CCS % Rank CCS% C2B% Rank C2B% C3B% Rank C3B%
Yadier Molina 1744 46% 1 50% 1 20% 16
Ryan Hanigan 1206 42% 2 47% 2 56% 2
Matt Wieters 1804 36% 3 39% 5 33% 4
Martin Maldonado 796 27% 33% 8 29% 7
Jonathan Lucroy 1149 19% 20 23% 24 0% 27
League Average: 20% 18 29% 0%

2013 Caught Stealing Table

Name SBO CCS % Rank CCS% C2B% Rank C2B% C3B% Rank C3B%
Yadier Molina 1691 42% 1 39% 5 67% 1
A.J. Ellis 1404 40% 2 46% 1 0% 27
Joe Mauer 1047 39% 3 43% 4 40% 2
Jonathan Lucroy 1631 21% 19 24% 23 7% 26
Martin Maldonado 536 30% 29% 33%
League Average: 23% 25%

These tables are adapted from Baseball Reference, and show (1) the top three full-time defensive catchers in both leagues by runners caught stealing each year, (2) the ratings for Jonathan Lucroy (and Martin Maldonado, for comparison’s sake), and (3) the league averages for some of these statistics. With the exception of Maldonado, I limited the table to catchers who had at least 1000 stolen base opportunities, to ensure that I was including about 30 catchers each year — in other words, the front-line starters for each team. The other columns are for “Catcher Caught Stealing,” which eliminates pitcher pickoffs from the caught stealing numbers, and then the percentages and league rankings among full-time catchers for preventing steals to second and third base, respectively.

The tables make it clear that Lucroy was, as Haudricourt observed, below average at throwing out runners in 2013. In fact, Lucroy has been below average every year, and his problems with base runners are present at both second and third base. (Lucroy was absolutely ravaged by runners stealing third in 2013). Whether the issue is arm strength, an inability to get set, or both, throwing out runners appears to be the one notable weakness in Lucroy’s game. The data also shows that Maldonado is significantly better at throwing out base runners than Lucroy, which is not surprising for a quality backup catcher.

Of course, there is more to catcher defense than just throwing out base runners. Among other things, catchers ideally will minimize passed balls and frame the pitches they catch in a way that makes umpires want to call borderline pitches as strikes (“pitch-framing”). In these two other departments, Lucroy is exceptional. According to Bojan Koprivica’s passed balled statistic (RPP), which is tracked by Fangraphs, Lucroy was the fourth-best in baseball preventing passed balls during the 2012 season, and the second-best during the 2013 season (700+ innings minimum). And when it comes to pitch-framing, Lucroy is widely acknowledged as one of the best in baseball.  One projection claims that Lucroy prevented 33 runs — that’s three extra team wins — through his pitch framing in 2013. Many have commented that this seems high, but Harry Pavlidis and Dan Brooks recently released their own estimates finding that Lucroy added about 3 wins through pitch framing and blocking this past year. In any event, there can be no doubt that these other abilities more than compensate for Lucroy’s shortcomings in throwing out runners, particularly with Martin Maldonado available as a defensive replacement if the situation absolutely demands it.

All in all, Jonathan Lucroy remains one of the best all-around catcher values in baseball. While we may have confirmed the one weakness in Lucroy’s game, there are at least 20, if not 25 other teams in baseball that would love to have a catcher with Lucroy’s base stealing “problem.” Doug Melvin shrewdly signed Lucroy to an inexpensive long-term contract in May of 2012, and the Brewers are lucky to have him under team control through 2017.

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