With the departure of Prince Fielder and the possible 50-game suspension for Ryan Braun, much of the focus has been on whether or not the Brewers’ offense can produce enough offense to avoid beginning the 2012 season in a huge hole.
Naturally, that question has led to many discussions regarding first baseman Mat Gamel and the likelihood of his finally translating his gaudy minor league numbers into major league success. It has also sparked conversation surrounding the newly-acquired Aramis Ramirez and his ability to anchor the lineup in the four-spot.
Few people, however, have asked another important question: Can Jonathan Lucroy take a step forward and become an impact bat in the back-end of the batting order?
It’s easy to forget that Lucroy was hitting .287/.326/.407 with nine home runs as late as August 24 last season. His disastrous September was the largest culprit for his overall pedestrian .265/.313/.391 triple-slash line at the end of the year. After all, he did compile a .188 batting average through 21 games in the month of September — though that was mostly due to an unlucky .184 BABIP, despite a 25.0% line drive percentage over that time frame. Lucroy hit the baseball hard in September. He simply didn’t have the statistics to support that due to an inability to “hit ‘em where they ain’t.”
Although that one month sullied a solid first half, Lucroy and his .310 wOBA were ultimately below-average in relation to the rest of the league. One must remember, though, that last season was his first full season in the majors. He continues to adjust to pitching at this level — as well as adjust to playing a grueling 162-game schedule — and his plate discipline numbers show promise. His O-Swing% dropped over six percent (36.8% to 30.4%) from 2010 to 2011 and the percentages of pitches that he swings at overall (48.3% to 42.7%) has dropped significantly as well, so his selectivity at the plate seems to be trending in the correct direction. If he can continue to swing at fewer pitches outside of the strike zone, his productivity should increase accordingly in 2012.
(Side note: The +1.9 WAR accumulated by the Brewers’ backstop last year is the third highest mark for the Brewers since B.J. Surhoff transitioned away from catcher following the 1992 season. Only Dave Nilsson in 1999, Damien Miller in 2004, and Jason Kendall in 2008 provided more total wins during a single season in that time frame than Lucroy did in 2011.)
Professional baseball is about making adjustments. The 25-year-old dominated through the month of May, finishing that month hitting .310/.353/.496, but the league adjusted and began pounding the outside corner. He generates most of his power and hits to left and center fields, so opposing teams sought to limit his ability to pull the baseball. Look at his hit chart at Miller Park last season:
Only seven hits all year at Miller Park came to right field. Opposing teams recognized that and began throwing fastballs and sliders on the outer half of the plate. Lucroy was never able to adjust, and his numbers ultimately declined throughout the remainder of the season.
Again, professional baseball is about making adjustments. The league made their adjustment to Lucroy last season, and it showed in the numbers down the stretch. Can he make adjustments of his own this winter and bounce back with an improved approach at the plate in 2012 and beyond?
With so many question marks surrounding the Brewers’ offense, an improved Jonathan Lucroy would not only be a tremendous boon for the organization’s postseason hopes, but also give Milwaukee its first long-term solution at catcher since B.J. Surhoff switched from catcher to first base in 1993 and later departed for Baltimore after the 1995 season. It has been fifteen years since the Brewers have had any consistency at the catcher position. The Brewers hope that has changed with Lucroy behind the plate.