Jonathan Lucroy & Losing Power

For the first month of 2015, somewhat obscured by the other awfulness that surrounded him, Jonathan Lucroy struggled at the plate. In 51 chances, he mustered a sickly .133/.216/.178 line — a massive dropoff from the elite offense he showed in previous years. After somehow breaking his toe on a foul tip, he headed to the disabled list, the team hoping that he’d turn his season around when he returned.

Lucroy returned to the field again on the first day of June, and improved a bit, batting at a .278/.319/.352 clip over that month. His average jumped from horrendous to above-average, as did his on-base percentage (league-average is a .314 OBP), but his slugging percentage remained subpar, sustaining the pre-absence trend. His .044 April ISO combines with his .074 June ISO to give him an .065 overall mark for 2015, more than 100 points lower than his 2012-2014 level. Can Lucroy begin to hit the ball with the authority he once did?

Let’s look into the components of a hitter’s power, starting with doubles (and triples, but as a catcher, Lucroy doesn’t accumulate too many of those). He collected 17 and 25 doubles in 2013 and 2014, respectively, posting respective double rates of 4.9 and 4.3 percent — around the league average. Overall, 7.4 percent of his balls in play went for extra bases, a respectable clip for someone of his premium defensive position. Then came 2014, in which he broke the major-league record for doubles hit as a catcher. Reaching second base 53 times and third base twice gave him a double rate of 8.1 percent and an extra-base hit rate of 10.9 percent, figures that greatly assisted his MVP case and inflated his power numbers.

It’s here that the inherent volatility of doubles comes into play. Doubles rate correlates rather poorly from year-to-year, meaning that guys who compile a lot of them in one season won’t necessarily do so in the future. Look at the leaderboards for any year, and one will find lucky batters who fluked their way into 40-some two-baggers. (As another relatively recent example, Aramis Ramirez smacked 50 of them in 2012, before following that up with 18, 23, and a projected 30.) With this in mind, Brewers fans shouldn’t expect Lucroy to continue hitting a double in one-in-every-twelve trips to the dish.

Nevertheless, the abysmal results he’s posted thus far probably won’t continue. In his 167 plate appearances during the current campaign, he’s only accrued five doubles (a 3.0 percent doubles rate), along with a lone triple (total 4.6 percent extra-base rate). This comes despite a 28.2 percent line-drive rate, close to the 29.1 percent he posted last year, and much higher than the 23.4 percent that he put up in the two years prior. It also goes against his hitting profile, which hasn’t shifted in the slightest — he’s pulled the ball 33.6 percent of the time in 2015, as opposed to 35.0 percent in the three-year span that preceded it.

Lucroy’s rate of hard-hit balls, in all fairness, has declined, from 35.6 percent to 28.0 percent . Much of that stemmed from his early-season hard times, though. In the most recent month, he’s made hard contact 33.0 percent of the time. That has resulted in a solid amount of doubles — 4.3 percent of his June plate appearances. Recuperating fully from a hamstring injury (fairly non-serious) incurred before the season most likely helped him get his groove back. With this ability back behind him, he should crank out doubles at his 2012-2013 pace, at the least.

But those kinds of hits don’t comprise much of a hitter’s power. Home runs are the main source for that. If a guy doesn’t rack up the long balls, he’ll watch as his power numbers evaporate. For Lucroy, this has actually affected him for a few years now, albeit not this badly. Over the past four seasons, his home-run rate has fallen from 3.5 percent to 3.1, 2.0, and 0.6 percent, respectively. And based on his profile, Lucroy doesn’t have the best odds of bouncing back.

To consistently sock the ball out of the park, a hitter must (a) put it in the air often and (b) make it go far when he does. In both of these regards, Lucroy has seen his performance drop:

Season FB% FB Distance
2012 29.4% 291.2
2013 27.6% 286.1
2014 21.3% 283.7
2015 19.9% 264.3

This arguably disturbing trend dates back to Lucroy’s breakout 2012. The aforementioned doubles helped mask it last year, but with their absence, the lower home-run totals have really harmed Lucroy.

The hamstring issue has, in all likelihood, played a role in Lucroy’s newfound power outage. Even since coming back, though, he has hit just one home run in 116 plate appearances. Obviously, he’ll end the season with more dingers than Ben Revere, but a rebound to 2012 levels won’t happen.

For most batters, power doesn’t age well. When a player turns 30 — as Lucroy will do midway through next season — he knows that his most forceful days have passed. Lucroy can still, presumably, hit his fair share of doubles on balls in play, along with the occasional triple. Home runs are another story, though. Expecting him to once again pile up the round-trippers will only lead to disappointment. Overall, this results in something like average power, much better than what he’s accomplished thus far, but a far cry from years past.

In recent articles, here and elsewhere, the Brewers have made it clear that they want Lucroy to stick around in Milwaukee. That will definitely work out for them in the long run, as his spectacular defense and team-friendly contract will allow him to both contribute and be cost-effective for years to come. However, if the first half of 2015 has been any indication, his power (and thus, his offense) won’t remain at elite levels.

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