The date was November 13, 2014. Clayton Kershaw was named the National League’s most valuable player. In second place was Giancarlo Stanton, followed by Andrew McCutchen, and in fourth was Jonathan Lucroy.
The 2014 season proved to be a “breakout year” for Lucroy. It was his first time on the MVP ballot. He finished with the third-highest BWARP in the National League, and the highest WARP of his career.
His “breakout,” though, was initially seen through his hitting, highlighted by his chance at setting the all-time doubles record for catchers. Then, when the baseball community noticed and people started digging a little deeper, they noticed another hidden skill, Lucroy’s framing. Once the public recognized that Lucroy wasn’t just a good hitting catcher but also one of the best framing catchers in baseball, he started getting mentioned in the MVP debate and started getting serious consideration. In fact Dave Cameron of FanGraphs put him second on his MVP ballot even though he had a worse fWAR than McCutchen, Rendon, and Stanton.
Pitch framing has real value, it can add three to four wins to a catchers WAR, even though no current representation of WAR accounts for framing. One of the major keys to framing is being able to catch the ball with the least amount of excess motion. Really, you’re just catching the ball and stopping it. Here, let Lucroy tell you:
But, something strange has happened this season. Lucroy’s amazing ability to frame pitches has completely eroded to the point where it can no longer be considered a skill. Mainly his skill has disappeared on the low strike. On a strike-added basis on the glove side between 2010-2014, he’s been worth 135.32 and 135.11 strikes. In 2015, he’s been worth 2.476 and 6.72 strikes added, which is a significant drop off from his usual self.
This is really surprising considering, since Lucroy entered the league in 2010, he’s saved a total of 150.2 runs, which ranks him third all-time. Last year, in his breakout season, he saved 17.4 runs (fifth in all of baseball) thanks to his framing, but this year it’s down to -0.5. Lucroy, therefore, has cost himself roughly two wins this year, when comparing it to last year. This is a far cry from when Lucroy was at his peak in framing. In 2011, his framing was worth a total of 45.7 runs, which was 14.3 runs better than the second place catcher, Brian McCann, who was at 31.4.
Since entering the league, Lucroy never finished below fifth place in framing. This year he ranks 59th among all catchers. Perhaps one of the most concerning parts is that were not talking about an issue of small sample size. Lucroy has had 4430 chances to frame a pitch this year, and instead of creating extra strikes, he’s actually cost his team three strikes.
Framing, as you might imagine, doesn’t just have an effect on a catcher, but also on a pitcher. If one simply looks at ERA, it doesn’t take into account a catchers framing; thus, his decline in framing will affect a pitchers ERA. Thankfully, however, this year we were introduced to DRA (Deserved Runs Average), which does consider catcher framing. The DRA components have also just been released at Baseball Prospectus’ main page so one can now look at how much framing had an effect on pitchers. Lucroy entered the league in 2010 so will look at the CSAA (Called Strikes Above Average) component of DRA, to see how framing affected the Brewers since that time.
Important note: Martin Maldonado was the catcher for Wily Peralta in 2012 and 2013. Since were focusing on Lucroy’s framing, I did not include Peralta in 2012 and 13. I also did not include pitchers who pitched the majority of their innings for another team. Finally, the lower the number the more that pitcher benefited from framing.
While, 2015 still has a negative value, in 2015 the Brewers pitchers still are benefiting from framing. It’s just nowhere near what they are used to. On average, the Brewers pitchers benefited from a -1.9 CSAA since 2010, which is a 1.75 runs difference in 2015. This effect also includes Maldonado who has been a good pitch framer in his own right, but the vast majority of games caught since 2010 have been by Lucroy. One also might be wondering why the Brewers pitchers have been benefiting from catcher framing this year, even though Lucroy’s framing is down? That’s because Maldonado has had a good year framing wise, and Lucroy got injured earlier this year; therefore, he had to spend some time on the DL, giving Maldonado more playing time than he is used to.
One of the biggest problems is figuring out exactly why Lucroy’s framing has been so down this year. Many of these statistics display the results of catcher framing but not necessarily the process. Fortunately, though, it seems researchers are making headway into this issue. Mainly, thus far, in the ability to quantify catcher movement. I think it’ll definitely be interesting to see, when more of the research comes out, if Lucroy’s movement at the point of reception has increased compared to years passed.
What we do know is that framing does have an aging curve, which peaks around 25 or 26. Lucroy’s best year framing was at the age of 25. But, for the most part, the ability does not fall off a cliff at those ages. It merely starts to decline. It’s rather around 32-33 when the framing ability starts to significantly drop. Lucroy isn’t at that point yet; he’s only 29, although we’ve already seen a significant decline in his framing.
What might be the saving grace for Lucroy’s framing is that he got injured earlier this season. This isn’t to suggest that I am glad that Lucroy got injured, but rather that this could be an explanation as to why Lucroy’s framing has been drastically down this year. In any case, it will be interesting to see how Lucroy performs framing-wise next season. It’ll give us a better estimation as to whether his framing is back and will give the Brewers a better indication as to whether they should trade him or not.