Jonathan Lucroy’s Double-Play Problem

The 2015 Brewers offense fell short in many, many regards (which I’ll soon dissect in greater detail). Any time your team accrues the eighth-fewest runs in baseball, while playing half its games in the bandbox of Miller Park, you’ve done something wrong. One of the less-noticed factors behind Milwaukee’s lackluster scoring: The club grounded into quite a few double plays. Via Baseball-Reference, the leaderboard for 2015 double-play rate looked like this:

Rank Team Opp DP DP%
1 Tigers 1162 152 13.1%
2 Braves 1120 148 13.2%
3 Giants 1126 142 12.6%
4 Twins 1062 133 12.5%
5 Brewers 1033 130 12.6%
6 Blue Jays 1212 140 11.6%
7 Dodgers 1166 135 11.6%
8 Diamondbacks 1102 134 12.2%
9 Royals 1077 133 12.3%
10 Marlins 1072 133 12.4%

The Brewers didn’t give the opposition many chances to turn two (a runner on first with less than two outs), placing third-lowest in all of baseball in that regard. They took advantage of the few opportunities they saw, though, which elevated them above most other clubs.

One player’s output here truly stood apart from the rest. Despite coming to the plate a mere 415 times, Jonathan Lucroy somehow managed to hit into 18 double plays. By FanGraphs’ Double-Play Runs (wGDP), this cost the Brewers 3.3 runs, dead last out of the 98 National League players with 400 plate appearances. This joined forces with a power drought and more strikeouts to rob Lucroy’s bat of its potential.

As the team results illustrated, double plays don’t just happen in a vacuum — the hitting team must have a runner on first with less than two outs. For Lucroy, those situations transpired less often than in years past, but that didn’t stand in his way.

Year PA DPopp DPopp% DP DP%
2010 297 61 20.5% 9 14.8%
2011 468 78 16.7% 7 9.0%
2012 346 71 20.5% 12 16.9%
2013 580 106 18.3% 16 15.1%
2014 655 112 17.1% 13 11.6%
2015 415 73 17.6% 18 24.7%

Unsurprisingly, Lucroy’s 2015 mark of 24.7 percent led the majors. He just did more with less (or less with more, depending on how you look at it).

His poor health — the toe at the beginning, then the head at the end — might have had something to do with it, insofar as it prevented him from running out more close plays. Using data from FanGraphs’ play logs, I noted how many no- or one-out fielder’s choices Lucroy grounded into; this yielded a different double-play rate, given by DP / (DP + FC). This metric shows that these chances have never gone as poorly for him as they did in 2015:

Year DP 0/1 FC DP%
2010 9 4 69.2%
2011 7 12 36.8%
2012 12 6 66.7%
2013 16 11 59.3%
2014 13 7 65.0%
2015 18 5 78.3%

Perhaps an ailing Lucroy couldn’t scurry down the first-base line quickly enough to avoid a second out. If he can return to full strength in 2016, this number may decrease marginally.

But that alone can’t explain this explosion in double plays. Part of it simply comes from Lucroy’s declining production on ground balls — his BABIP on those fell from .258 in 2014 (and .237 from 2010 to 2014) to .200 in 2015. More grounders finding their way to an infielder’s glove meant Lucroy killed a lot more rallies than usual.

The 2015 version of Lucroy hit more weak grounders (20.7 percent Soft%) than ever before (17.0 percent), which presumably made it easier for the competition to field. The location made a difference as well: A career-high 20.0 percent of those grounders went to right field, where a double play can occur more smoothly (as the second baseman can more readily flip to the shortstop). Those two components together likely account for the rise in double play balls off Lucroy’s bat.

Will this rebound in the years to come? It’s hard to say. The MLB-average grounder BABIP usually stays in the .230s, so Lucroy’s early-career production on those didn’t significantly diverge from the norm. And a soft-hit grounder could help a hitter — it gives the defender less time to fire to first (or to whichever base will force the lead runner). On the flipside, Lucroy will turn 30 next year, so his speed probably won’t improve from here on out. Plus, he’s never truly been a fast player, like most catchers; someone with his skill set will never possess a great shot at beating a relay to the bag. Even if he can stay on the field as often as he did in 2014, the skill he displayed that year won’t necessarily return.

Lucroy’s troubles with the double play, like the Brewers’ sickly performance overall, had some bad luck behind it. (Seriously, how the hell did this happen?) Realistically, he could return to form in 2016, just as the team could. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, though, if next year brings more of the same. The various ailments Lucroy has sustained, along with the inherent lethargy of a backstop, may mean these sorts of win probability-draining plays will recur.

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