Jonathan Lucroy

Top Brewers Storylines of 2015: Jonathan Lucroy Struggles

At BP Milwaukee this week, we’ve been looking back at the biggest Brewers storylines of the 2015 season. Trades and front-office shakeups obviously command most of our attention; however, this past year saw Jonathan Lucroy follow up his borderline MVP performance (+7.9 WARP) in 2014 with his worst overall production (+1.4 WARP) since his rookie campaign. Injuries played a significant part in his struggles, to be sure, but the well-rounded nature of his decline was the most notable. His batting average, on-base percentage, ISO, and framing numbers all slid backwards.

Our own Ryan Romano broke down Lucroy’s performance several times throughout 2015. He pointed out two important factors in Lucroy’s decline.

First, Romano focused on the power outage for the Brewers’ All-Star catcher. Lucroy’s ISO dropped to .127 and his seven homers marked his lowest output since the 2010 season. Smartly, though, Romano stresses that Lucroy’s power has actually been trending downward for the past several seasons. The numbers may have hidden the decline in some ways, but his fly-ball percentage has regressed in each of the past three seasons, as has his average fly-ball distance. All of this seems to weave a narrative that’s deeper than just “injury problems” or bad luck. Even when Lucroy performed at a superstar level in 2014, his power numbers were already on the decline and few people noticed because of his other strengths.

“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.”

[Read: “Jonathan Lucroy & Losing Power,” by Ryan Romano]

Secondly, on a more positive note, Romano argued in October that Jonathan Lucroy also suffered from a healthy dose of bad luck that affected his overall numbers. The litany of injuries — from hamstrings to concussions — undoubtedly played a role, but the underlying numbers indicate that the 29-year-old catcher should’ve had more BABIP luck, given his hard-hit balls throughout the year. If you’re not afraid of some mathematical analysis, this is a great article to peruse. If math ain’t your thing, the overall narrative is more than worth your time.

“One other thing mostly sets Lucroy apart: He theoretically deserved a great output — not just a good one. While the other players listed above (with the exception of Kemp) have expected wOBAcs around average, Lucroy’s ranked 28th in the aforementioned sample. There’s a big difference between a mediocre player who hit poorly and a phenomenal player who hit poorly; if this model accurately appraises true talent, Lucroy falls into the latter group.”

[Read: “How Unlucky Was Jonathan Lucroy in 2015,” by Ryan Romano]


The Jonathan Lucroy saga in 2015 was disheartening in many ways. Many Brewers fans hoped that he would cement his status as one of the premier catchers in Major League Baseball, but numerous injury issues prevented that from happening. And even when he was on the field, the performance was relatively uninspiring. Moreover, it’s always worrisome when catchers develop concussion issues, as it can quickly become career-threatening — either having to find another position or having to quit playing professional baseball. The latter part is not nearly discussed enough and perhaps an underlying reason why Lucroy hasn’t been traded this winter.

I wanted to touch on three things that weren’t addressed in Romano’s articles above: (1) his heightened strikeout rate; (2) his framing decline; and (3) trading him or not trading him this winter.

In 2015, Lucroy saw his strikeout percentage jump to 15.4 percent, which is his highest since 2011. Luck aside, it was one of the driving forces behind his .265 batting average — also his worst since 2011, no coincidence. One could easily imagine Lucroy swinging at poor pitches, trying to jump start his season, or changing his mechanics to deal with his various injuries. I’m not sure that’s the case, though. His 5.9 percent swinging-strike rate is not significantly higher than his previous numbers (and well below his 2011 mark) and it’s not paired with an uptick in O-Swing% (28.0 percent). Thus, he’s not really swinging through more pitches or swinging at worse pitches — and his contact numbers within the strike zone didn’t vary at all — so what’s up?

One would naturally assume that Lucroy swung less often and took more strikeouts looking. But the numbers indicate that that’s not the case whatsoever. His swing percentage actually rose from the 2014 season, while the percentage of strikeouts looking dropped to a career-low mark of 15.6 percent. All of this leads me to believe that Lucroy didn’t change his approach too much at the plate last season. The significant jump in his strikeout rate — relatively speaking, of course — appears to be nothing more than noise that is likely to correct itself in 2016. That’s positive news for Brewers fans who are hoping for Lucroy to bounce back in a big way.

Secondly, there’s been a lot of talk surrounding Jonathan Lucroy and his decline in pitch-framing prowess. He had consistently ranked atop Baseball Prospectus’ proprietary pitch-framing metrics and had become a posterboy for the new way to value catching defense. Thus, when his offensive decline was paired with a precipitous drop in his framing numbers, many became doubly concerned about Lucroy and his future value.

One of the key contributors to the development of the pitch-framing metrics, Harry Pavlidis, mentioned offhandedly on Twitter that Lucroy’s framing decline probably had more to do with his injuries than anything else, such as working with a young pitching staff. In fact, Pavlidis indicates that research has shown that injuries routinely affect pitch-framing numbers. He also mentions, of course, that Lucroy’s decline has been an ongoing phenomenon — so one wonders if there’s an age curve, of sorts, for framing that impacts Major League catchers over time.

With all of that in mind, more optimistic fans can point to the injuries sustained in 2015 as the major reason why his pitch-framing numbers tumbled from the top of the league. If those can rebound in the upcoming season, it will do a lot for his overall value to whichever club employs him.

This leads to the third and final point: Should the Milwaukee Brewers trade Jonathan Lucroy prior to the 2016 season? It’s a complicated question that has no easy answer from the outside, as we have little idea what trade interest Lucroy garners. The question always boils down to two opposing sides, the “trade him for the best package offered this winter” argument and the “only trade him if the return is good enough” argument. And both sides have significant problems. The former is predicated on the false premise that Lucroy offers no value at all to a non-competitive team, which is steaming pile of manure for multiple reasons, while the latter has zero notion of what good enough means and is relying on a potential bounce-back season that is not guaranteed to come if the “right” offer doesn’t come this winter.

This conundrum leaves David Stearns and the Milwaukee Brewers in a difficult situation, as the magical “right” deal doesn’t appear to be in the cards at this point. The front office could gamble that Lucroy won’t bounce-back in a meaningful way and trade him for a package of players that could very well seem laughably light if the true Lucroy returns in 2016. On the other hand, they could gamble on significant improvement from Lucroy in 2016 and hold him, passing up hypothetical deals that could prove more lucrative than anything they could receive at the trade deadline or next winter.

Both arguments are legitimate in many ways, and one’s preferred side likely correlates with one’s risk tolerance. Trade Lucroy now and deal with the fact that you could’ve sold far too low later, or hold onto him for at least half of 2016 and suffer the potential consequences if his trade value only declines from its current state. This decision is arguably the first major decision David Stearns and his staff will have to make as members of the Milwaukee Brewers. Considering the health of the minor-league system, I believe the Brewers can afford to gamble on a bounce-back season from Lucroy and not suffer too badly if injuries or ineffectiveness drive down his trade value even further. But it is absolutely a gamble, and I’m intrigued to suss out Stearns’ risk tolerance during this extensive rebuilding process.

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