Peter Gammons: Brewers’ Ballast, Jonathan Lucroy

Jonathan Lucroy

Back in spring training, Joey Votto was getting into the batter’s box against the Brewers when he looked up at the home plate umpire. “This guy,” Votto told him, “gets more strikes than any catcher in the game.”

The catcher was Jonathan Lucroy. Votto, of course, is the master of the strike zone universe.

It is a measure of the remarkable talent and makeup of Yadier Molina and Buster Posey that Lucroy has never made an all-star team, but he is that level of player. In five years and 460 games, he has hit .280 with a .762 OPS. Last season, he hit 18 homers with a .795 OPS. “He is not only a very smart hitter,” says Red Sox manager John Farrell, “but he may be the toughest out in that Brewer lineup against good pitching. He is very aware of what to look for. He’s really tough, and that is a very good lineup.”

Indeed, one of the positives of these early days of the 2014 is the Brewer lineup, even with Ryan Braun dealing with significant nerve damage in his thumb, nerve damage that is clearly impacting his swing. Carlos Gomez, who Ron Roenicke likes leading off and making the Brewer statement with his talent and energy, is a star, offensively and defensively and roaring around the bases; next to Mike Trout, he had the highest WAR of any position player in the game last year. Khris Davis can flat out hit. Jean Segura is a really good player. Scooter Gennett can hit.

Yes, they are aggressive, sometimes overly aggressive, but that’s who they are, and who wants Gomez to play in the middle lane? If Braun gets healthy, they can be extremely dangerous.

What Doug Melvin has done is to accumulate pitching depth. Yovani Gallardo has molded himself into a control, early count breaking ball pitcher. Kyle Lohse and Matt Garza have their track records; whether or not Garza holds up physically remains to be seen, but he tries to pitch through anything and everything. Wily Peralta and Marco Estrada are solid, and the Tyler Thornburg/Will Smith/Brandon Kintzler middle innings crew has a chance to be very good, no matter whether Jim Henderson or Francisco Rodriguez is closing.

But the ballast is Lucroy. “He is as good at getting and maintaining strikes as anyone in the game,” says Brewer coach Jerry Narron, himself a catcher and known throughout the industry as a master evaluator.

I was sitting behind Lucroy when the Brewers were in Boston this weekend and what was striking about Lucroy was that he is best described as a still life. “I have always thought that setting up low, presenting the target and being very still is what pitchers most want. I’m not one of those guys who tries to jerk pitches into the strike zone. I’m not certain umpires go for that, anyway. Come on. They’re smart.

“What I try to do is not to move. The umpires are good, and what I try to do is make certain that a strike is called a strike. I don’t know if that’s what people talk and write about when they talk about framing, but trying to make certain that if a pitcher throws a strike that he gets a strike is what catching is all about.”

According to TruMedia Networks’ proprietary platform that utilizes PITCHf/x data, since Lucroy became the Brewers regular catcher in 2011, he ranks first among qualifying catchers with an 85.5% called strike rate on pitches in the strike zone. During that same time frame, of all qualifying catchers, Lucroy’s 10.7% called strike rate on pitches outside the strike zone ranks eighth overall.

2011-14 Called Strike % Inside the Strike Zone
P PA Miss% ClStk%
1. Jonathan Lucroy (MIL) 22,226 7,783 14.9% 85.5%
2. Martin Maldonado (MIL) 7,200 2,509 15.0% 85.4%
3. Buster Posey (SF) 18,747 6,598 15.2% 85.2%
4. David Ross (BOS) 8,204 2,908 16.1% 85.2%
5. Brian McCann (NYY) 21,660 7,678 15.8% 84.6%

Backing TruMedia’s work, Dan Brooks and Harry Pavlidis of Baseball Prospectus recently released a study titled “Framing and Blocking Pitches: A Regressed, Probabilistic Model.” Their data shows that the game’s premier framers and blockers—Lucroy, Molina, Brian McCann and Jose Molina—are worth at least two wins a season just for their ability to frame and block.

Beyond the skill level of the ability to get strikes called and block pitches, there is the psychological skill of handling and coercing pitchers. That requires preparing for starts with pitchers, understanding swingpaths and situations and being totally unselfish, as it’s hard to be a very effective catcher and be selfish. “Lucroy fits every one of those categories,” says Narron. “He genuinely cares about the pitchers with whom he works. He’s a special person, and the pitchers trust him. That goes a long way.”

When you’re a Milwaukee Brewer, you will not get the attention, good or bad, that players get in New York, Boston or Los Angeles. It’s a fact of life. But when they go out on the road, you hear a Red Sox player say, “Carlos Gomez brings new meaning to fast twitch skills.” Pitchers talk about Khris Davis.

But, most of all, they talk about Jonathan Lucroy. He’ll never be doing commercials for video games or appear on a Wheaties box or be featured in a spot for the All-star Game.

But he should be playing in it, because he is one of the best catchers in the game today.