Jonathan Lucroy’s Mysterious Decline

At a table in the center of the visiting clubhouse last week, in the depths of Cleveland’s Progressive Field, Jonathan Lucroy was seated holding his catcher’s glove in his left hand and a flat-head screwdriver in his right. He used the tool to loosen and tighten different laces in the glove. He spent perhaps 20 minutes on glove maintenance that day — a day on which, incidentally, he wouldn’t appear in the starting lineup.

There’s been some focus on Lucroy’s glove recently. Lucroy’s glove, his receiving skills, were once the game’s best. What’s happened to Lucroy’s framing in recent years, however, is something of a mystery.

There have been some stunning declines in baseball over the last few seasons. There was Andrew McCutchen’s age-29 drop-off, unprecedented in its depth for a star-level player, and his cold start to the current season. There’s Jake Arrieta’s decline from Cy Young winner in 2015 to middling starting pitcher since the second half of last season.

Perhaps less apparent, less publicized as these — but still as significant — is what has happened to Lucroy’s framing numbers.

Lucroy was once an elite-level framer. According to the metrics at Baseball Prospectus, Lucroy rated as the game’s No. 1 framer in 2011 (43.5 framing runs). He ranked No. 2 in 2012 (24.4), No. 1 again in 2013 (29.0), and No. 6 in 2014 (14.9). Then a curious downturn began. Lucroy was worth just 1.1 framing runs in 2015 and 4.0 last season. Not bad, but hardly at the same level as in previous year. And that trend hasn’t stopped or slowed or reversed this season. Rather, it has accelerated downward.

This is the third straight season in which Lucroy’s framing has been well below the elite level; now, it has fallen to well below average. In fact, Lucroy is rated as the worst receiver in the game this season. Out of the 81 catchers graded in framing by Baseball Prospectus, Lucroy ranks 81st — yes, last — with -13.3 runs above average to date.

Framing has generally thought to age well as a skill. It’s tied to technique and knowledge more than athleticism, though that plays a role, too. Good framers tend to stay good framers late in their careers. Jeff Sullivan examined Lucroy’s framing decline last season.

Wrote Sullivan:

“Players who look like good framers tend to continue to look like good framers. … It’s against this backdrop the Lucroy decline is stunning.”

And the decline is only increasing in its depth.

Back in May, Ben Lindbergh published an excellent deep dive on the subject for The Ringer. Lindbergh found that Lucroy’s framing decline is mostly tied to the lower third of the strike zone. And in examining data from Baseball Savant’s “detailed” strike zone, the lower portion of the zone appears to be at issue. I examined the 50-50 area — that is, the point at which 50% of pitches are called strikes, another 50% called balls — at the bottom of the zone and examined how Lucroy compared to his peers this season.

In that region, the league has received 11,808 called strikes and 14,562 balls this season, a 44.8% called-strike rate. In that same area, Lucroy has received 213 strikes compared to 391 balls, good for only a 35.2% strike rate.

So what’s going on here?

I approached Lucroy last week to ask him what was behind his struggles. I was curious if Lucroy thought there was something physical or mechanical impacting his receiving.

“Not that I know of,” Lucroy said. “I know what you are getting at. I know my numbers are going down, but when you are trying to quantify that, you are not going to be able to.”

What struck me from the Lindbergh piece was the COMMANDf/x data, which found Lucroy’s average glove height at pitch release has increased in height from 17.8 inches in 2011 (30th in MLB) to 19.3 inches in 2015 (27th) and 21.5 inches last season (25th). When I was covering the Pirates as a newspaperman, when Lucroy was at the peak of his framing powers, then-Pirates catcher Russell Martin gushed over Lucroy. It was an artist appreciating another artist. He said no one captured and presented the lower strike better than Lucroy. He praised Lucroy’s unusual ability to sit deeply in a crouch, seemingly scrapping the ground with his backside. These days, though, Lucroy does not seem to be getting as low in his stance, whether by design or ability. And there seems to be a correlation.

Consider this still frame of Lucroy back in 2012:

He appears to be really, really low. He’s so low his butt appears to be nearly scraping the ground and his lower legs are jutting outwardly at an unusual angle from his knees. His feet are digging into the ground at 45-degree angles. His shoulders even seem to be unusually low, compressed nearer the ground. His eye level is below the belt of the 6-foot-2 Brandon Crawford.

Then consider a setup from a first-inning of a game in May, nearly five years to the date of the previous snap shot:

Lucroy doesn’t appear to be as low in his crouch. His eye level is above the belt of the 6-foot-2 Matt Joyce.

Consider this GIF from later in the same game back in May, from the eighth inning, when Lucroy resets his position rather demonstratively in the middle of the pitcher’s delivery. Is that discomfort?

When there’s a mysterious decline such as this, we often first think about the possible influence of injury, and Lucroy has had a number of injuries in recent years, including a hamstring issue in 2014 and then hamstring strain in the spring of 2015 that forced him to miss more than a month of time. It would be understandable if Lucroy, a free agent to be, did not want to disclose an injury-related reason behind his performance. Maybe there’s an undisclosed purpose for why he has raised his glove height. Maybe it’s difficult to maintain such flexibility later into a career.

I asked Rangers GM Jon Daniels if he had an explanation for Lucroy’s framing decline.

“I think whether it’s receiving, or offensive skill, what gets missed in evaluating players are the challenges that go along with changing teams, different life events, free-agent years that could affect guys,” Daniels said. “I do not know to what degree all that may have an effect. I don’t necessarily think his physical skills have diminished. It would not surprise me if you look up in two years and this was an abnormality, a blip on the radar screen.

“Our guys have looked at, talked about it [the framing decline], but there is nothing we can say we have our finger on as to when or why.”

Lucroy presented a theory to explain his glove’s decline: variables beyond his control.

“When you look at the best framers in the game, look at the pitchers they have,” Lucroy said. “When you look at my best years look at who I had on the staff… Look at all that stuff… You’re only as good as the pitches. Being able to hold the baseball, to have strong hands, it is important. But if they [pitchers] don’t know where it’s going…”

To emphasize the point before his locker, Lucroy reached across his body to grasp an imaginary, off-target pitch,

“I will guarantee you whoever catches Dallas Keuchel has the best framing numbers,” Lucroy said.

You can see the logic in Lucroy’s point: despite below-average velocity, Keuchel has flourished in the majors on the strength of elite command. But the numbers don’t support his hypothesis: Houston catchers actually rate as slightly below-average receivers this season.

Let’s consider his best years in Milwaukee. In 2011, the Brewers ranked second in the NL in pitching WAR (21.1) and had the second-fewest walks (2.75 per nine inning), but were 15th in zone percentage (47.4%). In 2012, Brewers’ ranked sixth in the NL in pitching WAR (17.9) in 2012 but ranked last in zone percentage (46.7%).

In 2011, for instance, Zack Greinke and pre-decline Yovani Gallardo were Brewers pitchers with command who could get a chase out of zone.

But even in 2013, after Greinke had departed Milwaukee, the Brewers again ranked last in zone percentage, had fallen to 11th in WAR (10.0), and Lucroy remained an elite framer.

The Brewers’ staffs of 2015 and 2016 were erratic. This season, the Rangers’ staff has the 11th-most walks issued in the game and ranks 15th in zone percentage (44.6%). Perhaps it’s plausible Lucroy was being affected by missed locations more, perhaps it’s possible that we need more context to evaluate his performance. Pitchers influence the framing ability of catchers. Some catchers have more opportunities to frame. But Baseball Prospectus’ framing metrics do consider and attempt to quantify and account for the quality of pitchers being received.

From the framing metric’s creators Harry Pavlidis and Dan Brooks:

The adjustments derived from the WOWY analysis reflect two aspects of our approach. First, pitchers who throw a pitch that may not fit the norm for a given pitch group may show some difference in the WOWY results (such as hard cutters in the slider/cutter group). Second, pitchers with better command of a pitch than their peers (or the unqualified respect of the umpire) will seem easier to frame.

The WOWY analysis created adjustments ranging from +/- .1 called strikes per opportunity and from +/- .01 runs per opportunity. The largest gross beneficiary of easy-to-frame pitchers was—Yadier Molina. The perennial gold glove winner started the analysis with 127 runs added before giving 60 back to his pitchers. This reflects the command contributions of teammates of the class of Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright and is no knock on Molina.

Lucroy has had the sixth-most framing chances in the sport (7,593) according to BP. Texas ranks 15th in pitches in the 50-50, borderline bottom section of the detailed zone at Baseball Savant and ranked fourth last season.

Could it be something else? Could a shrinking lower part of the strike zone be hurting Lucroy disproportionately?

“MLB wants more offense, right?” Lucroy said.

That seems plausible, but it would seem to be a more likely culprit if Lucroy were not raising his glove level. And of all pitches thrown this season, 3.1% have been called strikes in that lower 50-50 area compared to 2.9% in 2015.

There’s also this: perhaps umpires have consciously or subconsciously created a bias against Lucroy since he was one of the framers almost universally praised when the merits of pitch framing were widely publicized in the early 2010s. Perhaps he’s a victim of his own early success.

Lucroy did not rule out subconscious bias but declined to talk about umpiring in detail.

When I was still with the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Randy Marsh, the director of MLB umpires, told me he does not share framing metrics of catchers with umpires, and he does not ask them to study individual catchers.

Interestingly, Yadier Molina, who also had a long reputation as an excellent framer, has seen his numbers decline since 2014, and ranks 27th with 0.6 framing runs this season. Buster Posey has declined to 35th (0.1) after ranking first last season (26.5 runs). Madison Bumgarner can’t be that valuable, can he? So there might be some credit to the idea of a catcher’s reputation preceding him.

That said, other elite receivers like Yasmani Grandal and Russell Martin continue to receive well, according to numbers.

Lucroy’s receiving slump doesn’t seem to be some sort of random variance. It seems very real. The Rangers are reportedly interested in moving Lucroy and are surely regretting the deal that sent Lewis Brinson and Luis Ortiz to Milwaukee for Lucroy prior to last summer’s trade deadline.

It seems fair to wonder where his value is without framing. It’s fair to wonder what his market will be this offseason. It’s fair to wonder if the magic of his glove will ever return.

A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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6 years ago

I also wonder if his reputation as a good framer hurts him. Maybe umpires are less likely to believe a borderline strike because Lucroy has a reputation of “tricking” the umpires.

6 years ago
Reply to  mkfox

Why would umpires gang up on Lucroy, but let other noted framers continue to be successful?

Alex Chamberlainmember
6 years ago
Reply to  mkfox

“There’s also this: perhaps umpires have consciously or subconsciously created a bias against Lucroy since he was one of the framers almost universally praised when the merits of pitch framing were widely publicized in the early 2010s. Perhaps he’s a victim of his own early success.”

6 years ago

I doubt that a lot. Umpires are just reacting, I don’t think there is any time to consider external factors. Wouldn’t this just happen to every elite catcher?

6 years ago
Reply to  RonnieDobbs

“perhaps umpires have consciously or subconsciously created a bias”

The operative word is subconsciously. That implies they are not taking time to consider external factors.

6 years ago
Reply to  carter

The operative word could also be “or” depending on your reading comprehension. Wouldn’t this effect be universal if it were true?