Rockies Get Catcher in Severe Decline, Improve

Catchers are unique, and catchers are tricky. There are always questions about how any new player will fit in, but if you want a new left fielder, you can just go get a new left fielder. Catchers are more complicated, because they occupy leadership roles, and they need to be familiar with entire pitching staffs. For reasons like those, you don’t often see everyday catchers dealt in the middle of the season. Jonathan Lucroy was an exception last summer, when he was traded from the Brewers to the Rangers. And now he’s exceptional again, having been traded from the Rangers to the Rockies. Lucroy, teams are willing to believe in. Lucroy must be considered fast to adapt.

The two trades have Jonathan Lucroy in common. What they also have in common is that, like the 2016 Rangers, the 2017 Rockies are looking to go to the playoffs. But there’s one dramatic difference. Lucroy, a year ago, fetched high-level prospect talent. That was talent he was worth. Lucroy, this year, has fetched a player to be named later, or cash. I could make the same statement. Lucroy’s stock has plummeted — and yet, that even being the case, he can still make the Rockies a better baseball team.

Let me explain how, even before going into detail regarding Lucroy’s decline. He’s a rental, so he’s going to be a free agent in a few months. He’s inexpensive, in terms of his salary, and he’s inexpensive, in terms of this trade return. Yeah, the PTBNL could be something someday, and some players to be named later are better than others, but the Rockies haven’t mortgaged the future to take on a risk. They’ve taken Lucroy from the Rangers for a song, and as poor as his numbers might be, Rockies catchers rank dead last in baseball in hitting. They haven’t combined to be strong defenders. Trash and treasure, and everything. Different teams have different standards.

Lucroy is a well-regarded veteran, so he should be good for a pretty young Rockies pitching staff. He’s also a fairly extreme contact hitter, which will play well in games in Colorado. It takes some digging, sometimes, to identify where Lucroy comes up short. But I wasn’t kidding about his stock. Lucroy’s case has been alarming enough that it’s drawn attention from multiple outlets of late. To focus on his offense for a few moments, take, say, his rate of ground balls:

Compared to last year, Lucroy’s grounder rate is up 19 percentage points. No other regular or semi-regular is even close to that. The next name on the list is more than five points away. It won’t surprise you to observe that Lucroy has also lost a chunk from his hard-hit rate:

Compared to last year, Lucroy’s hard-hit rate is down 13 percentage points. That’s also the biggest such swing. The good news, I suppose, is that Lucroy has made more contact, and although it’s been mostly poor contact, it’s generally a good thing to avoid a strikeout. Still, it’s not close to enough. I’ve taken to liking the expected-wOBA metric available at Baseball Savant. Lucroy’s xwOBA has dropped 51 points. That’s baseball’s 10th-biggest drop, putting Lucroy around names like Jonathan Villar and Jose Bautista. Lucroy’s a 31-year-old catcher whose offense has fallen apart. And you might already know that’s only the half of it.

What made Lucroy popular on sites like this back in the day was his defense. More specifically, analysis revealed that Lucroy was one hell of a pitch-framer. Let me cut the long story short: The best framing numbers, these days, are available at Baseball Prospectus. According to those numbers, this season, Lucroy has been the least-valuable framer around. He had already declined substantially from his peak, but I don’t think anyone expected *this*. Peak Lucroy was a reasonable MVP candidate, and he was a power-hitting catcher capable of making his own strike zone. Lucroy now, for whatever reason, no longer hits for power, and he no longer steals strikes. You can blame age if you want, and age tends to be a part of anything like this, but Lucroy’s drop has been atypically severe. For that reason, it’s also mysterious. It’s hard to accept that Lucroy might just be toast these days, given what he was not that long ago, and so the Rockies are happy to take this chance. Perhaps Lucroy can bounce back to something better than this. Perhaps he’ll find some stretch-run magic.

If not, he’s still presumably better than Tony Wolters. He should provide a stabilizing voice. It remains worth wondering just how well the pitch-framing metrics account for the pitchers on the mound, although I should point out that Robinson Chirinos this year has been rated as a positive framer, catching the same Rangers staff. Even new baseline Lucroy is better than what the Rockies had. With any sort of positive regression on either side of things, this could supply an underrated jolt. The Rockies aren’t yet in real danger of slipping out of a playoff spot, but they’ve now addressed an obvious weakness.

There’s something bigger to be written about the haste with which Lucroy’s value has dissolved. The Lucroy trade last summer involved two top-100 prospects going the other way. There’s some chance that this Lucroy trade could net nothing more than cash considerations. Assuming there is a player eventually going to Texas, that player is unlikely to be more than a lottery ticket. Lucroy will get a free-agent contract in the winter ahead, but it won’t reflect what he used to be, and his going to Colorado might be lose-lose when it comes to how executives think about his hitting. There’s still mystery here, about how far Lucroy has tumbled.

The Rockies, I’m sure, understand that he’s tumbled. They know they’re buying low on a guy who might not improve. If he doesn’t, well, he’ll probably still improve them. And there’s some appeal in uncertainty. I have no idea exactly what might have happened here, but the Rockies were in no place to be picky.

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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themikep82
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themikep82

Does this signal that the Rockies don’t see Tom Murphy as a major leaguer? I know his K rate is pretty bad, but you’d think you could stomach it coming from a catcher

ap0001
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ap0001

The Rockies don’t see 2017 Tom Murphy as a major leaguer is about as far as I’d read into it.