What Even Is Jonathan Lucroy These Days?

The A’s are signing Jonathan Lucroy for one year and $6.5 million. Why are they doing that? Because Lucroy has been good before, and, other than Lucroy, the A’s catchers are Bruce Maxwell, Josh Phegley, and Dustin Garneau. It’s not so much that Lucroy is sure to be a massive improvement. But, he ought to help, and the A’s had some money to move, and this season, the A’s also happen to look like a half-decent wild-card contender. Everything makes sense. This move was almost painfully obvious.

Of course, in order for this move to go down, Lucroy had to accept. You know how free agency works. And the A’s have had some problems here, in terms of getting players to take their money. Sure, the A’s have run low payrolls in large part because they’ve intended for payroll to be low, but they’ve also often been turned down, even when they’ve had the high offer. This offseason, for example, the A’s offered the biggest contract to Brian Duensing, who re-signed with the Cubs. Maybe Lucroy is fond of the A’s. Maybe he’s excited to go there. But, it’s the middle of spring training. The market decided Lucroy wasn’t worth being enthusiastic about. The A’s came calling with a job.

As I write this, Lucroy is 31 years old. Not even very long ago, he was considered one of baseball’s best catchers. How did his free agency end up in this place? Lucroy, like Carlos Gonzalez, is coming off a bad season. And it’s not at all clear what anyone should make of him at this point. What skills he still has are fair to question.

For anyone who’s been reading about baseball analysis long enough, you’ll remember that Lucroy was regarded as one of the very top pitch-framers. Then something strange began to happen. For reasons unclear, Lucroy lost his statistical framing skill. I wrote about this in January of 2016. Ben Lindbergh went to far greater length last May. Travis Sawchik talked to Lucroy in July. Let me show you how things have gone, in one image. Baseball Prospectus has the gold-standard pitch-framing data. Here are Lucroy’s pitch-framing percentile ranks among catchers since his debut.

For years, Lucroy was among the very best framers around. Last season, Lucroy was among the very worst framers around. He was as bad in Colorado as he was in Texas, and, of course, between the high and the low, there was a transition period in the middle. By the numbers, Lucroy as a receiver has completely fallen off the cliff. If true, that would mean Lucroy’s defensive value has plummeted by several wins. So the question is: Is it true? Are the numbers missing something? Are the numbers accurate, but might Lucroy be able to bounce back?

I have yet to see all that satisfying an explanation. The Rangers didn’t think Lucroy’s actual skills had declined. But then, they never had him at his best. Lucroy has pointed to the pitchers he’s had to catch, but it’s not like the Brewers had league-leading pitching staffs during Lucroy’s defensive heyday. Maybe it’s just age, or wear and tear. Maybe framing declines like everything else. But, it shouldn’t decline this quickly. Jose Molina was a great framer forever. It’s just…odd. Lucroy is either all right, or he’s irredeemably terrible, or he’s redeemably terrible. All of a sudden last year, Welington Castillo rated as an above-average framer. Maybe these things just aren’t so stable.

No one is really sure what’s going on defensively. Even the A’s just throw their hands up. Lucroy will be what Lucroy will be. But to make matters all the more complicated, Lucroy has also changed dramatically next to the plate, instead of just behind it. Between the last two seasons, 234 players have batted at least 250 times in each year. Here are the five biggest drops in strikeout rate.

All right, maybe that looks pretty good — Lucroy last season made constant contact. He made it tremendously difficult for any pitcher to pick up a swing and miss. But here are the five biggest increases in ground-ball rate.

Year over year, Lucroy has the biggest ground-ball-rate increase on record, going back to 2002. More contact, yeah, but more contact on the ground, and this is a catcher we’re talking about, not Juan Pierre. So, this follows from that — here are the five biggest drops in hard-hit rate.

Sometimes you read about hitters who sacrifice contact for power. The simplest possible interpretation is that Lucroy just did the complete opposite. He rarely struck out, but he also rarely hit the ball with any authority. And so, his wRC+ dropped from 123 to 82. Just for fun, I took the absolute values of all the year-to-year changes in the numbers above. The following table shows the ten hitters who just changed the most, by the above categories.

Ten Large Profile Changes, 2016 – 2017
Player K% Change GB% Change Hard% Change |Total Change|
Jonathan Lucroy -8% 16% -13% 37%
John Jaso 5% -19% 6% 29%
Yonder Alonso 9% -10% 4% 23%
Jed Lowrie -2% -13% 7% 22%
C.J. Cron 9% -9% 4% 21%
Whit Merrifield -8% -7% -5% 20%
Troy Tulowitzki -3% 12% -4% 19%
Matt Holliday 10% -2% -7% 19%
Wil Myers 4% -7% 8% 19%
Gregory Polanco -6% 3% -10% 19%

Lucroy is just a mystery. The contact, at least, is something he’s had before. But he’s never before hit so many grounders. And the good version of Lucroy never hit so many balls weakly. Put it all together and I don’t know how Lucroy ought to be projected. I don’t know if the A’s should think of Lucroy as a good defender behind the plate. I don’t know if the A’s should think of Lucroy as a good hitter beside the plate. The offensive changes come with very limited precedent. We haven’t seen many recent cases like Lucroy’s. Xander Bogaerts made similar changes between 2014 – 2015, but his wRC+ shot up. Perhaps 2015 – 2016 Miguel Montero could work as something of a comp here, but even there, Montero and Lucroy are two different players.

If you just go off straight-up projections, Lucroy should be fine in 2018. Because he was so good in 2016, the A’s deal gets to look like a bargain. At the very same time, when you look into Lucroy in detail, it’s hard to ignore the possible signs of a baseball career in free-fall. Typically, aging players make less contact, not more, but it might’ve been attempted compensation. I genuinely don’t know. I don’t know what to make of Lucroy one bit.

It’s possible this is the signing that pushes the A’s into a wild-card game. I like them at most of their other positions, and Lucroy was tremendously valuable just two seasons ago. Lucroy might also be designated for assignment by the middle of June. I know you could technically say the same for any free agent, but Lucroy is especially mysterious. The A’s are probably as interested to find out what they have on their hands as anyone. Even in the industry, there are questions that only time can answer.

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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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Pwn Shop
Pwn Shop

I had a similar reaction when I heard that he signed. OH the A’s got Lucroy!! Wait, is he still good or not?