The Decline of Jonathon Lucroy

Coming off a career season in which he led all MLB catchers in WAR with 4.6 wins above replacement and paced backstops with a .362 wOBA, all Lucroy just needed an average season to bring home a contract in the ilk of the 3 year, 60 million dollar deal that Yadier Molina signed this April. Even if Lucroy suffered a season ending injury, his career resume would have probably been enough for a team to take a chance on the two time All-Star backstop. After all, WIlson Ramos signed a deal worth up to 18.25 million with the Rays last offseason despite a complete ACL tear that sidelined him until midseason.  

But here we are in the final month of the season and we can now safely say that Lucroy’s free agent value has depreciated significantly. Year-to-year variances, even extreme ones, are usually explainable by an injury, age, or a mechanical flaw, but Lucroy’s decline is curious due to its sudden and unusual nature.

Since coming into the league in 2010, Lucroy was the king of framing, meaning he “stole” more strikes for his pitchers than any other catcher in baseball. While some claim that framing metrics are too volatile on a year-to-year basis to be reliable, the fact that Lucroy ranked in the top 3 in Runs Above Average (RAA)  the first five years he was in the league was no coincidence. (RAA is a framing metric provided by baseball prospectus that measures how many runs a catcher prevents by framing). 

Starting in 2015, Lucroy’s framing metrics began to slightly decline, falling to roughly the middle of the pack the in 2015 and 2016. We have a general understanding that framing declines with age, so with Lucroy entering his age 31 season, part of this decline was to be expected. What could not have been anticipated, however, was how rapid and how steep the decline would be. 

Entering today, September 4th, 2017, Lucroy is the third worst pitch framer in baseball and has costed his pitchers 158 strikes throughout the course of the season, losing 21 runs for his team. There have been theories circulating all year as to what could have spurred such a dramatic downturn. Some people claimed that umpires awareness of Lucroy’s previously unparalleled ability to essentially dupe them have compelled umps to overcompensate by giving Lucroy less strike calls. The more mathematical critics, such as the esteemed writers at Fangraphs.com blamed Lucroy’s lost framing ability on his age related loss in flexibility that prevented him from getting lower in the couch, inhibiting his ability to frame the low strike.

Whatever the case, the bulk of Lucroy’s value as a player is tied ti ability to steal strikes for his pitchers. Therefore, if the age-related hypothesis is correct, then potential suitors will shy away from committing too much money to a player clearly declining.

There is an alternative explanation that will surely be used by Lucroy’s agent this Winter. This explanation came from Lucroy himself during an interview on July 3rd when he responded to a question about his decline in framing tersely, stating “You’re only as good as the pitches.” While it is true that framing statistics are imperfect with unaccounted for variables such as pitcher command, throwing his pitchers under the bus is a bad look for the veteran backstop. 

While Lucroy’s pitch framing ability certainly hurts him on the free agent market, it has been his production (or lack thereof) with the bat that may dampen his free agent value the most. Coming into the 2017 season, Lucroy posted an OPS of at least .837 every season in his career, the exception being an injury plagued 2015 campaign. In fact, only Buster Posey has put up a higher career wRC+ or OPS amongst catchers. In other words, even if Lucroy’s defensive value was shot, he produced more than enough at the plate to compensate.

Despite being one of the most consistent offensive catchers thus far in his career, his performance at the plate also took a sudden turn for the worst. To be sure, his wRC+ of 74 is absolutely dreadful, but based on all available evidence, it has been a deliberate adjustment to his plate approach that has driven this downturn.

Lucroy has always been a contact-oriented hitter. With a career strikeout rate of just 14.4% and a walk rate of 8.0%, he has been one of the few anti-three true outcome hitters in baseball. In an era where hitters everywhere were whiffing at historic rates, Lucroy prided himself on being able to put the ball in play. With this controlled aggressiveness, he became an elite offensive catcher, but starting in 2017, he started taking his approach too far.

It is not that Lucroy is swinging more per se, but rather that he is swinging with far less authority. His O-Swing% and Swing% are actually on par with his career averages, and with a 4.4 SwStr% that ranks 3rd lowest in the league, it is clear that he is having no problem putting bat to ball. The problem is that Lucroy’s Z-Contact% and Contact% have skyrocketed, indicating that while Lucroy is still disciplined enough to swing at strikes, he has prioritized putting the ball in play over hitting the ball with authority.

It probably should come as no surprise then that Lucroy’s Hard% has fallen from over 35.0% the last two seasons, to just 21.0% this year, which puts him ahead of only two MLB players. Those players are Billy Hamilton and Dee Gordon. 

Statcast data supports Lucroy’s weak contact as well as his 85.0 mph average exit velocity ranks 293rd in the MLB among players with at least 100 plate appearances. Driving these numbers is an extremely elevated GB% of 53.7%, which ranks 7th highest in the league and is 19% higher than his career average.

A rise in GB% as meteoric as Lucroy’s would spell trouble for any hitter, but hitting grounders at this rate when you are a 31-year-old catcher is a death sentence for a hitter’s BABIP. It should come as no surprise that Lucroy has posted a wOBA of just .190 on grounders this season. 

Evidenced by the graph below, ground balls are not the type of batted ball most conducive to base hits for Lucroy.

Screen Shot 2017-09-09 at 10.57.34 AM.png

The more ground balls Lucroy hits, the more likely his batted balls will be converted to outs. Additionally, when more than half of one’s batted balls are put on the ground, it is pretty difficult to produce extra base hits, which explains his career low ISO of just .100. 

As is common with aging players, the quick twitch muscles that gave them explosiveness early in their career starts to wane and their ability to catch up with fastballs declines. This is no different for Lucroy as his wOBA against fastballs this season stands at .334, which is 23 points below league average for catchers and is over 30 points below his career average. When a hitter who is beginning the back half of his career begins to struggle connecting with heaters, it is usually the beginning of the end for their offensive performance. 

As any baseball fan knows, not all fastballs are the same so if Lucroy is facing a higher percentage of high-velocity fastballs, then this could explain his poor performance against the pitch. Lucroy has seen 41 pitches thrown 95 mph or harder this season and has a .274 wOBA against those pitches, which is a drop from .291 last season and a .405 wOBA the year before.

When we compare Lucroy’s performance on high velocity fastballs to those thrown in the 88-93 range, we see that Lucroy has fared much better. In 2016, Lucroy had a .374 wOBA against such pitches and has posted a .352 wOBA on fastballs within that range this season. My point is not that Lucroy is a bad fastball hitter, but rather that as pitchers increasingly add velocity, Lucroy is going to find himself overmatched by upper 90s fastballs more often than not, especially as he ages.

The xwOBA statistic, provided by baseball savant is another useful tool to illustrate Lucroy’s poor quality of contact. The purpose of xwOBA is to group a player’s batted balls according to their launch angle and exit velocity and predict what a hitter should have produced in neutral circumstances. Unfortunately for Lucroy, his wOBA (weighted on base average) this season is actually higher than his xwOBA (expected weighted on base average), meaning that he has actually had some good fortune this season relative to his weak contact quality. It is also worth noting that wOBA does not account for park factors, which means that even a move to Coors Field hasn’t been able to bail him out. This is probably because the advantage of Coors Field is the high altitude and spacious outfield, which doesn’t really help if you are constantly pounding balls into the ground.

Since moving to the hitter’s haven that is Coors field, it would appear on the surface Lucroy has improved offensively relative to his anemic first half at the plate. First off, I have to insert the usual Coors Field caveat here: Coors Field does this to everyone. I mean really, DJ Lemahieu won a batting title last year. Enough said. Park induced offensive inflation aside, it doesn’t appear that Lucroy has truly reaped the rewards of hitting at Coors Field yet. Sure, he has produced a respectable .851 OPS since joining the Rockies, but a closer look at his peripheral numbers and we immediately notice that these surface level numbers are being propped up artificially. Lucroy has a .340 BABIP despite only making hard contact 22.2% of the time, and over half of his batted balls are still on the ground. When “analysts” discuss that he “showed signs of improvement down the stretch” this Winter, you can bet I will facepalm at their ignorance.

Becoming a free agent catcher at 31 after coming off your worst season as a professional is certainly not ideal, but what can the former All-Star reasonably expect to earn on the open market? In order to answer this question, let’s look at recent comparables. The most recent and analogous situation to the one that Lucroy will be facing this winter was the one that former Orioles catcher Matt Wieters faced last offseason. Wieters was also entering his age 31 season and was coming off the worst season of his career defensively and had experienced a similar decline in his defensive performance. However, despite all of those negative indicators of future performance, Wieters (with the help of the Nationals special relationship with his agent Scott Boras), inked the switch-hitting veteran catcher for 2 years and 21 million dollars.

Although Lucroy is entering free agency with a similar outlook as Wieters had a year ago and also possesses a similar pedigree and reputation as a formerly elite catcher, it is hard for me to believe that Lucroy will have too many teams lining up for his services considering how poorly Wieters has played for the Nationals this season. Unlike Wieters, Lucroy is not represented by MLB super agent Scott Boras, who for decades has persuaded teams to give his clients top dollar. Taking all of these considerations into account, I predict Lucroy will be faced with a deal hovering in the range of 2 years, 16 million, which really is a shame considering that there was a point in his career in which calling him the best catcher in the sport was not an outrageous statement. 

Early in his career, Lucroy made the decision to prioritize guaranteed financial security when he signed a 5 year, 11 million dollar deal after his rookie season. Obviously, his value throughout those years was more than triple what he was earning, making his decision to prematurely ink a long term deal regrettable when he could have earned triple that AAV during his prime years if he had conducted negotiations when his value was at its highest.  Lucroy’s career earning will probably never reflect the high caliber player he was when he was in his prime years, but despite his extremely disappointing 2017 campaign, some team will take a chance on him in hopes that 2017 was an aberration. 

When Lucroy was dealt to Colorado at the deadline, he was also thrust into an unfair situation for a guy with a lot to prove before hitting the open market. If he hit in Colorado after struggling mightily in Texas, evaluators would say that Coors Field was inflating his stats. However, if he went to Colorado and continued to struggle at the plate, then the claim would be made that if he can’t at Coors Field, he can’t hit anywhere. This consideration aside,

At the end of the day, someone will take a chance on Lucroy as a veteran presence behind the plate and a guy who can handle a pitching staff. There is no way to place a dollar amount of a guy’s leadership and experience, but regardless of Lucroy’s regression in the coming seasons, his veteran presence will still be sought after by many teams. 

 

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