Underrated Lucroy is a key player for Brewers
Catcher doesn't get much national recognition, but he's one of MLB's top backstops
PHOENIX -- There might be a more underrated player in the Major Leagues than Jonathan Lucroy. Then again, maybe not.
The Brewers' 27-year-old catcher gives Ron Roenicke a rare luxury few managers have: consistently productive offense along with quality work behind the plate. Yadier Molina, Buster Posey and Russell Martin set a high standard in the National League, and Lucroy is in that class without much national recognition.
Through four seasons, Lucroy is a .279 hitter with a .331 on-base percentage and a .426 slugging mark. Only Posey (.308/.377/.486) is appreciably better among active receivers with Joe Mauer moving to first base. Molina, the gold standard defensively, comes in at .284/.339/.404, Martin at .255/.349/.396.
Appearing in 147 games last season -- with nine starts at first base and three at designated hitter -- Lucroy had career highs in homers (18), doubles (25), RBIs (82) and walks (46). He even managed to steal nine bases in 10 attempts.
"Offensively, he's tremendous -- and I think he's going to get better," said Roenicke, embarking on his fourth season in Milwaukee with a .521 winning percentage and a contract running through 2015 after an option was picked up by approving management.
"He's going to learn the strike zone better and increase his on-base percentage," Roenicke said of Lucroy. "He's already done a great job of driving in runs; he's a tough out with runners on base. He likes that.
"Defensively, the [advanced analytics] show he gets more called strikes than any other catcher. He gives a great target: down low, great hands. He's blocking balls better. As for his throwing, I think he keeps getting better. He really works on his game. We're lucky to have him."
In Roenicke's master plan, Lucroy bats fifth, behind ultra-swift tablesetters Carlos Gomez and Jean Segura and run-producing sluggers Ryan Braun and Aramis Ramirez. This top five should take its place among the most productive -- and electric -- in the game.
"I like being in a spot where I can drive in runs," said Lucroy, who raised his slash line to .293/.370/.480 last season in 181 plate appearances with runners in scoring position. "I enjoy that challenge."
A native Floridian who attended the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and was the Brewers' third-round selection in the 2007 First-Year Player Draft, Lucroy is his own most probing critic. Realistic in his self-evaluation, he sees parts of his game that can be upgraded. At the top of the list is his need to improve his caught-stealing percentage.
"Obviously, it's something I've got to work on," Lucroy said. "I broke my [right] pinkie in a drill [on Feb. 23, 2011] and had surgery. That created some problems with my throwing.
"My career percentage throwing out runners in the Minor Leagues is 42. Here I'm at 23, 24 percent, which is unacceptable. I take a lot of pride in what I do."
As a rookie in 2010, before the fractured finger on his throwing hand, Lucroy was at 31 percent, above the NL average in preventing stolen bases. For his career, he's at 25 percent, below the 28 percent league norm.
A catcher since Little League, Lucroy learned at an early age the intangibles that make catching the most important non-pitching position on the field. He also learned how, in effect, to be two players in one: the hitter and the defender. It's a balance many established big league catchers find difficult to maintain.
Lucroy has studied Molina but realizes that "all catchers are different in technique: the way you set up, your technique throwing, arm slot, blocking. I'm not going to catch like him, and he's not going to catch like me."
One common thread is the all-important mind game.
"I was always taught coming up that you need to separate both sides," Lucroy said. "You can't take your at-bats behind the plate, and you can't take your defense to the plate. Hitting has come naturally for me. The complicated part of the job is defense."
In a poll of insiders in the "2014 Bill James Handbook," Lucroy tied for sixth with Posey among defensive catchers. Molina, Martin and Salvador Perez topped the list.
Rarely understood by fans focused on offense and pitching is the distinct handicap faced by catchers in keeping their hitting skills up to speed.
While other position players are studying video of that day's opposing pitcher in the clubhouse before games, catchers are in meetings with pitchers and pitching coaches, reviewing the opposition's hitters and how to attack them.
The catcher is responsible for understanding the habits and psyches of every member of his pitching staff -- which ones respond to positive reinforcement, which ones need stern tones and constructive criticism. Given how many pitchers he'll work with over the course of a season, the catcher is constantly adjusting.
Then there's the essential issue of trying to stay in one healthy piece while coping with foul tips, pitches in the dirt and runners bent on scoring in sometimes unavoidable home-plate collisions.
The new rule in place designed to protect exposed catchers in front of the plate should help prevent some of the most violent incidents, but some contact is inevitable.
Carrying 195 pounds on a 6-foot frame, Lucroy is not big by catching standards, but he is sturdy enough to handle the multiple demands of his job.
"He's a good athlete," Roenicke said. "And he has the mental toughness you have to have at his position."
When you put it all together, assemble the whole package, the Brewers have one highly valuable -- and underrated -- performer in Lucroy.
Lyle Spencer is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.