Rangers need more out of Jonathan Lucroy

DALLAS - For you Pulp Fiction fans, think about the scene where Vincent Vega is buying heroin from Lance.

For those of you who haven’t seen it, Lance the drug dealer goes through the different types of heroin he has to offer, before telling Vincent the buyer that the last one is a “madman.” Lance reassures him that while it’ll cost two hundred more per gram than the other two “you will know where that money went.”

Last summer, David Stearns played the role of Lance while Jon Daniels was the one being sold on the German exports.

Except instead of a German narcotic, it was a Louisiana catcher that cost JD more.

The result has been close to what happened after the deal.

Whereas Vincent shot up and chased the dragon in a scene light on lucidity but heavy on boundless sorrow, the Rangers have experienced…

Well…

That’s up for debate.

At the time of the trade, Texas earned praise for acquiring a top flight backstop to pair with a team that was all-in. Sure it cost more, but “you will know where that money (or in this case high level prospects) went."

So, where did it go and what did Texas get?

Lucroy is not the framer he once was.

One of the best ways to determine a catcher’s quality of framing is to use Runs Above Average (RAA). The folks over at StatCorner have been tracking this over the years.

Going back to 2013, here’s Lucroy’s RAA:

2013: 29.7

2014: 22.1

2015: 7.3

2016 (Brewers): 5.5

2016 (Rangers): -1.5

2017 (as of May 15th): -7.6

In layman’s terms, Lucroy was, at his high point, the best in the game at minimizing runs ranking 1st in baseball in 2013. In 2017, he ranks 78th out of 79 qualifying catchers.

So what’s the deal with Lucroy not being able to frame anymore?

Before we can figure out why this is the case, we have to understand an important concept: catchers only have but so much control.

In the case of framing not only are they relying on their own skills, they’re relying on a neutral party to make the decision. Catchers may present balls and strikes, but they don’t decide them. There’s a level of variance based on human error we can’t ignore.

With that out of the way, there’s a couple other ways to see where the shift in Lucroy’s skill have occurred.

The first is zBall%, which is the amount of pitches in the strike zone that are called balls. Or as most fans might call it, a Joe West special.  Let’s go back to 2013 and see the progression.

2013: 10.2%

2014: 11.5%

2015: 12.5%

2016 (Brewers): 14.2%

2016 (Rangers): 15.7%

2017: 18.6%

Just like Lucroy’s RAA, the numbers only get worse as the years increase. Even if his numbers stabilize this season, he’s still heading for a worse number than last year.

The other metric we’ll check in with is oStr%. This is the money number here: pitches outside the strike zone that are called strikes.

2013: 8.8%

2014: 9.2%

2015: 8.2%

2016 (Brewers): 8.6%

2016 (Rangers): 7.4%

2017: 6.2%

This tells us in 2017 to date Lucroy is having more strikes turn into balls than ever before, while converting less balls to strikes than any season in his career.

The radical changes with both stats over an extended period tell us something in plain English: Lucroy used to be an elite framer, but that time has passed.

That said, it doesn’t mean Lucroy is a defensive liability.

I know that statement on its face clashes with the previous knowledge, but hear me out.

Looking at the non-framing numbers, Lucroy has been above average. He’s only allowed one passed ball, and he’s throwing out 38% of would be base stealers which ranks second for his career (last year he caught 39% combined in Milwaukee and Texas).

Also consider that Lucroy has faced a bigger challenge than most catchers. Insider Edge has a way to measure plays made, ranking them by difficulty. On the plays deemed “Unlikely” to be made, Lucroy leads catchers with at least 150 innings this season in having 14 of those. He’s also top ten in “Remote” plays received this year.

All that goes to say that while the framing hasn’t been great, in every other aspect of catcher defense Lucroy’s been up to snuff.

The pitcher’s performance with Lucroy hasn’t changed much either.

In eight years of playing, Lucroy’s got a 4.02 CERA when he’s behind the plate. In 2017, he’s sporting a 4.05 CERA so far in over 1000 plate appearances. Should that hold or improve, it’d be the best pitcher ERA he’s caught since 2011(3.63).

Another encouraging sign is Lucroy’s strikeout generation isn’t deteriorating.

The best year Lucroy’s had in that department was 2014, where he caught 972 strikeouts. Last season his total number was 890, second in his career. Granted, it doesn’t hurt that he’s got pitchers like Yu Darvish, Cole Hamels (when healthy), Matt Bush, and other high strikeout hurlers around him.

What about his offense though?

The other side of the Lucroy coin is that his offensive upside was more than most catchers. In a defensive first position, any offense you can offer makes you that much more paper. Lucroy has taken advantage of that over his career.

2017 however has been strange.

He’s posting career low walk (5.5%) and strikeout (6.4%) rates. The strikeout rate is more ridiculous, since his career average is 14.6%. It doesn’t make much sense, since his swing tendencies haven’t shifted to any extreme.

In fact, the oddest anomaly at the plate is he’s seeing the most first pitch strikes ever in his career. Almost 70% of the time Lucroy sees a first pitch strike, far and away blowing away his season high and career average totals.

Yet he’s striking out less than ever before.

Catchers are weird man.

Yeah OK that’s great thanks nerd, but what about the hitting? That’s what we came for.

Right, my apologies disembodied voice from Facebook.

Just like the rest of his teammates, Lucroy isn’t getting lucky when he actually puts the ball in play. His BABIP is a dreadful .277, but the offensive uptick is already coming. In 17 games during April, Lucroy had a .528 OPS with only 13 total hits. In 11 May games, he’s already surpassed that hit number while posting a robust .957 OPS.

There’s a catch to that though.

Lucroy’s power metrics are basura so far.

His ISO (isolated power) is at a piddly .107, down over a hundred points from last year. He’s also hitting a ton of ground balls; almost 60% of all the balls Lucroy hits are on the ground. His fly ball rate has declined, in addition to his hard contact rate.

All of that wouldn’t be odd if the team as a whole wasn’t going in the opposite direction. Lucroy is capable of putting the ball in the air; he’s done it his entire career so far. His not doing it this year definitely doesn’t seem by choice.

It could mean his bat speed has decided to retire to Florida. It might just be that he had a rough month and it’s about to come back. Either way, it’s something to monitor as it’ll determine a big chunk of his offensive value this year.

One thing that works in Lucroy’s favor is he’s a hard player to shift against. His pull and opposite rates are within 3% of each other, but Lucroy by far likes to send the ball up the center of the field. That’s nothing new however; Lucroy’s done that consistently all throughout his career in Milwaukee.

Even so, playing that to any extreme isn’t easy. It would leave some holes that Lucroy has shown he can exploit, giving him an added advantage.

Alright Professor Numbers, you’ve wowed me with all your #fancystats. Just give me a couple paragraphs that I can read to sound smart to my friends.

In a nutshell, the catcher Texas thought they had in Lucroy hasn’t all the way manifested himself in 2017.

His framing ability is just gone. It’s not even that he lost it coming to Texas; the relevant metrics show he hasn’t been doing the things required of great framers well for the last few years. However, he’s still pretty solid in the more traditional defensive categories. So not all is lost, it’s just not as good as you’d have hoped.

Offensively, Lucroy’s turning the corner but the question becomes what exactly will he see when he turns that corner. If he elevates more and hits for power, that’s a good sign. It’s safe to say the first month wasn’t representative of what he’ll end up being this season, as shown by what he’s doing so far in May.

You hope so at least.

JD spent quite a bit of his currency on the assurance that he’d know where his money went.

If things don’t get better, he will know exactly where it went.

Down the toilet.

 

Tweet Sam @thesamuelhale your wildest theories on what was really in Marsellus Wallace's briefcase.

© 2017 WFAA-TV


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