MILWAUKEE — It took the Milwaukee Brewers just 211 games to realize Jonathan Lucroy wasn’t like the countless catchers they had tried over the previous two decades.
When Lucroy started his first Opening Day for Milwaukee in 2012, he became the 14th different player to start the season at catcher for the Brewers since 1993.
After running through countless catchers, most of whom provided little to nothing, the Brewers realized early what they had in Lucroy, locking him up to a five-year contract extension for $11 million during spring training of 2012.
It was a low-risk, high-reward move for the Brewers, but even they couldn’t have imagined this.
Mixing talent with hard work and dedication to his craft, Lucroy has turned himself into one of the best catchers in all of baseball. The 28-year-old was rewarded by being selected to his first All-Star Game by the players and will start Tuesday’s midsummer classic after St. Louis’ Yadier Molina suffered a torn ligament in his right thumb last week.
"Especially the way the guy goes about his job," Brewers manager Ron Roenicke said about Lucroy making the All-Star team. "You guys don’t see it all, but he puts in some serious time and effort. When I talk about thinking about the team winning, here’s a great hitter, but he cares about the catching and what he calls first. He’s in here watching video, coming up with a game plan along with (pitching coach Rick) Kranitz, and he really puts the effort into it."
A season-ending shoulder injury to Gregg Zaun, another one of Milwaukee’s stopgaps at catcher, led to Lucroy being promoted to the big leagues in May of 2010 after just 21 games at Triple-A. Lucroy wasn’t even thought of as the top catching prospect in the organization at the time, but Angel Salome was away from baseball at the time due to personal issues.
Lucroy was initially set to serve as the backup to George Kottaras for the rest of 2010, but he quickly became a regular, learning on the fly.
"I think I was given a chance early on in a couple down years we had, except for ’11 obviously, but I was able to learn kind of the hard way defensively through learning to call games," Lucroy said. "I learned a lot through failure and I’m still learning every day. Trial by fire is kind of the best way to learn sometimes."
In his first full season as a starter in 2011, Lucroy hit .265 with 12 home runs and 59 RBI for Milwaukee’s division-championship team. The Brewers locked Lucroy up to the contract extension the following March, including a team option for 2017 in the deal.
Ever since, Lucroy has not only turned himself into a dangerous hitter at the plate, but he’s improved immensely behind the dish as well.
According to StatCorner.com, Lucroy was by far the best catcher in the major leagues at framing pitches last season. The stat was measured in runs saved versus the average catcher, as Lucroy was at 31.1 RAA. Chris Stewart, then with the Yankees, was second at 22.7 RAA with Molina third at 19.8 RAA.
"It always feels good to be recognized for everything," Lucroy said of receiving praise for his improved defense. "Obviously Yadi’s been known as the best for a long time, and to be placed in that conversation is something that’s a great honor for me, so I’m always happy to hear it."
Despite missing 50 games in 2012 from late May to late July due to a broken hand, Lucroy broke out offensively. He hit .320 with 12 home runs and 58 RBI in just 96 games, producing a Wins Above Replacement (WAR) of 3.6.
Lucroy was chosen as a member of Team USA for the World Baseball Classic in the spring of 2013, but he didn’t play much as a backup to Joe Mauer and J.P Arencibia. The interruption of his usual spring training preparations may have hurt Lucroy, as he got off to a slow start and was hitting just .208 on May 20.
He was able to overcome his early-season struggles to finish hitting .280 with 18 home runs and 82 RBI, driving in the most runs in baseball among catchers.
Lucroy certainly didn’t start slow in 2014, as he hit .295 in April and .347 in May before putting together a monster June. Milwaukee’s player of the month in June, Lucroy hit .359 with six home runs and 20 RBI, all but sealing his ticket to the All-Star Game.
Despite a current 7-for-41 slump at the plate, Lucroy is hitting .315 with nine home runs and 44 RBI. His 32 doubles are the most by a catcher ever prior to the All-Star break.
It’s important, when you work as hard as ‘Luc’ does, to have others see the same thing we’re seeing here.
Brewers manager Ron Roenicke
"The progress with him is probably him trying to be more consistent, which I think he really is now," Roenicke said. "Last year, he was a little messed up with the WBC; the year before because he hurt his little finger so he wasn’t able to work on some of the things he needed to work on in spring training.
"This year, he was able to do that and I think that’s what we’re seeing. He’s a really consistent catcher. He’s throwing the ball better; there are some plays we haven’t made at second base that we could have gotten outs, so his numbers might not show it but I think he’s throwing the ball really well."
Despite the Brewers putting together an ad campaign to get Lucroy voted in as the All-Star starter at catcher, Molina won the fan vote. But what meant a great deal to Lucroy was the fact he was chosen to represent the National League by his peers, winning the players vote over Molina.
"I think that obviously to have the respect of the players is the most important thing for me," Lucroy said. "I mean, the fans are important, but the players, we all know how hard it is, how tough it is. To have them all vote me in there really means a lot."
Fans in Milwaukee have seen Lucroy’s development firsthand and know the kind of player he’s become. Trotting out onto the field as a starter in the All-Star Game will raise his profile on a national level.
Lucroy will bat eighth for the National League and will catch Cardinals right-hander Adam Wainwright to start the bottom of the first inning.
"Probably more than anything, the confidence of knowing that you’re one of the elite in the game," Roenicke said as to what he wants Lucroy to take out of his All-Star experience. "It’s important, when you work as hard as Luc does, to have others see the same thing we’re seeing here."
From receiving only one scholarship offer (Louisiana Lafayette) out of high school to turning himself into one of the best catchers in Major League Baseball, Lucroy’s career has been building up to the point at which he could call himself an All-Star.
"I’ve never really thought about it too much because I don’t try to think that far ahead, I just kind of worry about going day to day and playing hard and getting better and trying to help the team win," Lucroy said. "I think if you perform and do the job, all that stuff will be there in the end.
"It’s kind of a reward for a lot of hard work and a lot of sacrifice. I’ve been looking forward to it. Hopefully we can get a win."