The entirety of the Jonathan Lucroy MVP argument
OK, I’ll grant that now isn’t the best time to talk about the National League MVP Award, with just weeks to go in a closely competitive regular season. I’ll grant that now isn’t the best time to talk about a Brewer winning the NL MVP Award, with the team in a bit of a slide that recently knocked it out of first place. And I’ll grant that now isn’t the best time to talk about Jonathan Lucroy winning the NL MVP award, since he had a stronger first half than his second half has been to date.
In a few senses, the timing here could be better. But the timing isn’t better, and we’re already here, so: how’s Jonathan Lucroy look as an MVP candidate?
His is an odd name to see in the running. I think we’re all still getting used to the idea of Lucroy being a really terrific player, and the NL is the league with Clayton Kershaw and Andrew McCutchen and Giancarlo Stanton in it. Last year, McCutchen won the league MVP. Kershaw won the league Cy Young. Lucroy’s never received a single down-ballot MVP vote. But then, before this year, Lucroy hadn’t been an All-Star, so things can change, and Lucroy has more than earned consideration. By no means is this a slam dunk and there are still a few weeks for the overall picture to shift, but we can run through the Lucroy argument point by point.
Jonathan Lucroy has an MVP case. What follows is why.
Nobody reasonable out there supports the idea of voting in the order of Wins Above Replacement. What WAR really does is function as a starting point, so let’s use it for that purpose. The top six players in the NL, by WAR, available at FanGraphs:
(1) Clayton Kershaw, 6.0
(2) Giancarlo Stanton, 5.7
(3) Jonathan Lucroy, 5.6
(4) Hunter Pence, 5.4
(5) Jason Heyward, 5.3
By that list, you’ve got Lucroy in third place. Understood better, by that list, you’ve got Lucroy as a part of the leading group. While WAR is reported with a decimal, that mostly only serves to mislead, and every figure should be taken as an estimate. WAR figures that Lucroy has a case. How else can we build it?
Before we proceed, I should note that FanGraphs has a couple different versions of pitcher WAR. One judges pitchers by their peripherals, like walks, strikeouts, and homers. The other judges pitchers by their actual runs allowed. The former has the issue of giving pitchers no credit for situational pitching or inducing weak contact; the latter has the opposite issues. If you blend the two WARs 50/50, then Kershaw moves up to 6.4. He’d have a lead over Lucroy of almost a full win. We can keep that in mind. Back to Lucroy’s all-around ability!
To this point, 73 batters in the National League have batted at least 400 times. That’s not very many, but Lucroy ranks 15th in wRC+, which is a measure of batting production, where 100 is league-average. Lucroy has been 32 percent better than average, putting him around names like Matt Kemp, Carlos Gomez, and Lucas Duda. Lucroy, clearly, has been a good deal worse than Stanton and McCutchen at the plate, who have been about 60 percent better than average. But this is where we can get into other considerations. Value isn’t just about value with the bat.
Lucroy doesn’t get much credit for running the bases. He’s neither a good baserunner nor a bad baserunner, so there’s nothing there for his case. His throwing arm has also been neither good nor bad, in terms of controlling the running game. But controlling baserunners has more to do with the pitchers than with the catchers, so there’s only so much for Lucroy to do. The bigger factor is just that Lucroy is a catcher in the first place. Catchers occupy a premium position, like shortstops and, to a lesser extent, center fielders. This is a factor that gets built into WAR, but it’s worth thinking about on its own. Not a big fan of WAR? Break it down. Lucroy’s been a well above-average hitter. He plays a very important position. That definitely merits a boost.
Now think about Lucroy as a catcher. His arm has been more or less average. We don’t have a great idea of how to measure game-calling as an ability. But, pitch-blocking? We can measure pitch-blocking. And according to the numbers at FanGraphs, this year Lucroy has been the most effective blocker in baseball. It’s a minor skill, in that games seldom come down to pitches that do or do not get away, but think of this as Lucroy’s version of contributing on the bases. Baserunning is more and pitch-blocking is minor, but it’s a factor that works in his favor.
Now we advance to the big point: pitch-framing. Pitch-framing research has been conducted for years now, and the general idea is that certain catchers are better than others at preserving called strikes in the zone and getting extra called strikes out of the zone. The research is based on data generated by PITCHf/x, which tracks every pitch in every game, and the framing numbers we have access to have loved Lucroy from the start. The numbers at StatCorner love Lucroy’s receiving. The numbers at Baseball Prospectus love Lucroy’s receiving. The simpler numbers from FanGraphs love Lucroy’s receiving. He’s a magnificent receiver, according to the numbers and according to the eyes, and every extra strike has value. The extra value is small, each time, but they add up fast.
StatCorner figures Lucroy’s receiving alone this year has been worth about two wins. Baseball Prospectus agrees with that estimate. Now, this gets complicated. What do we do about framing credit? If we’re giving credit to the catchers, do we have to remove it from the pitchers? How differently do pitchers pitch when they’re working with a good receiver instead of a bad one? There’s a good argument to be made that Lucroy doesn’t deserve the full credit for his framing value, but then, what if we compromised and cut it 50/50? Then, this season, Lucroy shoots up by about a win or so. That’s enormously significant, and it’s not even that questionable, given that we know for a fact that Lucroy generates a better strike zone for his pitchers than most other catchers do. We don’t know how much extra value to shoot Lucroy’s way — that isn’t built into WAR — but we know the answer isn’t "none."
And finally, something to consider a tie-breaker. We’ve established that Lucroy has tremendous defensive value. We’ve established that he’s been valuable at the plate as well. But when you consider situational hitting, Lucroy’s shined to an even greater extent. FanGraphs tracks a stat called Clutch, which shows how well a player has performed when you consider higher- and lower-leverage circumstances. No. 1 in the National League, at this writing: Jonathan Lucroy. In the most important situations, he’s hit 67 percent better than average. In medium-importance situations, he’s hit 95 percent better than average. In lowest-importance situations, he’s hit 9 percent worse than average. So while, overall, Lucroy has been 32 percent better than average, his productivity hasn’t been evenly distributed. He’s come up clutch more than you’d expect of a player with his overall numbers.
Some people don’t like to consider situational performance when it comes to MVP voting, because Lucroy can’t really control the situations in which he finds himself, but it’s just another point to keep in mind. If you care about situational performance at all, right now it’s only strengthening Lucroy’s argument. And it’s an argument that doesn’t even need all that much strengthening in order to be incredibly strong.
The Brewers have slumped some. Lucroy has slumped some. When it comes to the NL MVP, there are a handful of worthy candidates, and there are still a few more weeks for players to emerge or collapse. Nothing yet is set in stone, so it would be silly to suggest that Lucroy deserves the award more than anybody else. Yet, while there will ultimately be a number of strong cases, Lucroy could well end up with the strongest. He’s terrific in ways you notice, and he’s terrific in ways you don’t.