This guy’s so money and his teammates don’t even know it
This is a story about Brewers catcher Jonathan Lucroy not getting enough respect. Sadly, the problem begins in his own clubhouse.
I ask right-hander Kyle Lohse about Lucroy, and he cracks a joke. I start interviewing Lucroy, and second baseman Rickie Weeks interrupts.
“What are you talking to him for?” Weeks asks.
Ah, and the Brew Crew is just getting started.
Lucroy, 27, fires back good-naturedly at every teammate who comes at him. But boy, do they come at him.
Brewers closer Francisco Rodriguez shouts at Lucroy from across the clubhouse, saying later that he rides the catcher, “All day, every day. That was the first of about nine times today.”
Later, during batting practice, I remark to Brewers coach John Shelby that Lucroy catches an awful lot of grief.
“He deserves it!” Shelby protests. “He hits in cowboy boots. He sleeps in cowboy boots. He bought his wife cowboy boots. He bought his daughter . . .”
Aren’t we missing the point here?
Enter Brewers bench coach Jerry Narron, who comes not to bury Lucroy, but to praise him.
“He’s the most underrated guy in baseball,” Narron says.
Here are your three leaders at catcher in the latest balloting for the National League All-Star team.
• Yadier Molina: 1,621,944
• Buster Posey: 1,078,007
• Lucroy: 771,313
And here is how those players rank in OPS at catcher in the NL:
• Lucroy: .918 (first)
• Molina: .763 (fifth)
• Posey: .757 (sixth).
Lucroy understands. Everyone does. Molina is a once-in-a-generation player and two-time World Series champion. Posey is a former Rookie of the Year, former NL MVP . . . and two-time World Series champion.
Lucroy, well, Lucroy plays in Milwaukee, the smallest market in major-league baseball. Except this season, the Brewers happen to be in first place in the NL Central. And if the NL carries three catchers, as it usually does, it would be insane to exclude Lucroy, who ranks second in the league with a .341 batting average, behind only Troy Tulowitzki.
Funny thing about Lucroy, though: His entire career is sort of a rags-to-riches story. He was undrafted out of high school in tiny Umatilla, Fla. He might have been drafted after attending a pre-draft workout for the Pirates in Pittsburgh. But Lucroy said that when a Pirates official called and asked how much money he would require to sign, he blurted out, “$100,000,” not knowing what else to say.
The way Lucroy remembers it, bigger catchers such as Joe Mauer were more in vogue then. Lucroy, even today, is a mere 6 feet, 189 pounds. Louisiana-Lafayette was the biggest school to offer him a scholarship. So, off he went.
“I never understood how I got out of the state,” Lucroy says. “I went to all these baseball camps and no one ever gave me any kind of attention.
“Florida, Florida State, Miami, none of those people even talked to me. It was kind of strange. I really thought I wasn’t any good. Then I went to Louisiana-Lafayette and was All-American my freshman year. I put on some weight and hit, like, .380.”
Two years later, the Brewers selected him in the third round of the 2007 draft. Lucroy signed for $340,000, well above what he had previously “demanded” from the Pirates. And by May 2010, he was in the majors — “boom-boom-bam!” — thanks to a season-ending shoulder injury to Gregg Zaun and a leave of absence by the prospect ahead of him, Angel Salome.
The scouting reports on Lucroy throughout his minor league career portrayed him as a player whose offense was ahead of his defense.
The reports don’t say that anymore.
Ask Lucroy about his specialty — pitch framing — and he gets almost, well, defensive.
He raises his right arm above his head and drops it in an exaggerated fashion, depicting the all-too-obvious manner in which a college catcher might frame. He says he isn’t trying to “trick” umpires or “cheat” opponents. He’s simply trying to help his pitchers — and he does.
Among major league catchers who have caught a minimum of 2,000 pitches this season, Lucroy trails only the Padres’ Rene Rivera at getting pitches outside of the zone called strikes, according to Statcorner.com.
“For me, it’s about giving the umpire a good look at the ball,” Lucroy says. “There are so many pitches that catchers take out of the zone. They’ll call it a ball instead of a strike.
“I like to give the umpire as good a look as I can. It’s hard enough for pitchers to throw strikes, anyway. I’m just trying to give the pitcher the best chance of getting the strike call.”
Framing, though, is just one part of catching. Lucroy credits Charlie Greene, the Brewers’ minor league catcher instructor, with helping him improve his receiving, blocking and throwing — and Narron, a former major league catcher, with helping him further refine his defensive skills.
Narron, in turn, praises Lucroy’s preparation, citing his video work and his pre-game throwing and blocking drills. Manager Ron Roenicke says Lucroy’s hand-eye coordination helps not just with his hitting, but also in “sticking” balls that elude other catchers. In Roenicke’s view, Lucroy is blocking balls better than he ever has. And Lucroy’s game-calling evidently is OK – his 3.64 catcher’s ERA, while helped by the Brewers’ pitchers, ranks fourth in the NL.
As for throwing, Lucroy has improved in each of the past two seasons at his percentage of runners caught stealing, a statistic that also is influenced by pitchers. This season, among catchers who have played in at least half their team’s games, he ranks third in the NL at 25 percent, behind Molina (44.4 percent) and Posey (26.7 percent).
“Throwing is definitely the weakest part of my game. And I don’t even think it’s that weak,” Lucroy says. “I think I’ve got an average arm. But I still get the ball down there in under two seconds.
“Recently, I’ve been a lot better about it. There was some mechanical stuff I was doing. I was throwing, like, changeups to second. I wasn’t grabbing the ball correctly. I fixed that, and I’ve been throwing a lot better. I’ll throw out all the guys I should throw out.”
Oh, and don’t forget: He can hit, too.
“I would be surprised if ‘Luc’ has a year where he hits below .280,” Roenicke says. “His approach is ideal. If you ever teach your kid how to hit, look at what this guy does.”
Narron, a former teammate of Thurman Munson with the 1979 Yankees, pays Lucroy an even higher compliment, recalling a conversation that he once had with Brewers general manager Doug Melvin.
“I told Doug a couple of years ago he reminds me of Thurman the way he uses his hands, stays inside the ball,” Narron says. “For a catcher, he’s the closest to swinging the bat the way Thurman did of anybody I’ve seen since 1979.”
Lucroy all but shrugs when talking about his most celebrated skill, saying that he hit in high school, hit in college, hit in the minors. But he keeps improving — for the third straight season, his walk rate is up, his strikeout rate down.
With two strikes, Lucroy is batting .250 with a .697 OPS – far better than the major-league averages, which are .175 and .506. And he doesn’t just feast on mediocre pitching. As Narron puts it, “he can hit anyone.”
“His aptitude is extremely impressive — it just seems like he learns from everything he goes through,” Braun says.
Or, as Lohse puts it, “He’s one of those guys I wouldn’t want to face just because of his approach. He’s going to hit the ball square most of the time.”
So, All-Star team?
Nothing is certain, of course. Molina and Posey probably are locks. Miguel Montero could make it as the Diamondbacks’ only representative. The NL added a third catcher at the last minute last season, and chose the Braves’ Brian McCann over Lucroy; McCann had the higher batting average and OPS, Lucroy more homers and RBI.
“It’s out of my control,” Lucroy says. “We’re in a small media market. We don’t get as much attention as other guys. Which is fine. You can’t do anything about it, so why worry about it? I’m more worried about the Brewers winning.”
Politically correct answer, but doesn’t Lucroy deserve a break? I’m not talking about an All-Star selection, though it certainly would be fitting. I’m talking about a break from his teammates, only a few of whom would join him in Minneapolis.
Lucroy probably wouldn’t know what to do with himself. The NL clubhouse would be practically a taunt-free zone.