Jonathan Lucroy busting out of early slump in big way
MILWAUKEE -- Jonathan Lucroy ventured into the manager's office in the visitors' clubhouse at PNC Park in Pittsburgh looking for answers.
A proven hitter, Lucroy was mired in a puzzling slump to begin the season. Though his catcher was hitting just .216 at the time of that mid-May meeting, Milwaukee Brewers manager Ron Roenicke's message was simple: Just stick with it and things will turn around.
Shortly thereafter, Lucroy and the Brewers began to see results. Now, Lucroy is one of the hottest hitters in baseball and is on pace to continue to establish himself as one of the best all-around catchers in the game.
"I just went in there going through some things and he talked to me about it," Lucroy said. "It made me feel good. It gave me a good confidence booster. It was right around that time that I made some adjustments and turned it around. Ron is good about that. He's real good at pumping guys up and letting you know he's behind you."
Lucroy is a talented offensive player and probably would have turned his season around without Roenicke's pep talk, but sometimes a boost of confidence is needed at a time of struggle.
"Ron told me that he had confidence in me," Lucroy said. "When I was struggling he told me 'Your numbers are going to be there at the end. We know what you are capable of.' Obviously, I have have confidence in myself. It's just a matter of putting the work in and getting right. Baseball is a weird game, things work out."
Many theories were tossed out as to why Lucroy stumbled out of the gates, including his time playing for the United States in the World Baseball Classic. Instead of preparing for the season with the Brewers in spring training as usual, Lucroy was riding the pine as one of the backup catchers.
While a chance to represent his country was too much to pass up, Lucroy wasn't getting the consistent at-bats players need in spring training.
Lucroy's batting average hit a season-low .208 on May 20, but he finished with a .424 batting average in his final nine games in May, including a five-for-five, two home run performance May 31 in Philadelphia.
The uptick continued in June, as Lucroy hit .296 with three home runs and 18 RBI for the month. As good as he was in June, Lucroy has been even better in July, hitting .365 with six home runs and 12 RBI in 15 games this month.
Lucroy has six home runs in his last 10 games, already giving him a new career-high of 14. The batting average has jumped from .208 to .285 and his 54 RBI are the most in baseball by a catcher. San Francisco's Buster Posey has 59 RBI, but 48 have come while he's catching.
"I think just trying to stay within myself and finding an approach that works and finding a bunch of things that work," Lucroy said of his turnaround. "A lot of work and pretty much keeping it simple.
"I've tried to not get out of that or too far away from that approach. Baseball is a pretty simple game if you keep it simple. You just have to learn how to slow it down and take it for what it is ... You can't make hitting too complicated. You have to keep it simple."
As one of the hottest hitters in baseball, Lucroy left Roenicke with an interesting dilemma last Sunday afternoon. Backup catcher Martin Maldonado has become rookie right-hander Wily Peralta's personal catcher.
The two are good friends, speak the same language and Peralta is in the middle of a dominant stretch with Maldonado catching him. At the same time, the Brewers need Lucroy's bat in the lineup right now.
With the development of Peralta and keeping the young right-hander comfortable near the top of the priority list right now, Roenicke sat Lucroy for Maldonado. While obviously not pleased, Lucroy understands why the decision had to be made.
"Do I want to be in there every day? Of course," Lucroy said. "But there's also the old adage, 'Don’t fix it if it ain’t broke.' The way he's thrown the past two starts, there's no reason to put me back there. I can't communicate with him as well as Maldonado does -- that's a fact. I can't.
"Communication's a big thing dealing with pitchers. Whenever Peralta is on, you don't need the best hitters in the lineup because he's going to keep the other team down. It's just a matter of him getting the job done and pitching the way he can, with their ability to communicate, Maldonado gives them our best chance."
The move paid off, as Peralta continued his stretch of dominance by pitching eight shutout innings to lower his ERA to 0.87 over his last six starts. As a whole, Milwaukee's pitching staff has a 2.72 ERA when Maldonado is catching and a 4.45 ERA when Lucroy catches. While it's hard to read too much into those numbers, Maldonado is an excellent defensive catcher who calls an outstanding game, but he doesn't add much offensively.
To prevent days like last Sunday, Lucroy has volunteered and has had conversations with Roenicke and bench coach Jerry Narron about learning first base and the outfield during spring training next season.
"The idea has been thrown around," Lucroy said. "I think I'm athletic enough to be able to play some outfield.
"You always want to keep the sticks in the lineup to give yourself the best chance to win. If there's any way I can stay in the lineup, be in the outfield or playing first base a game or something, that's what we're going to try to do."
Lucroy did appear at first base late in a blowout this season, but he's hesitant to play there in a close game because he's not comfortable with all of the coverages and cut responsibilities. He doesn't want a mistake he makes over there to end up costing the Brewers a game.
Roenicke feels once time is spent learning the position, Lucroy could be a good first baseman to at least give the skipper the option of playing him there.
"The thing is, if he does it for a while, he should be good," Roenicke said. "He's got really good hands. That's why Maldy's able to do it: because they have good hands. They're used to balls in the dirt where you have to come up and pick them.
"It's just trying to figure out where you are on the field, how you get to the bag and turn, and make sure you're still on the bag. If he worked at it, he could do it."
Lucroy is certainly willing to work at it, but he isn't ready to make first base or the outfield his primary position. He's a catcher now, and he will be in the future.
"It's just athleticism more than anything," Lucroy said. "The physical stuff I'm not worried about. It's the mental, situational stuff that you've got to really learn about and practice. It's an option down the road, so as of right now I'm a catcher, and that's what I'm always going to be primarily."
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