Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Jonathan Lucroy and contact

Brewers catcher Jonathan Lucroy has been an offensive force in 2012, and is on the list of the most improved players in the National League. He's improved greatly in every offensive category and could have made a push for the All-Star game had he not suffered a hand injury that cost him two months. But while he was considered a good offensive catcher coming up through the minors, no one thought he would be this good. Most have written him off as a small sample size wonder or a BABIP fluke, and while his BABIP is high for someone who's clearly not a speedster, there is evidence that Lucroy has made some real improvements to his offensive game.

I went into this study assuming to find that Lucroy had drastically improved his plate discipline. I knew he had cut down on his strikeouts, and it seemed that he had been taking more walks and being more selective at the plate. But it wasn't as much as I had thought. Lucroy's walk rate is up (6.8%, up from 6.2% in his first two years), but just barely. His plate discipline numbers don't suggest a major difference either. While is is seeing a few less strikes overall (as well as first-pitch strikes), he's swinging at about the same number of pitches outside the zone, and his overall swing percentage is about the same as his career norms. What is substantially different though, is his rate of contact. 

                                                        "Beast mode" should probably be renamed "Lucroy mode".

In his first two years in the majors, Lucroy possessed a swinging strike rate of about 7%, with a contact rates 85.2% and 83.7%. 2012 has been a different story. He's lowered his swinging strike rate to 5.1% and his contact rate has risen to 88.9% - not a small difference. Lucroy's been more selective, but only marginally so. It's not that Lucroy is swinging at better pitches, more that Lucroy is just hitting everything. When he swings at pitches outside the zone, he's making contact 79.1% (!) of the time, well up from his previous rates. As you would expect with an improved contact rate, his strikeout rate has plummeted. During his first year, Lucroy kept the K's in check, striking out in 14.8% of his plate appearances. But with a larger sample in 2011 (his first full season), he whiffed 21.2% of the time, a surprising number since he only struck out in 13.8% in his PA's in his minor league career. It seemed that either pitchers had figured him out, or he was pressing due to being pitched around as he was often batting in the 8th spot in the order, batting in front of the pitcher. Whatever the problem was, he clearly fixed it. He's striking out just 12.4% of the time, a number you generally see from spray-hitting speedsters, not a catcher.

So is his performance sustainable? I think so. He made a lot of contact coming up through the system, and his willingness to hit the ball to the opposite field makes him tough to pitch to. While his BABIP will likely come down a bit, good hitters tend to have higher BABIP's due to being able to hit the ball where it's pitched, something Lucroy clearly does well. And I haven't even mentioned his increase in power, which is even more evidence of his maturation as a hitter. If he keeps this up, the five-year deal the Brewers gave him in the off-season will be a steal. If he continues to improve, we'll be watching one of the best catchers in the major leagues for years to come. 

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