“The Joe” was calling his name once again. The kid headed down the left field line at Joe W. Davis Stadium in front of a dispersed crowd to catch Donovan Hand’s bullpen ‘sesh. The Joe wasn’t the ultimate goal: the city 668 miles north along the ports of Lake Michigan seemed to be calling his name.
For the kid, it was another day in Hunstville. Another day in the I-565 heat. Another day in the minors. Another day to dream.
The kid is Jonathan Lucroy, 23, catcher for the AA Huntsville Stars in the Brewers farm system. On a team conglomerated with both future stars such Brett Lawrie and Lorenzo Cain and Milwaukee longshots such as Hand and Shane Justis, Lucroy was a contributor, but not the guy expected to make the move north to Milwaukee before mid-season.
Lawrie, fresh out of the first round, and Angel Salome were the Brewers catchers of the future. With Lucroy thrown into the mix, there was plenty of depth within the backstops of the farm system. Lucroy, mired as the third-best catcher to play AA ball that season, had inimical circumstances heading into the season.
He was by no means a Jim Morris; some scouting sites had him ranked as high as fifth on the Brewers prospect list. But stuck behind the likes of Lawrie and Salome, the realistic expectation was for Lucroy to be taking a heck of a lot more trips down I-565 before the word ‘Brewers’ would be stitched across his chest.
Then down went Brewers starting catcher Gregg Zaun in May of that 2010 season. Lucroy, struggling in his brief stint with AAA Nashville (.238/.265/.363…not too flashy), was then in for a surprise, albeit a good one.
He got the call.
May 20 would be the final glimpse the kid would get of Music City. In a complete bouleversement, the next day, he found himself in the visitor’s clubhouse at Target Field. What served as a forgettable game for the Brewers (starter Dave Bush surrendered seven and only recorded one out) turned out to be a night of grandeur for Lucroy–the kid singled in his first career at bat off Twins hurler Nick Blackburn.
He may not have earned the title of “The Kid” held in the highest of regards within Brewers baseball (see Yount, Robin), Lucroy had at least become the Kid.
When Ryan Braun was called up, all other baseball-related news stories in Milwaukee where promptly put to an end, so much so that then-manager Ned Yost’s lineup card with Braun batting second was posted on the front page of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. As for the Kid, this was not so much the case. Many catechized not only how sparingly manager Ken Macha would use him, but also how long he would stay in the Majors until being re-assigned to Nashville.
Newsflash from the Kid: He was here to stay.
Lucroy ended up playing in 75 games for the 77-85 Brewers that season, posting modest .253/.300/.329 numbers at the plate. In the off-season, he was hard on himself for his performance–particularly the .225 mark with RISP. Teammates, coaches, and new manager Ron Roenicke praised his play as a rookie catcher thrust from AA to becoming the starter at the Big League level. Throughout the season, his defensive work showed improvement, specifically his blocking.
He was named the starting catcher immediately by Roenicke, showing confidence in what he hoped to be the franchise catcher. After an injury to start the season, Lucroy came back to hit .265, reach base at a .313 clip, and hit 12 home runs while driving in 45. Lucroy’s bat, arm, and glove improved throughout the season as he caught 136 games for a division winner and one of the National League’s best pitching staffs.
The Brewers believe Lucroy still has room to improve at the plate, but no torrefying demands will be seen from the organization; after going through seven starting catchers in only nine seasons the Kid may have been the answer to Milwaukee’s semi-orison. As a Brewers fan, trust me. Lucroy’s .265 average is an astronomical upgrade from the Chad Moeller’s and the beyond-his-days Jason Kendall’s of the world. The patience and contact at the plate are there, shown by his wRC+ totals above 125 in every one of his minor league stints.
Now, the Brewers and Lucroy are reportedly closing up discussion to sign the now-25-year-old catcher to a four or five year contact extension. Finally, Milwaukee will be voided of the ineffably tedious task of signing a new veteran catcher (please excuse the oxymoron) with Lucroy’s roborant personality behind the plate.
But what the Brewers get with Lucroy is more than meets the eye…and basic sabermetrics, as well.
As Mike Fast of Baseball Prospectus writes, Lucroy is second-best of all catcher at framing pitches to be called strikes, only trailing Jose Molina. While some elite-hitting catchers such as Mike Napoli (-24), Victor Martinez (-8), and Carlos Ruiz (-23) actually give up runs by their framing of pitches, or lack thereof, Lucroy saves 24 runs per 120 games. That alone makes up for the inefficiencies at times at the dish.
Each starter on the Brewers’ rotation feels more-than-comfortable with Lucroy behind the plate. His ability to block Yovani Gallardo’s curve, Shaun Marcum’s changeup, Zack Greinke’s slider, and Chris Narveson’s …everything…inevitably saves runs over the course of the season. Even though Randy Wolf now works primarily with backup George Kottaras, he was the starter that started out as Lucroy’s designated battery mate. Lucroy and each member of the pitching staff seem to work in coruscation night after night.
One of the noticeable features of Lucroy is his confidence. It is anything but overwhelming, isn’t borderline-cocky (also referred to as Braun-esque), and isn’t Nyjer Morgan-level in your face. Despite failing to drive in a single run in slightly over his first month in the majors, Lucroy stayed confident in his abilities, even as a catcher thrust into duty.
On June 25, still batting .296, the Kid hit a three-run home run against Seattle to notch his first Major League RBI and home run and to give the Brewers a comeback win in front of 30,087 at Miller Park. Among those roughly 30,000 was one 15-year-old Curt Hogg, whom Lucroy won over with that homer. The game ticket still sits on my shelf, signed by none other than the game’s hero, Jonathan Lucroy.
The shining moment of Lucroy’s career may have come on May 28, 2011, against the Giants. Tied 2-2 in the bottom of the night and after singles by Braun and Prince Fielder, a groundout, and intentional walk, Roenicke pulled starting catcher Wil Nieves for the control bat of Lucroy, a move which would not soon draw the chagrin of Brewers fans. With Braun sprinting home on the pitch, the Kid laid down a perfect squeeze bunt to give Milwaukee the victory. He would become the master of the squeeze again when his successful squeeze bunt scored Jerry Hairston and sparked a five-run Brewers rally to win Game Two of the National League Divisional Series against Arizona and creating a frisson at Miller Park.
“Mr. Squeeze always comes through,” Brewers outfielder Corey Hart said after the playoff squeeze.
His value may not quite be properly summarized by statistics such as WAR and batting average and home runs. His 1.7 WAR was only seventh among Brewers position players in 2011; batting average, sixth; and long balls, seventh. However, his patience, knowledge of the strike zone, ability to frame pitches, and blocking make him one of the more undervalued catchers in all of baseball.
Signing him long-term along with the core of Gallardo, Braun, Hart, Axford, and Rickie Weeks will prove nothing for beneficial for the Brewers.
The acclamation and value of the Kid go beyond the box score and stats table. Just take a trip down I-565 and ask the boys in Huntsville.