With so much of the coverage of the Milwaukee Brewers within the last month being negative–and rightly so given the news of Ryan Braun’s 60-game suspension–the (albeit few) positives stemming from the suspension have been largely overlooked.
Khris Davis, playing in an outfield with a spot vacated by Braun, is hitting .324/.395/.648 with a .443 wOBA that ranks tops among all National League hitters (minimum 80 plate appearances).
Rob Wooten holds a 0.69 era in his first month as a big leaguer and Jim Henderson hasn’t given up a run since July 11.
Yuniesky Betancourt (0.1) actually, somehow, in real life, has a positive WAR in those 30 days.
However, possibly the most overlooked of all events transpiring from Braun’s suspension is the emergence of Jonathan Lucroy both as a baseball player and a leader.
Following the game after news of the suspension broke–a 6-2 loss to the Padres–Lucroy was the first to speak up to reporters.
“I don’t think anybody here is going to hold a grudge,” Lucroy said.
Not only was Lucroy, in only his third season as the team’s starting catcher, vocal in support of his teammate following the news of his suspension, but was also defensive during the 2012 off-season in which Braun successfully appealed a 50-game suspension for a positive drug test.
“I honestly think it was some kind of screw-up. I don’t know what happened. I would be very, very, very shocked if he actually took something knowingly. This guy is way too smart to do something like that,” Lucroy, 27, told 620-AM WTMJ last January.
What’s remarkable about Lucroy’s rise to become the vocal leader–the captain, if you will–of a young, struggling ball club is the fact that, just two seasons ago, he was a role player batting behind Yuniesky Betancourt on a division champion team.
That was a 2011 Brewers team featuring many big names and Lucroy, in his first full season in the majors, was not among them.
Nyjer Morgan and his high-intensity alter ego Tony Plush drew the immediate adoration of the city of Milwaukee and graced the cover of Sports Illustrated with Braun and All-Star Game MVP Prince Fielder. Zack Greinke was never afraid to speak his mind and heightened the Brewers’ rivalry with the Cardinals by criticizing Chris Carpenter of the Redbirds. Rickie Weeks and Corey Hart were well-established players who were on the 2008 Wild Card winner. John Axford had saved 46 straight games. Craig Counsell, Jerry Hairston, Jr., and Mark Kotsay, all owned postseason experience and had a combined three World Series rings between them.
There was no shortage of experience, talent, and leadership–one of the many reasons the Brewers were two games away from reaching the World Series–and Lucroy, as a second-year player, took a backseat to all of this and focused on handling a stellar pitching staff.
Flash forward to July 23 of the current year.
Nyjer Morgan is a member of Japan’s Yokohama Bay Stars. Prince Fielder signed with Detroit for nine years and $214 million. Ryan Braun is doing something that isn’t playing baseball in his home in California. Zack Greinke was traded to the Angels in 2012. Rickie Weeks and Corey Hart are both out for the remainder of the 2013 season with injuries. John Axford is no longer saving games. Craig Counsell retired, JHJ is with Greinke with the Los Angeles Dodgers, and Mark Kotsay is the least valuable player in the National League.
Almost by default, Lucroy has become one of the longest-tenured Milwaukee Brewers.
“It’s a matter of experience and growing into the situation and the position,” Lucroy told Aron Yohannes of WISN-Channel 12 in Milwaukee.
“Overall, just the general thing is just being comfortable. And young guys come up and know that you’ve been there and seen it, and,
you know, I’ve played with some great players, played in some big games, throughout the playoffs and things like that. I had the privilege of catching Trevor Hoffman’s 600th save, so I’ve been in big moments before.
Guys see that and they understand that you’ve been there, so it’s nice to be able to lead and, hopefully, just try to set an example through the way you play and the way you act in the clubhouse.”
In Braun’s absence, Lucroy has emerged as the primary leader in the clubhouse and, along with Carlos Gomez and Jean Segura, as one of the Brewers’ top performers on the field.
Going back to 2011, Lucroy was already one of the elite pitch-framers (or “receivers”, as he prefers) and, thus, any offensive output was bonus. General Manager Doug Melvin and the Brewers locked up their valuable young asset through 2016 with a club option for 2017 for a team-friendly $11 million.
In the past two seasons, Lucroy has hit .302/.352/.498 in 209 games, all the while remaining as the top pitch-framer among starting catchers. In that time, his WAR of 7.0 ranks third among NL catchers, only trailing 2012 MVP Buster Posey and the possible 2013 MVP winner, Yadier Molina.
In 2012, he was hitting .345/.387/.583 with 5 homers and 30 RBI through May 27, then an injury shelved him until late July. He regressed slightly, but still finished with an impressive .320 average, 12 homers, and 137 wRC+ in 96 games. Through 113 games this season, he has 17 homers, 66 RBI (both career highs), and a 126 wRC+.
If there’s yet to be anyone to make the assertion, let me be the one: Jonathan Lucroy has developed into an elite catcher.
The recent fall of Ryan Braun has not only thrust Lucroy into the role as the leader in the clubhouse, but, with the public resentment for Braun, has become the fan favorite in Milwaukee, as evidenced by the echoes of “Luuuuuuuu” whenever he steps to the plate.
Sitting at 55-72, 2013 has been a disappointment for the Milwaukee Brewers. But for Jonathan Lucroy, it’s been the season in which he emerged as the team’s leader and as one of the best catchers in baseball.