Catching Fire: Jonathan Lucroy and George Kottaras Proving Their Value
In an opening month mired in spurts of bad pitching and entanglements and disappearances of the offense, some of the most positive play for the Brewers has come from their backstops, Jonathan Lucroy and George Kottaras. The offensive production and the defensive stability of the two have been the cause behind their consistent play, a term to be used lightly with the stagnant play of many Brewers.
After years of fishing through catchers well beyond their prime and swinging and missing with catching prospects, the Brewers seem to have finally connected with both Lucroy and Kottaras. Gone are the years of Chad Moeller and Damian Miller and Paul Bako; Milwaukee finally has a starting catcher worth keeping around to go along with a backup worthy of starting for most squads. The Brewers showed this very promise this off-season, inking Lucroy, 25, to an extension through 2016.
Through the first month of the season, Lucroy has proven the move worthwhile for the Brewers front office. In 18 games, the Kid is hitting .283 with two home runs and eight RBI. But let’s be honest: you can’t judge the value of a catcher by their average and power stats.
Offensively, Lucroy holds his own compared to his National League competition. He ranks in the upper half of batting categories consistently, paced by .283/.361/.472 slash stats. His OPS ranks 8th among 21 catcher with over 30 plate appearances to go along with an impressive .372 wOBA. Offensively, his number rank higher than those of Brian McCann, Miguel Montero, and Geovany Soto–all recognized as some of the top-hitting catchers in the NL.
With runners in scoring position (RISP), Lucroy is hitting a team-high .455 with one homer and seven RBI. Comparably, Buster Posey of the Giants (batting .354 with four homers overall) is merely 4-18 and only two RBI with RISP. Lucroy usually thrives when the team needs him most, as on Sunday afternoon against the Cardinals. A two-out, two-run double broke a 1-1 tie and proved to be the difference in a 3-2 victory.
Not only is Lucroy valuable at the dish, but his value can be difficult to measure in other aspects.
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 simply by excelling at calling a game and framing pitches. That alone makes up for the inefficiencies at times at the dish.
He has caught the second-most strikeouts of any National League catcher, trailing Nick Hundley of the Padres by eight while starting three fewer games. Brewers pitchers feel comfortable throwing breaking balls in the dirt to be smothered by Lucroy. He holds the league lead in rGFP, which measures runs saved by good fielding plays. Late in games when Francisco Rodriguez pounds his changeup low and away to batters and John Axford buries his Uncle Charlie, Lucroy provides a wall of assurance behind the dish. During the final at-bat of the game against Yadier Molina sunday, Lucroy bounced around behind the plate before the 0-2 pitch, deceiving Molina into expecting a curve before Axford climbed the ladder with a fastball to end the game.
And we haven’t even started talking about the backup yet.
We could list all the teams that would love having Kottaras as their starting catcher, but what fun would that be? Okay, it’d be lots of fun, so let’s have at it. Cincinnati’s Ryan Hanigan has a 0.0 WAR. Jason Castro of the Astros is batting .244 with a negative fielding value. Rod Barajas’ -0.5 WAR and inability to run haven’t exactly won over Pirates faithful. Florida’s John Buck would probably be splitting time with Kottaras after his .188 start. And Cubs fans may never let go of Geo, but Soto is batting .135 and looks lost at the plate with only one RBI.
Oh yeah, and did I mention that Kottaras is Milwaukee’s backup?
In only 31 PA’s, “The Gunshow” has the fifth-highest WAR among NL catchers and the second-
highest Win Percentage Added (WPA). The WPA is boosted by his two game-winning hits: a seventh inning two-run homer in Chicago to go up 2-1 and a walk off, two-run double against Los Angeles. He is batting .313 with a staggering 1.273 OPS with three homers and nine RBI.
His defense has been void of the evident gaps seen in years past with the Brewers. Improved blocking has been the most evident change in Kottaras’ game behind the plate. Previously working as Randy Wolf’s personal catcher, Kottaras has been received six starts in 2012 (Wolf has started only four of those).
Neither Lucroy nor Kottaras is the top individual catcher in the National League, but, combined, they create the most dynamic 1-2 catcher tandem. Hopefully the rest of the offense can catch on and can ride the bats to a long winning streak.