January 13, 2017
After playing his first six major-league seasons with the Milwaukee Brewers and starting his seventh season there, too, Lucroy was traded at the deadline by the rebuilding squad to the Texas Rangers (after he had declined a trade to the Cleveland baseball team) last year. In his first five non-rookie seasons, outside of an injury-hampered 2015 in which he only played 103 games (roto slashing .264/7/51/43/1), Lucroy had been a top-quintile backstop by providing a strong AVG while also being average or above average for the position in the other four roto categories. In those four seasons (2011-2014), Lucroy averaged 133 games played, 13.75 HR, 55.75 runs, 67 RBI, and 4.75 steals to go with batting averages of .265, .320 (in 96 games in 2012), .280, and .301.
In 2016, Lucroy rewarded those who showed faith in his talents after his down 2015, posting the best offensive season of his career in his age -0 season, roto slashing .292/24/67/81/5 over 142 games and 544 plate appearances.
What Went Right in 2016
As we can see from the above, outside of leagues that place negative value on generating hot-takes, everything went right. Beyond everything going right, some things went very right, mainly the dingers. Yes, homer runs were up in 2016, but Lucroy was one of the main beneficiaries, hitting 33.3% more HRs in 2016 than in his previous career high. Moreover, Lucroy was not the same hitter in 2016 that he was before that just so happened to see more balls go over the fence. Rather, Lucroy started hit a higher percentage of flyballs in 20116 than he had in any other season and he did so by trading out ground balls (as opposed to line drives). While Lucroy did, like much of the league, post a career high HR/FB rate of 15.8% (his previous high was 11.7%), his new batted-ball profile allowed his HR/FB gains (or luck) to be even more fruitful.
Lastly, Lucroy got back to swiping some bases (5) after only stealing a single base in 2015. He was not caught stealing in either season.
What Went Wrong in 2016
The closest thing to a wart on his 2016 season’s resume is an increased strikeout rate, but this seemed to be the cost of more flyballs and home runs, which is a cost Lucroy and fantasy baseball participants are surely willing to pay. Additionally, Lucroy posted an infield-fly-ball rate of 13.8%, which is the highest it has been since 2011 after it sat in the 7-9% range the previous four seasons.
What to Expect in 2017
The big question with Lucroy is whether the power stays. To answer this question, we ask another question, which is whether Lucroy’s fly-ball gains stay. Upon going to Brokks Baseball to investigate, I expected Lucroy to demonstrate higher fly-ball rates pretty much across the board, but that is not what I found. Instead, the numbers showed mainly showed three things: (i) Lucroy absolutely annihilated four-seam fastballs last year, (ii) he crushed either mistake cutters, sliders, and changeups, the cutters, sliders, and changeups that he was sitting on, or both, and (iii) he hit more line drives and flyballs—and thus more power—in two-strike counts last year than ever before. Regarding the first point, after hitting 61% of batted four-seam fastballs as line drives or flyballs up in the majors through 2015, Lucroy hit 66% of such batted balls as line drives or flyballs in 2016. For reference, Lucroy’s 39% line drives and 27% flyballs against four seam fastballs was comparable to Mike Trout’s 39% line drives and 29% flyballs in 2016. Regarding Lucroy’s improvement against cutters, sliders, and changeups, he hit those pitches for home runs 1.9%, 1.59%, and 2.04% percent of the time, respectively, in 2016, compared to 1.57%, 0.37%, and 0.67% percent of the time, respectively, from 2011 to 2015. And lastly, regarding two-strike counts, Lucroy seemingly traded strikeouts for power, hitting more pitches in the air and on a line (and over the fence) in 2016 than he did at any other point in his career; and, as mentioned, with higher whiff rates.
What all these numbers tell me is that Lucroy successfully changed his approach to try to drive the ball more, especially during two strike counts, which has resulted in more strikeouts and more extra base hits and RBI (which is all to say, as said before, a net gain for Lucroy and fantasy owners). But, back to the original question, what does this mean for 2017? I think, given the success Lucroy had, that he will stick with this approach. That said, I would imagine that pitchers might start to adjust their approach in 2017 by throwing him fewer strikes, especially in two strike counts, which I think will lead to more walks and more runs scored (and possibly steals) with some regression in home runs and RBI. Add in that Lucroy can play some first base and DH when not catching (and that depends on who Texas acquires to fill those spots), and that Posey is showing some signs of slowing down, and I think that Lucroy’s expected outcome for 2017 is probably the highest among catchers for this year.
The Great Beyond
Outside of pitchers, predicting the great beyond for catchers is more of a fool’s errand than it is for any other position. So what will the future hold for Lucroy, who is entering his age-31 season? I wish I could tell you, but given the improved change in approach at the plate in 2016, he has a chance to not regress as drastically—compared to his production as a younger person—than would other catchers compared to their future production compared to their younger production. It is generic advice, he will continue to slow down, but DHing some should help this year (plus his likely franchise tag following this season slightly increases chances of ending up in the NL thereafter). Given that, even if bombs in 2017, Lucroy likely has another three years being considered a top tier or next-to-top tier catcher. And after that, which would mean projecting catcher performance more than three years out, well, your guess is as good as mine.