By Nathan Petrashek
Jonathan Lucroy came into spring training last year with a giant question mark attached. After tearing up the minor leagues offensively to the tune of .298/.379/.459, Lucroy was called up in May 2010 for an injured Gregg Zaun and slashed only .253/.300/.329. Lucroy, as a prospect touted for his incredible plate discipline and patience, seemingly failed to transition those skills to the majors, striking out more than twice as often as he walked. It was a somewhat disappointing season offensively, but allowed Lucroy to work on his defense and familiarize himself with the Brewers’ pitching staff.
Lucroy, as always, came into spring training last year ready to make improvements to all aspects of his game. The Brewers hedged their bets, though, bringing five other catchers into camp, only two of whom would survive to 2012 (George Kottaras and Martin Maldanado). The Brewers’ move proved fortuitous; Lucroy broke a finger early in spring training, but returned to the Brewers in mid-April and went on one of the hottest streaks I’ve ever seen from a Brewers catcher (though such offensive juggernauts as Johnny Estrada, Damian Miller, and Chad Moeller aren’t exactly stiff competition).
Through May 31, Lucroy was hitting .310 with a .353 OBP. His plate patience hadn’t necessarily improved (he walked only 7 times versus 30 strikeouts), but showed pop that had been somewhat of a surprise after hitting only 4 HRs in 2010. After he managed 6 HRs through may en route to a .496 slugging percentage, though, Lucroy’s power, along with his average, plummeted. He was a .250 hitter in June, and though his average recovered slightly in July, he had only 1 HR in the two months, contributing to a rather pedestrian .329 slugging. Lucroy’s power returned slightly in August and September (5 HR, .363 SLG), but his average and plate discipline suffered. Lucroy would finish the year a .265 hitter with a disappointing .313 OBP and a nearly 3:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio. However, defensively he would throw out a respectable 30% of would-be base-stealers, though at times Lucroy appeared to have problems blocking pitches.
Remember, Lucroy’s 2011 decline – which mirrors that of 2010 – probably isn’t a result of overwork. Lucroy received every fifth day off because Randy Wolf refused to let Lucroy catch. I suspect that the two could not get on the same page because Wolf and Lucroy are both very protective of their ability to call the game, and the pitcher (who has the ability to control what he throws) will usually win that battle.
There has been no indication that the situation between Wolf and Lucroy will change in 2012. I expect George Kottaras to again be Wolf’s personal catcher, meaning Lucroy should accumulate about 500 plate attempts. This split doesn’t do the Brewers any kind of service; Lucroy performed very well against left-handed pitching last year, whereas George Kottaras hit only .174. Lucroy should always be in the lineup when facing southpaws, regardless of whether Randy Wolf is going for the Crew.
However, I expect Lucroy he will make further adjustments to major league pitching and improve his bottom-line performance. Between 2010 and 2011, Lucroy significantly cut down on his swings at pitches outside of the zone, and his aggressiveness at the plate in general, though the percentage of times he swung on the first pitch was essentially unchanged. If Lucroy can further refine this aspect of his approach, we could see Lucroy on base more frequently, though sitting back and waiting for his pitch could cause his power numbers to dip a bit.
2012 Projection: 133 G, 522 PA, 131 H, 52 R, 16 2B, 10 HR, 63 RBI, 42 BB, 85 K, 2 SB, .274/.328/.382