Jonathan Lucroy’s framing decline is something that we’ve talked about a fair amount this season, and it has been written about by Ben Lindbergh earlier this year. For those who aren’t familiar, Lucroy was considered one of the best, if not the best, pitcher-framers in the game from 2011-14. He was middling the next two years, and this season, has been the worst pitch-framer in baseball, per BP.
Over at Fangraphs, Travis Sawchik expands on that, looking in more detail at the problem that has plagued Lucroy -- what Lindbergh identified as a failure to get calls on balls down in the zone. Sawchik drilled down in the data, and found that, for balls at the bottom of the zone:
In that region, the league has received 11,808 called strikes and 14,562 balls this season, a 44.8% called-strike rate. In that same area, Lucroy has received 213 strikes compared to 391 balls, good for only a 35.2% strike rate.
That’s a big deal. Its especially a big deal for ground ball pitchers, who are living at the bottom of the zone and need to get calls on the lower part of the strike zone.
Sawchik examines some video and shows that Lucroy is not setting up nearly as low as he was in his prime, with the result being that his glove has to move more in order to receive balls at the bottom of the zone. More glove movement is generally associated with fewer strike calls, since umps subconsciously assume that a pitch that isn’t where the glove is missed its target, and is more likely to be a ball.
Sawchik broaches the possibility of an injury, and it wouldn’t surprise me at all if Lucroy were dealing with a back issue that is limiting his ability to get low behind the plate. Alternatively, it could just be a matter of getting older and the body not holding up as well.
Lucroy has his own theory, however:
Lucroy presented a theory to explain his glove’s decline: variables beyond his control.
“When you look at the best framers in the game, look at the pitchers they have,” Lucroy said. “When you look at my best years look at who I had on the staff… Look at all that stuff… You’re only as good as the pitches. Being able to hold the baseball, to have strong hands, it is important. But if they [pitchers] don’t know where it’s going…”
To emphasize the point before his locker, Lucroy reached across his body to grasp an imaginary, off-target pitch,
“I will guaranteed you whoever catches Dallas Keuchel has the best framing numbers,” Lucroy said.
While I’ve wondered if pitchers who struggle with command are less likely to get close calls, its jarring to see Lucroy seem to essentially blame his pitching staff for his individual numbers being in so poor. This theory would hold more weight if Robinson Chirinos weren’t in the middle-of-the-pack among catchers in framing this year (#41 out of 82 among MLB catchers, compared to Lucroy’s #82 out of 82).
Lucroy is, of course, supposedly being shopped, and I would be surprised if he’s here after the trade deadline, at which point he’ll have a new start somewhere, and an opportunity to show whether he’s right, and this is a pitching staff issue, or if he’s simply not as good as he used to be.