Jonathon Lucroy: Texas’ New Pitch Framing Expert

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I’ve listened to a lot of sports talk radio while reading several articles and tweets since the Rangers picked up Jonathan Lucroy yesterday at the non-waiver trade deadline. The general consensus seems to be the same – Lucroy is “a great addition to the lineup, a great bat.”

Look, I don’t discount the contribution he will add to the lineup. To me, his biggest contribution is going to be behind the plate. Lucroy is a premier pitch framer and is in prime position to improve guys like Martin Perez and Lucas Harrell (however long he stays in the rotation).

Texas catchers this season haven’t been good in terms of framing metrics or throwing out runners. The biggest thing the Rangers backstops can improve on is pitch framing. In lieu of adding another pitcher, the ability for a backstop to frame pitches will effectively help the entire staff.

Jon Daniels was not going to overpay for a top of the line starting pitcher. Instead, he got a great deal with Lucroy. Lucroy’s defensive prowess behind the plate immediately upgrades the rotation. How will he do that?

Glad you asked.

Here is a video of Lucroy talking about how he frames pitches and the importance of footwork. I found this Diamond Demo to be very informative as to what kind of catcher Lucroy is when it comes to putting in the necessary work to be elite.

 

I’ll start by prefacing that pitch framing isn’t an exact science at this point, but it has progressed over the last couple of years and is a viable tool when evaluating a catcher’s defensive value. That being said, here are some numbers comparing the incumbent Rangers catchers and Lucroy to date.

 Sample Size (# of pitches)zBALL% (pitches caught in zone called ball)oSTR% (pitches outside zone called strike)+Calls (# of pitches outside zone called strikes)Per Game (+calls per game)RAA (runs above average)
Jonathon Lucroy626514.28.642.525.5
Robinson Chirinos260616.06.0-47-1.39-6.2
Bobby Wilson288112.07.310.271.3
Bryan Holaday205616.35.3-44-1.68-5.9

This is a lot of information to take in, so take a deep breath and lets start from the top. I will try and make this as simple as possible. We’ll start with some definitions of the terms above:

zBall% – The percentage of pitches, caught within the strike zone, called a ball
oSTR% – The percentage of pitches, caught outside the strike zone, called a strike
+Call – how many strikes the catcher has stolen from the hitter on pitches that were outside the zone.
PerGame – number of +Calls received per game on average
RAA = Runs above average

So as you can see, Jonathan Lucroy is a giant upgrade over the other catchers the Rangers have used this season. He also has more than double the sample size as the other guys.

Looking at zBall% we can see what appears to be not a significant difference between Lucroy and Chirinos, less than 2%. However, a closer look would reveal that Robinson Chirinos is 9th worst in all of MLB with at least 2000 pitches caught. Lucroy is about average on this some 18 spots ahead of Chirinos. Even at 1.8% difference, we can all agree that fewer pitches in the zone called a ball can do nothing but help the rotation.

The biggest stat to me where Lucroy rises above the rest is the oSTR%. This stat coincides with +Call and the Per Game column, as those are simply oSTR% broken down.

Lucroy at 8.6 oSTR% has caught 42 pitches outside the zone that he was able to frame as a strike. Compare that to Chirinos, who has a -47, and you have a massive upgrade. That is an 89 pitch difference between the two. I can’t stress enough how big that is. Lucroy is 8th in MLB in this category (again with 2000 pitch min sample size) while the leader, Buster Posey is a runaway with 143.

Not everyone can be a God like Posey, though.

Wait… Chirinos has a NEGATIVE +Call? Basically, when you have more pitches called balls in the strike zone than you have pitches outside the zone called strikes, you’re going to have a negative +Call. In other words, Chirinos is a terrible pitch framer. (Side note: thanks to Dustin Dietz for help on some of these definitions.)

When you have pitchers in your rotation who love to nibble around the plate, having a good pitch framer is key. No matter how you slice it, Jonathan Lucroy is a massive upgrade over anything Texas was throwing out there.

You know who could benefit from such an upgrade like this? The entire rotation really, but more specifically Martin Perez. Perez likes to nibble, and his catchers haven’t done him any favors with the poor framing.

What can Lucroy do for a guy like Perez? Let’s examine Perez’s zone profile:

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It’s pretty clear here that Perez loves to live at the bottom of the zone. If you watched the video above, Lucroy stated that he loves giving a low target to be able to bring the ball up. That’s opposed to giving a higher target, going down to get the ball, and then bringing it back up. Start low, come up.

Let’s see how Lucroy can improve Perez. Here is Perez’ heat map of called strikes this season:

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Notice that the red hot zones in the first chart, the zones in the bottom of the strike zone and low and in to LHB, are not correlating with the heat map. This can be contributed to poor framing. There are a number of other factors that can contribute to this. I will be interested in Perez’ next start to see how many pitches low in the zone Lucroy can frame for strikes.

This alone is something that could really work wonders with Perez. The more strike calls that Perez can get, the less likely he is to have a mental meltdown on the mound as he has been known to do this year.

Want more defensive numbers? Lucroy has thrown out 40% of would-be base stealers, 32 of 80. Chirinos, Bobby Wilson, and Bryan Holaday combined have only thrown out 16.

Combined. Three catchers, 16 runners.

You can see how Jonathan Lucroy is an upgrade not only offensively, but also defensively. He’s more than capable of making the pitching staff better with his well above average pitch framing ability.  In a market where one elite pitcher cost a fortune, JD and company took a different route. They spent a good chunk to make every pitcher better.

Time will tell if it pays off, but you can’t blame them for giving it a shot.

If you want more information on pitch framing, Baseball Prospectus has a great (long) article here, and Stat Corner has another well-written explanation here.

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Billy Casey
Billy is a baseball fanatic and has been around the game since he was four years old. The first ever game he attended was in September of '89 and Pete Incaviglia denied him an autograph after he had a bad batting practice session. Billy has held a grudge since. Billy is also a baseball coach who is known to dance around the dugout like Ron Washington during big plays in the game.

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