MVBrewers is a player-by-player look at the most valuable members of the 2012 Brewers, as voted on by you. Here's where we stand so far:
1. Ryan Braun
2. Aramis Ramirez
3. Yovani Gallardo
4. Corey Hart
5. Norichika Aoki
The voting for the #7 spot will open at 3 pm today.
I'm having trouble putting Jonathan Lucroy's 2012 season in the proper context. When Kyle asked for volunteers to write profiles in the MVBrewers series, I immediately asked for Lucroy because his season was right there in the unclear boundary between "awesome freaking year" and the dreaded "what might have been year". At the same time, while his minor league track record indicated he had a good chance of being an above-average major league hitter overall (which is to say, a great-hitting major league catcher), there was not much to say that he was capable of putting up the monster hitting numbers he did this year. At no level at which he recieved significant playing time above Low-A did Lucroy bat above .292 or slug above .479, but in his age-26 big league season he hit .320/.368/.513 over 346 plate appearances. So here I'd like to look at a few questions. I'll consider three.
1) Was this sort of performance a fluke/what can we expect going forward?
Lucroy's profile coming out of the minors was that he was a patient hitter with some power potential who wasn't going to hit for a big average but was going to get on base enough to develop into an above-average major league hitter. In 2009 he recieved 506 plate appearances at AA at age 23 and hit .267/.380/.418. That +.100 point split between his average and OBP was encouraging to a lot of people and he moved way up the prospect charts past Angel Salome, who had been blocking him at the AAA level. In 2010 he got a quick bump to AAA after demolishing AA pitching, but did not perform exceptionally well in 83 AAA plate appearances. Then he moved permanently to the majors to get time after the Brewers fell out of contention (and the whole GREGG ZAUN injury). So that sets us up for a nice little three season progression in a few different stats, with the format: Stat: age 24 season, age 25 season, age 26 season (at the MLB level).
Plate appearances: 297, 468, 346
Walk percentage: 6.1%, 6.2%, 6.4%
Strikeout percentage: 14.8%, 21.2%, 12.7%
Average on balls in play: .287, .317, .338
wOBA*(see bottom): .282, .311, .378
I've omitted here some more technical peripheral stats that show less interesting trendlines but tell us about what a hitter is really doing, because they've stayed more or less consistent (or within reasonable amounts of variation) all three years. These include batted ball types broken down into line drives and fly balls, and the rate of fly balls that turn into home runs. What's more is that his technical plate discipline skills have not really changed all too much, the only really notable trend there is that his percentage of swinging strikes fell from about 7% to about 5.6%.
What does this all tell us? Lucroy's a really good hitter. He's gotten better each year and though he has not drastically changed any aspect of his game, now that he's in his prime he is hitting the ball harder and farther. That's not to say that we should expect him to hit .320/.368/.513 every year. But if there's any takeaway point it is that 2012 was not a fluke. He's this good, and though we should not expect this performance again, don't overcorrect and expect reversion to 2010-2011 form.
2) Where does this level of performance place him among other MLB catchers?
As a hitter, the short answer is: 3rd in MLB. By wOBA*, a rate stat, only Buster Posey and Carlos Ruiz were better overall hitters than Lucroy this year. Catchers as a group, despite a pretty good year this season, are really bad hitters. An average defending catcher with an MLB average line-- think .250/.320/.400-- is worth a lot of money because an average-hitting catcher hits much worse than that. Despite only amassing 346 plate appearances, Lucroy almost undoubtedly provided the third most cumulative value to the Brewers this year even if you assume average defense behind the plate because he was just so incredibly good. (Aside-- I've avoided too much discussion of his defense here because I think it's extremely hard to measure, but Fangraphs does think he's above average in that department as well). Going forward it has to be assumed that Lucroy is in the top tier of catchers, which I would probably define as the top 10 in MLB.
3) What if that stupid suitcase had not fallen on his hand?
This is the fun question. I think the answer is that we would be having a much different conversation following the season. Though he has been given plenty of credit I sometimes think he's been downplayed a bit, probably because Martin Maldonado proved to be a competent replacement and the Brewers started a run in his absence. But let's say, for fun, that Lucroy got 550 plate appearances and that, for the sake of staying on the conservative side, he hit .285/.340/.440 in the extra 194 PAs.
AVG: .307, OBP: .352, 18 homers, 33 other extra-base hits, and roughly 85 RBI. That all adds up to a WAR of something close to 5.5. That's all-star level and we're talking about basically a pre-arbitration catcher who is just hitting his prime. and that's on the pessimistic side for those extra 194 PAs. Good thing we get to watch him play through 2017.
*wOBA is a rate stat invented by Tom Tango and provided on Fangraphs that provides a full measure of a player's batting (and stolen bases). It essentially rewards a hitter proportionally for the average amount of runs scored by a single, double, triple, home run, walk, or for an out, stolen base, or caught stealing, regardless of if the event happened in a blowout or close game. Then it is reset on a scale equal to OBP, so the MLB average OBP in a given year is also the MLB average wOBA.