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Trading Jonathan Lucroy Won't Hurt the Brewers Pitching Staff

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Jonathan Lucroy is considered one of the best defensive catchers in the game. But is his backup even better?

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One of the most divisive issues among Brewers' fans is whether or not the club should trade Jonathan Lucroy. The catcher is considered by many to be the "face of the franchise" and despite a below average performance last season (by his standards), it's hard to argue that Lucroy is not among the top catchers in the game. That skill, however, combined with his incredibly club-friendly contract is what makes him one of the top players available on the trade market this winter. The Brewers are said to be listening to offers for him.

An oft-cited argument for keeping Lucroy is his defensive skills and work with the pitching staff. Since wins and losses don't figure to matter much during the remaining life of Lucroy's contract, the importance of the offensive value he can provide is mitigated. The Brewers do have a capable backup in Martin Maldonado and though his offensive capabilities are nowhere near that of Lucroy's. He is also lauded for his defense. So if the Brewers really did trade Lucroy, would the defense and pitching staff really suffer?

Controlling the Run Game

If there is one real knock on Lucroy's game behind the plate, it's that he's below average at throwing out attempted base stealers. Since coming into the league in 2010, Luc has thrown out only 26% of the 561 runners who have taken off to steal against him. The league average mark during that time is 28%, according to Baseball Reference. He's also picked off five base runners. According to Baseball Prospectus' "Throwing Runs" statistic, Lucroy has cost the Brewers -3.0 runs with his poor throwing since 2012.

Maldy, on the other hand, is known for his cannon behind the plate. He's thrown out 34% of potential base runners during his five year career, bettering the league average by some six percent. He's also picked off nine base runners, including at least two in every full season he's played in the big leagues. Throwing Runs grades Maldonado's arm at +1.5 runs throughout his career. Here he is throwing out the fastest man in baseball on a pitch in the dirt:

Advantage: Maldonado

Pitch Framing

Since the advent of pitch framing as a statistic, Jonathan Lucroy has deservedly been receiving recognition for his outstanding work in that department. Lucroy's framing was downright elite early in his career, with Baseball Prospectus crediting him with 144.3 framing runs from 2010-2013. Those numbers have fallen in the last two seasons, however. Luc was credited with 17.1 framing runs in 2014 and just 1.2 last season. On a per pitch basis, Lucroy's "Called Strikes Above Average" or CSAA has been .027, .014, and .002 in the last three seasons.

While he doesn't get the same attention being a backup, Martin's been quite a productive pitch framer in his own right. He's tallied 30.8 framing runs in part-time duty throughout his career, but on a per-pitch basis, his production closes matches that of Lucroy. His CSAA in 2013 was .025, just a tick below Luc's total from that year, but he's bested his counterpart in each of the last two seasons with marks of .026 and .009.

This one is pretty close, but given that his numbers have been better over each of the last two seasons, I'll say:

Advantage: Maldonado

Blocking Pitches

The Brewers' young pitching staff can get pretty wild. Last season the club had the fifth-highest total of wild pitches in the big leagues, 71 in all. Keeping the ball in front of you is one of the basic goals as a catcher, and Jonathan Lucroy has established himself as one of the best in that category. By the statistic "blocking runs," Lucroy has graded positively in five of his six career seasons, including +4.6 runs over the last four seasons.

While Maldonado certainly has not had as many opportunities as Lucroy has while serving as backup, he also hasn't established himself as an above-average pitch blocker in those chances either. He's never been graded negatively but has accrued only +0.9 blocking runs during his four year career.

Advantage: Lucroy

Game Calling

Earlier this year, Harry Pavlidis wrote a piece for ESPN.com talking about a new statistic called "Game-Calling Runs Above Average," or GCAA. Within the article he talks a lot A.J. Ellis and Alex Avila, who grade out as two of the top game callers in baseball. However he also mentions are own Jonathan Lucroy, saying the he has costed the Brewers an average of -9.0 runs per season in 2012 by virtue of his perceived poor game calling.

I couldn't find a comprehensive leader board for GCAA, so I figured that catcher's ERA (cERA) would be an good enough substitute. The Brewers haven't always had great pitching staffs and we know of course that ERA isn't a perfect statistic, but when it comes down to the nitty gritty it can at least tell you how many earned runs the opposing team scores on average while a specific catcher is behind the plate. Below is a chart comparing the Brewers' two catchers by cERA (according to ESPN) since Maldonado came into the big leagues in 2012:

Season Maldonado Lucroy
2012 3.90 4.27
2013 3.19 4.08
2014 3.81 3.64
2015 4.05 4.18

As you can see, Maldonado has bested Lucroy in cERA in all but one of his four major league seasons. Given those totals it's fair to hypothesize that Maldonado does better work with the pitching staff, especially when one considers Pavlidis' assertion about Lucroy's game-calling skills.

Advantage: Maldonado

Total Defensive Runs Saved

Fangraphs' borrows the defensive statistic "Defensive Runs Saved" from the Fielding Bible and publishes it on each of their player pages. DRS is an all-encompassing fielding statistic that attempts to explain overall how much better than average a player is defensively. While these statistics are still far from perfect, DRS is generally considered to be a good measuring tool when looking at a player's defensive contributions.

By DRS, Jonathan Lucroy has been somewhat inconsistent behind the plate throughout his career. He's posted three seasons with positive ratings in 2010, 2012, and 2014 while alternating with three seasons of negative ratings in 2011, 2013, and 2015. Overall he's been valued at +11 DRS saved, mostly on the strength of his outstanding 2014 season when he was a finalist for the Gold Glove Award.

Maldonado, on the other hand, has never posted a negative DRS in his four year career. Across 1784.0 innings behind the plate in his career, Martin has been valued at +19 DRS. That total ranks fifth among catchers (min 1500 innings) since Maldy's debut season in 2012, and the four catchers ahead of him have all caught at least 3000 innings during that period.

Advantage: Maldonado

Conclusion

By almost any measure, Martin Maldonado is a superior defensive catcher to Jonathan Lucroy. That's not to say Lucroy is bad, it simply means that while Luc has been good behind the plate, his counterpart in Maldy has been outstanding. It's therefore safe to conclude the argument that the Brewers pitching staff needs the work of Jonathan Lucroy behind the plate is an invalid one. In fact the staff as a whole could arguably benefit from inserting Maldonado as the everyday catcher.

There's no reason that the Brewers or their fans should be opposed to trading Luc for defensive reasons. Now if Maldonado could just get that wRC+ closer to the 85-90 range that he's shown he is capable of with some consistency, he'd be my perfect starting backstop.