4.9 fWAR. If you consider that over the course of one season, that’s a pretty good total. That’s a potential All-Star right there. It’s a player you would want on your team.
However, that number isn’t the total for just one season. That’s the total for a position over 14 seasons. That’s right. That’s the combined total Brewers catchers recorded between 1996 (the season after the last great catcher, B.J. Surhoff, left the Brewers) and 2009 (the season before Jonathan Lucroy made his debut). It averages out to 0.35 fWAR per season. It’s barely above replacement level, and for the longest time, you could use those words to describe the Brewers catcher.
There were some good years in there. Jason Kendall recorded a 3.2 fWAR over two seasons, including a 2.4 fWAR in the Brewers 2008 playoff year. Hometown favorite Damien Miller recorded a 2.7 fWAR over three seasons (2005-2007). Henry Blanco had a combined 2.3 fWAR in 2000 and 2001. It wasn’t all bad, but those were the exceptions to the rule.
There were also some years where it might have been better to not use a catcher. Mike Matheny was the primary catcher behind the plate between 1996 and 1998, and while he did have a decent year in 1997 (0.7 fWAR), his grand total in those three seasons was -0.6 fWAR. Brian Banks was around between 1996 and 1999, and in his most active season, he recorded a -0.9 fWAR. Then, there was Chad Moeller. In just three seasons between 2004 and 2006, he recorded a -2.1 fWAR. He was sucking value from the team.
In total, 24 catchers played for the Brewers between 1996 and 2009. Of those 24, only 9 recorded a positive WAR, and only 4 were above 1.0. No catcher was around for more than a few years. Three catchers recorded over 1000 PA (Kendall, Miller, Matheny), while at the other end, there’s catchers like Carlos Corporan, who only got 1 plate appearance and caught a grand total of two innings for the Brewers (not surprisingly, his fWAR is neutral at 0.0).
So, why did I start an article about Jonathan Lucroy with stats like that? It’s simple. I wanted to show exactly how bad the catcher position was for the Brewers before his arrival in 2010.
To start off the year in 2010, Lucroy was just beginning to show up on people’s radars. Angel Salome was seen as the next catcher in the system, and the Brewers had brought in Gregg Zaun and George Kottaras to handle the catcher position for now. However, in one of the stranger developments for a Brewers prospect, Salome left the Brewers minor-league affiliate in 2010 due to mental health reasons and never returned. Lucroy went to Triple-A Nashville to be their new catcher, and was there when Gregg Zaun was lost for the season to a torn labrum. With Lucroy the top option at catcher in the system, he got the promotion to Milwaukee despite just 21 games at Triple-A.
Lucroy and Kottaras split time at catcher to start, but Lucroy slowly took over the role as the season went on. His first season wasn’t very impressive (.253/.300/.329 with a 70 wRC+ and 0.7 fWAR in 96 games), but it was better than many of us had seen at catcher in a while. In 2011, he missed the start of the season due to injury, but when he returned, he became the full-time catcher. The stats saw a modest increase (.265/.313/.391 with 92 wRC+ and 1.5 fWAR in 136 games). However, he brought a stability to the catcher position that hadn’t been seen in years, and it helped the Brewers win the division for the first time since 1982.
The Brewers took a gamble on Lucroy after that, signing him to a 5-year, $11 million contract that bought out his years of team control plus his first year of free agency as an option. That is when Lucroy really started to break out. His offensive stats jumped (.320/.368/.513, 135 wRC+, 3.5 fWAR) and people were also taking notes on his ability behind the plate, specifically his pitch framing. It could have been a massive year for him, but a freak injury to his hand cost him two months of the season and limited him to just 96 games.
2013 was a small step back for Lucroy, though he still provided plenty of value to the team and kept the catcher position in control. Then, 2014 came and Lucroy fully broke out onto the scene. He posted a career high OBP of .373, set the team record for doubles in a season with 53, and recorded a fWAR of 6.1. It was enough to finally get him his first All-Star appearance, as well as votes in the end of season MVP vote, where he finished fourth.
It wasn’t long after this that the talk began on trading Lucroy. With the disaster start to 2015, the rebuilding process truly began as the Brewers began moving what pieces they had to improve their minor league system. Though Lucroy was talked about often, the right deal didn’t come last season, and it would have been selling low on him. With his stats taking a dive (.264/.326/.391, 93 wRC+, 1.1 fWAR), as well as a toe injury and a concussion limiting his playing time, the Brewers kept him through 2015.
The hope entering the 2016 season was that Lucroy would rebound and build his value enough to be traded at the deadline. Back to full health, his stats did improve. His bat got back to his career averages (.299/.359/.482, 119 wRC+, 2.8 fWAR), and he was dominant behind the plate again. With his value rebuilt, the Brewers shopped him on the market leading up to the deadline. Most of us know what happened from there. After a failed attempt to trade him to the Indians, the Brewers worked out a deal just before the deadline to send him with Jeremy Jeffress to the Rangers.
Jonathan Lucroy was the catcher that the Brewers needed to rebuild this team and make it competitive again. After so many years of fill-in catchers, replacement-level catchers, and even catchers that sucked value from the rest of the team, having a solid player at the catcher position was a welcome relief for the team. Despite never really appearing on anyone’s radar, he worked his way from being a third round draft pick onto the Brewers roster. He proved many people wrong by not only making the roster, but excelling on it. He was exactly what the Brewers needed.
It wasn’t just Lucroy’s on-the-field performance that attracted people either. It was his down to earth attitude that also drew people in. He was a hard worker, always doing what it took to get both himself and the pitchers he worked with better. He was active in the community, working with many charities, and focusing a lot on causes involving veterans. He won the Heart and Hustle award for the Brewers in the last three years and the Brewers Good Guy Award for the last three years. No one really had a reason to hate Jonathan Lucroy. He was a guy that everyone wanted to be around. He was the perfect player to like for the hard-working people of Wisconsin.
Even though it was likely that the Brewers would not be able to hold onto Lucroy as he got closer to free agency, I always had this hope that something could be worked out to keep him a Brewer for life. Unfortunately, the team decided that his best final value to the organization was as a trade chip rather than a lifetime player. Maybe the new players that the Brewers acquired for him will end up being big pieces on the Brewers next contending team. We won’t know for several years, though.
From a logical standpoint, I know that trading Lucroy was the best option for the Brewers to rebuild themselves and eventually compete in the future. However, it’s still too hard to say goodbye to him. Lucroy was the one player that I always looked forward to watching whenever I went to Brewers games. He was the one player I never had a reason to root against. He did the hard work behind the plate that few others can do, and he did it well. Without him, the Brewers just don’t feel like the Brewers right now. I feel less motivated to watch games, to listen to the radio broadcasts, or to even go to the games. I wouldn’t be surprised if I don’t even make it out to another game this year. (To be fair on this point, there’s other factors in my life beyond the loss of Lucroy contributing here.)
Maybe Andrew Susac can step in soon and at least keep some stability at the catcher position. Maybe Jacob Nottingham will be able to provide a portion of what Lucroy provided. I’ve found myself rooting for catchers more in recent years because of Lucroy, and I hope that something can eventually fill the void that was left with Lucroy’s departure.
Farewell Jonathan Lucroy. I’ll still be rooting for you wherever you go. (Just please don’t go to the Cubs or Cardinals.)
Statistics courtesy of FanGraphs