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Figuring out where Lucroy might land

After uneven 2017, former All-Star offers intriguing free agent profile
MLB.com

It was just two summers ago that Jonathan Lucroy was all over the headlines. The backstop earned his second All-Star Game selection with an excellent first half, then dominated the rumor mill before the Brewers traded him to the Rangers.

Lucroy helped Texas capture the 2016 American League West crown, but he has been noticeably quiet since. The '17 season was arguably Lucroy's worst as a Major Leaguer, as he slashed .265/.345/.371 with just six home runs in 423 at-bats -- all before his first foray into free agency. Lucroy remains on the market as clubs begin their second week of Spring Training games, one of many Major Leaguers feeling the pinch of this historically slow Hot Stove season.

It was just two summers ago that Jonathan Lucroy was all over the headlines. The backstop earned his second All-Star Game selection with an excellent first half, then dominated the rumor mill before the Brewers traded him to the Rangers.

Lucroy helped Texas capture the 2016 American League West crown, but he has been noticeably quiet since. The '17 season was arguably Lucroy's worst as a Major Leaguer, as he slashed .265/.345/.371 with just six home runs in 423 at-bats -- all before his first foray into free agency. Lucroy remains on the market as clubs begin their second week of Spring Training games, one of many Major Leaguers feeling the pinch of this historically slow Hot Stove season.

Lucroy was worth 6.2 wins above replacement in 2014 and 4.6 WAR in '16, per FanGraphs' version of the metric. That's the value of an All-Star caliber catcher. So, as general managers look over their rosters and evaluate Lucroy, are they seeing someone who very recently ranked among the game's best backstops, or a player in decline?

Video: NL WC: Lucroy belts an RBI double to right in the 4th

With an assist from Statcast™, we can see that Lucroy remained elite last year in making contact. In fact, he was MLB's best full-time hitter in terms of contact-per-swing rate, either fouling off or putting a ball in play an impressive 89.3 percent of the time he took the bat off his shoulder. Lucroy also tied for second in contact rate with two strikes, and his 10.6 percent strikeout rate ranked fifth best among MLB hitters with at least 450 plate appearances. Lucroy knows the strike zone inside and out, and pitchers routinely cite him as one of the most disciplined hitters they'll face.

While Lucroy's bat-to-ball skills didn't falter, his power dropped off to a shocking degree. Statcast™ metrics show Lucroy's slugging concerns stretch beyond the six home runs that were his lowest in any full season. His overall hard-hit rate (or balls hit with at least 95 mph exit velocity) dropped from 35.3 percent in 2016 to 23.7 percent in '17, the 15th-lowest mark of any hitter who put at least 300 balls in play. Even more concerning was where Lucroy was placing his contact; his average launch angle dropped from 14.7 degrees two seasons ago (akin to a line drive) to 7.7 degrees (a ground ball) last summer. Lucroy knocked only nine barrels, or balls hit with the most optimal combination of exit velocity and launch angle, last year, and his rate of hard-hit line drives and fly balls fell from 22.1 percent in '16 (on par with Buster Posey and Jose Altuve) to just 9.6 percent in '17 (seventh lowest among full-time hitters).

The most glaring regression for Lucroy has been his growing platoon disadvantage against left-handed pitchers. Lucroy, a righty, slashed a healthy .316/.364/.523 against lefties over his first five big league seasons, but just .243/.310/.388 over the last three. That includes Lucroy's .327 slugging percentage last season, eighth worst among 112 righties who logged at least 100 at-bats against southpaw pitchers. Lucroy's zone profiles, courtesy of Statcast™, show lefties are finding success against him on the outer half of the plate.

Lucroy's struggles may have extended to at least one area of his defense, too. Once a go-to name among baseball's best pitch-framing catchers, Lucroy actually brought up the rear in Baseball Prospectus' framing runs metric last year. Framing remains a noisy statistic, and there's a chance umpires are calling Lucroy differently given his one-time status as the game's best strike-stealer. But Statcast™'s own catching metrics, viewed through the prism of its detailed strike zone, support the theory that Lucroy has regressed as a receiver.

Lucroy's called strike percentage on pitches taken on borderline of strike zone, 2015-17
Rankings among MLB catchers who received at least 1,500 pitches taken on borderline

2015: 48.8 percent (14th of 36 qualified catchers)
2016: 44.4 percent (27th of 34)
2017: 40.8 percent (39th of 39)

Lucroy's 2017 season unearthed several red flags, but there could be a silver lining for him in the market. The 2018 ZiPS projections reveal a number of fringe contenders who could upgrade at the catcher position. Several teams who figure to battle for the Wild Card, including the Angels, D-backs and Mets, all currently project to get bottom-15 WAR value from their backstops. The Rockies enjoyed having Lucroy on their roster down the stretch, and they currently rank third-worst in catcher projections. Lucroy's other former clubs, the Brewers and Rangers, are also missing established names at the position.

We've already seen free-agent hitters like Todd Frazier and Logan Morrison sign for less money than was anticipated, while others like Mike Moustakas remain unsigned. All of those players performed better than Lucroy in 2017, meaning the backstop figures to almost certainly come at a reduced rate this late in the offseason. Whether Lucroy's next club gets the two-time All-Star or the player we saw last year remains to be seen, but he could be a cost-effective chance worth taking.

Matt Kelly is a reporter for MLB.com based in New York. Follow him on Twitter at @mattkellyMLB.