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The Jonathan Lucroy acquisition by the numbers

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The Cubs added some veteran catching depth

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Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

The 2019 Cubs game of musical chairs that is the backup catcher position gained another player yesterday in veteran backstop and former All Star Jonathan Lucroy. The move was necessary after the Cubs dealt recent acquisition Martín Maldonado to the Astros for Tony Kemp and Willson Contreras landed on the injured list.

Whether you like Maldonado as the Cubs backup over Lucroy is sort of a moot point. He’s been turned into Tony Kemp and there’s little anyone can do about that. Jed Hoyer indicated that the move had a lot to do with “player happiness,” and explained more about what that meant in The Athletic:

The Cubs accommodated three catchers in past seasons, under different circumstances. The 2016 team was on a mission to make history, Contreras was only a rookie, David Ross knew he would be catching Jon Lester and Miguel Montero could barely contain his frustrations.

The Cubs viewed this as an untenable situation. Maldonado’s free-agent wait lasted until the middle of March and saw him change representation from Scott Boras to Dan Lozano. Maldonado chose the Kansas City Royals because he knew Salvador Perez would be recovering from Tommy John surgery, giving him a good platform to rebuild his value and get traded to a contender midseason. Maldonado — a Gold Glove defender who helped guide four Houston pitchers through a no-hitter on Saturday — didn’t want to be a third-string catcher.

“It’s hard to keep three guys happy,” Hoyer said. “In theory, it works. But in practice — when all three guys are playing less than they want and all three guys are good major-league players that deserve to play — that was a big part of it: We weren’t entirely confident that it wouldn’t impact all three guys in a negative way. Three out of 25 is a big number when you think about your overall clubhouse dynamic.”

The Cubs are going to have to work through that three-way split for playing time again in September but I think they’ll cross that bridge when they come to it. Contreras went down with a hamstring injury that looks like it will sideline the Cubs’ All-Star catcher for at least three weeks. As many suspected, they reached a deal with Lucroy as expeditiously as possible. So I took a few minutes to look at the numbers behind the Cubs catching options and Lucroy’s recent history in particular. Lucroy will be in the starting lineup tonight in Cincinnati.

Who is Jonathan Lucroy?

Cubs fans may feel like they are familiar with Lucroy from his time with the Brewers, however, it’s been about three years since he’s been in the N.L. Central and he’s a somewhat different player in 2019. When Lucroy was with the Brewers he was one of the premier catching options in the league. Since then he’s bounced around and his numbers have sort of fallen off a cliff. You can see select stats from Lucroy’s past five seasons below:

Jonathan Lucroy 2015-2019

Player Team PA HR BB% K% BABIP AVG OBP SLG wRC+ WAR
Player Team PA HR BB% K% BABIP AVG OBP SLG wRC+ WAR
2015 Brewers 415 7 8.7% 15.4% .297 .264 .326 .391 95 1.6
2016 Brewers/Rangers 544 24 8.6% 18.4% .322 .292 .355 .500 123 4.5
2017 Rangers/Rockies 481 6 9.6% 10.6% .286 .265 .345 .371 81 -1.1
2018 Athletics 454 4 6.4% 14.3% .273 .241 .291 .325 70 0.2
2019 Angels 268 7 7.8% 14.6% .259 .242 .310 .371 84 -0.3
Select offensive stats Fangraphs

Lucroy’s BABIP in 2019 indicates he might be getting a little unlucky. For his career he has a BABIP of .301, so it’s possible he has a bit of positive regression in his future. Additionally, his BB/K numbers are still pretty good. I’m not trying to sugar coat things here, a wRC+ of 84 and an fWAR of -0.3 are not great, but the Cubs don’t need him to return to his 2015 self to be helpful down the stretch. They need him to be a stronger option than Taylor Davis.

Where does Lucroy fit?

To figure out if Lucroy is, in fact, a better option than Davis I looked at all of the same offensive stats above in 2019 and compared all of the Cubs catching options. I included Contreras in this chart mainly for comparison purposes:

Cubs catching options 2019

Player PA HR BB% K% BABIP AVG OBP SLG wRC+ WAR
Player PA HR BB% K% BABIP AVG OBP SLG wRC+ WAR
Willson Contreras 340 19 10.0% 25.0% .321 .275 .365 .525 129 2.2
Victor Caratini 152 6 11.8% 21.1% .305 .265 .355 .462 114 1.0
Taylor Davis 20 1 10.0% 20.0% .154 .167 .250 .333 52 -0.1
Jonathan Lucroy 268 7 7.8% 14.6% .259 .242 .310 .371 84 -0.3
Select offensive stats Fangraphs

While Lucroy’s numbers are not stellar, they almost certainly provide an upgrade over Davis, who has struggled in a limited number of major-league at bats. One note here, I talk about BABIP as a proxy for luck a lot, but in Davis’ case there isn’t enough data to know if he’s unlucky or not. He doesn’t have enough big-league at bats to give us a predictive batted ball profile, which requires about 300 at-bats to stabilize. It seems likely that .154 would indicate a lot of luck but at 29, with only 39 plate appearances, it is also possible he’s just not a major-league hitter.

As far as framing goes, Lucroy has not been better at framing in 2019 than Maldonado or any other member of the Cubs staff as you can see from this graphic Scott Lindholm tweeted a few weeks ago:

You can see that Lucroy is in the bottom left quadrant here, which is not exactly great for that graph.

Takeaways

Lucroy is not better than Maldonado, but that ship has more than sailed. He is, however, an upgrade over current backup catcher Taylor Davis and he provides the Cubs some much needed depth if (God forbid) anything were to happen to Victor Caratini while Willson is on the injured list. In terms of X-factors, Lucroy has experience working with Cole Hamels and Yu Darvish from his days with the Rangers and he wouldn’t be the first formerly great player to have a few bad seasons and then catch lightning in a bottle with a change of scenery.