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August 18, 2014

The Buyer's Guide

Jonathan Lucroy

by J.P. Breen

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Approach at the plate has been on my mind in recent weeks. I’ve been specifically ruminating on the learned aspect of plate discipline; for example, how gifted 20-something hitters who have otherworldly hand-eye coordination can learn to eschew a simple bat-to-ball approach and focus on quality pitches to hit. That is to say, how can hitters develop the inner filter to discern between pitches they can hit and pitches they should hit, or which pitches they can merely hit and which pitches they can drive.

Obviously, such a development would be desirable for any player, and it can happen for many different reasons. Maybe it’s a maturation process. Maybe it’s a new pitching coach who presents the information in a different way. Maybe it’s trial and error. Maybe it’s studying the numbers. But I’ve been more convinced that most big-league hitters are only able to carve out sustained success over multiple seasons if they can adjust and refine their approach at the plate, at least to some degree.

Bringing this back around to fantasy baseball, I wanted to focus on fastball percentage when it comes to hitters. For one main reason: major-league hitters tend to perform better, on the whole, against fastballs than any other pitch. Now, I’m not advocating something as oversimplified as targeting any player who sees a lot of fastballs at the plate. After all, Ben Revere leads the league in fastball percentage (67.7%), but that’s more because he poses no power threat at the dish.

Thus, I’m much more interested in power hitters who regularly see a heavy dose of fastballs. It’s a working theory that revolves more around anecdotal evidence rather than something that’s been rigorously worked out by statistical analysis, but it follows in my mind that power hitters who see a lot of fastballs have two things going for them: (1) ample opportunity to punish fastballs, and (2) a quality approach that forces pitchers to throw fastballs, when they would otherwise not want to.

That brings me to Jonathan Lucroy. The Brewers’ catcher has burst on the national baseball scene with an All-Star appearance, a .303/.369/.489 slash line, and a postseason-caliber ballclub. He homered, doubled, and drove in five runs against the Dodgers on Sunday afternoon. He was already the no. 1 fantasy catcher in Major League Baseball, but Sunday’s performance only widened the gap.

You know how it is in fantasy baseball, though. It’s about value. Is Jonathan Lucroy really this good? Should fantasy owners pony up and target him on the trade market for the remainder of 2014 (and beyond), or should owners cash in their profits and seek to trade him while his value is at its peak?

(Side note: I normally take reader suggestions, unless there’s a specific player I want to feature on a given week. If you have a player you want to see featured on The Buyer’s Guide, drop a line in the comments or contact me via Twitter. I would love to hear from you.)

With that said, y’all have been around these parts long enough. You know what we do here. Let’s do this.


Jonathan Lucroy has often been overshadowed throughout his career. In the National League, Yadier Molina and Buster Posey have historically stolen the limelight and the All-Star votes. Even on the Milwaukee Brewers, he has often been the forgotten man behind Ryan Braun and Carlos Gomez. However, this year, the 28-year-old has finally gotten his due respect and has emerged as a darkhorse MVP candidate in the NL with a robust .315 TAv, a 4.72 WARP, and stellar defense behind the dish.

Furthermore, in the context of fantasy baseball, he’s been money. He’s producing in all categories, providing runs, RBI, power, and average. In fact, Lucroy is even leading all major-league catchers with four stolen bases, which is no fluke, considering his nine stolen bags a year ago.

I’m going to lay my cards on the table early. Jonathan Lucroy is absolutely worth targeting in fantasy leagues. He’s a stud. And referring back to my previous discussion about development and plate discipline, he has shown the precise growth one wants to see in a hitter.

Check out a few statistics surrounding his plate discipline and how it relates to the percentage of fastballs seen:


















A lower percentage of swings at pitches outside the zone -- and a lower swing percentage overall -- seems to have led to a noticeable uptick in the number of fastballs seen at the plate. He actually has the 12th-highest fastball percentage in baseball among qualified hitters. To illustrate why Lucroy would benefit from more fastballs, he’s hitting .318 with a .520 slugging percentage and a .202 ISO against fastballs over the past three seasons. He doesn’t perform nearly as well against breaking or offspeed pitches. He’s not inept against other types of offerings; he just prefers fastballs.

Some may argue that Lucroy hit .320/.368/.513 in an injury-shortened 2012, so who cares if he’s seeing more fastballs this season? Sure, he mashed before. However, such a shift in approach should lead to a more sustainable level of excellence at the plate for Lucroy. His walk rate climbed from 6.4 percent in 2012 to 9.6 percent this season. His strikeout rate has dropped over a percentage point to 11.6 percent. His numbers show growth and maturity across the board, which leads one to believe his recent success will not wane in future seasons.

We also frequently talk about platoon splits in this space. It’s occasionally an underlying issue that can get swallowed in the overall numbers, and it’s also something that can limit a player’s usefulness in daily leagues. However, Jonathan Lucroy has dominated both righties and lefties with aplomb. See what I mean:







vs. LHP







vs. RHP







He’s actually performing better against same-handed pitching this year, which isn’t expected. The BABIP even favors lefties over righties, .348 to .316, respectively. All of this points to a well-rounded hitter with an improving approach at the plate, which is giving him more fastballs and better situations to do damage. It hasn’t necessarily resulted in a massive uptick in power, but he’s likely to flirt with 20 homers again, which is solid from the catcher spot.

We need to mention one other thing about Lucroy, and that’s about playing time. It’s paramount to draft a catcher who gets a substantial amount of plate appearances. His 496 plate appearances rank number one at the catcher position. The Brewers have even dabbled with him at first base, and while that’s not something the organization plans to do long-term, it’s another source of valuable playing time from the catcher spot in the immediate future. It’s an unheralded advantage that Lucroy has among other fantasy catchers.

I adore Jonathan Lucroy. He is 28 years old and in the middle of his prime, and he’s only improving. His plate discipline has matured to the point that he’s walking more, striking out less, and seeing more fastballs. His overall production is well rounded and helps fantasy owners in all categories. He’s a bona fide stud and is absolutely a legitimate MVP candidate in the National League, especially once one considers his defense and pitch-framing skills. It’s not a stretch, either, to argue he’s been the best catcher in either league.

Buyer’s Advice: BUY
This is one of the rare instances in which it makes sense to target an established fantasy stud. Catchers are usually underrated, so their price isn’t astronomical, but Lucroy won’t come cheap. However, he’s as safe as they come. While risk will always be involved, he’s trending in the right direction all over the place. I have no problem targeting elite guys when they feature a wonderful approach and stand out at a premium fantasy position. It makes me feel confident that the success is sustainable, and really, that’s what we’re targeting in top-end guys. We want to get the level of production that we expected on draft day. Lucroy represents a good bet in that regard. If you care to dream a little, too, one may be able to argue that continued improvement in his approach will only result in more success. At this point, though, that would just be icing on the cake.

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J.P. Breen is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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