Today’s “Tale of the Tape” focuses on a pair of 27-year-old catchers from a pair of midwestern cities: Cleveland’s Carlos Santana and Milwaukee’s Jonathan Lucroy. Both finished 2013 as top-five catchers sans Victor Martinez, with the Brewer getting the better of the Indian (no. 3 to no. 5). While that might surprise some people given Santana’s pedigree as a top-flight prospect and Lucroy’s quiet ascent to the top, that doesn’t mean one is overrated and one is underrated. Both catchers are in their primes and should continue to provide top-five upside in 2014; today’s exercise examines who has a better chance of finishing the season on top. Mike Gianella lists Santana and Lucroy as four-star players and ranks them back-to-back at no. 4 and no. 5, respectively, so choosing between the two on draft day could come down to a matter of personal preference.
One look at the career batting averages of Lucroy and Santana makes it clear: Lucroy holds the decisive edge. Lucroy’s .279 career BA dwarfs Santana’s .254, albeit in 410 fewer plate appearances. Dragging Santana’s career average down is a .239 showing in 2011; he rebounded with a .252 mark the following season and even more so with a .268 average in 2013. Lucroy, meanwhile, added 55 points to his .265 in 2011, hitting .320 in 2012 before coming down to earth with a .280 average last year. Lucroy also holds a decisive advantage with a career .306 BABIP (compared to .281 for Santana), and his contact rates are far superior. Additionally, there’s a clear edge among the duo’s strikeout rates—especially when it comes to last season (11.9 percent for Lucroy, 17.1 percent for Santana). Lucroy’s batting average is his greatest advantage.
Whereas Lucroy easily tops Santana in batting average, the opposite is true in terms of on-base percentage. Santana has recorded an impressive .367 OBP since entering the league, including marks of .401 (in 192 PA) in 2010 and .377 in 2013. Only Joe Mauer had a higher on-base percentage last season (among qualified catchers), while Santana’s 14.5 percent walk rate was tops at the position. Lucroy registered a .340 OBP in 2013, which was seventh best, and a walk rate of 7.9 percent, but his career on-base percentage sits at .331—36 points worse than Santana’s.
Santana’s power has been on full display since his debut, when he blasted 27 home runs in his first full season (2011) with a .217 ISO. His power has since fallen to 18 home runs and a .168 ISO in 2012 and 20 home runs and a .187 ISO in 2013—last season’s numbers were still top five at the position, however. Lucroy, meanwhile, was poised to break out in 2012 before a freak injury sidelined his season (more on that later); that year, he hit 12 home runs in 346 PA with a .193 ISO. He came back and hit a career-best 18 long balls in 2013, to go along with a .175 ISO. Lucroy does have two things working in his favor: Miller Park is the preferred home for power, and he also holds a significant advantage in batted-ball distance over Santana the past two seasons, including a 286.06-to-274.86 edge in 2013. Both recorded an identical .455 slugging percentage last year, but, given Santana’s 27-home-run campaign in 2011, I’m leaning toward giving the check mark to Santana. They can both hit 20, but I’d wager on Santana reaching 25 before Lucroy.
Advantage: Santana, but it’s closer than you think
Runs Batted In
Santana has been one of the more consistent run producers since entering the league. Since 2011, only Matt Wieters has more RBI than Santana at the position, leading by the slimmest of margins, 230 to 229. Santana has recorded anywhere from 74 to 79 RBI during that time, while Lucroy has recorded 199 RBI, including a career-best 82 RBI in 2013, which is better than any single season for Santana. Santana’s RBI totals have been aided by spending the majority of his time batting cleanup, whereas Lucroy has spent the majority of his career in front of the pitcher. That changed in 2013, however, as Lucroy played 130 of 146 games batting third, fourth, or fifth (thanks partially to Ryan Braun’s suspension and Aramis Ramirez’s injury). Lucroy could find himself batting fifth regularly again, while Santana is the obvious choice to bat cleanup. Looking at the career averages, this appears to be an easy call, but with Milwaukee getting back an MVP candidate in Braun and a (hopefully) stable presence in Ramirez, it’s a much closer debate. The Brewers also have a pair of disruptive forces in Jean Segura and Carlos Gomez they can deploy at the top of the order. Both Santana and Lucroy have a chance of reaching 75-80 RBI.
Since 2011, no catcher has scored more runs than Santana. Over the last three seasons, he’s crossed home plate 231 times (27 more than the next closest player, Mike Napoli), including 84 in 2011, 72 in 2012, and 75 in 2013. Over that time he’s averaged 636 PA, which certainly goes a long way toward padding the counting stats. Lucroy, meanwhile, has scored a total of 150 runs (81 runs fewer than Santana), or an average difference of 27 runs per season. He scored a career-high 59 runs in 2013 while also setting a career high with 580 PA. The makeup of the bottom half of Milwaukee’s lineup leaves a lot to be desired, however, with a good chance of Khris Davis, Juan Francisco, and Scooter Gennett “protecting” Lucroy. When it comes to runs, Santana’s track record is impossible to ignore, but I do expect Lucroy to land in the 60-65 range, with an outside shot at 70.
Speed at the catcher position is so damn fluky. Take Yadier Molina, for example, who stole nine bags in 2009 after stealing a total of four from 2004 to 2008. He bested that with 12 in 2012 before the number shrank to three in 2013. In 498 career games, Santana has swiped 14 bags in 23 attempts; in 454 games, Lucroy has 19 in 24. So while both run sparingly, Lucroy is the “superior” baserunner. He grabbed a career-high nine steals in 2013, while Santana was stuck on three. As a team, Milwaukee held a 142-to-117 advantage over Cleveland in the stolen base department, but Jean Segura, Carlos Gomez and Norichika Aoki—no longer with the team—made up for 104 of them. Neither Lucroy nor Santana will run wild, but given the data at hand, the former is the winner. Another nine steals would go a long way.
The injury risk with catchers is very high. It’s why Joe Mauer is moving to first base permanently in Minnesota and why the Giants have relieved Buster Posey with time out from behind home plate. And, as it goes with catchers, neither Santana nor Lucroy has avoided the injury bug. In 2010, Santana was rudely greeted in his major-league debut, undergoing season-ending knee surgery after a home-plate collision with Boston’s Ryan Kalish; he’s since missed 34 games in three years due to injury. Lucroy, meanwhile, has missed a total of 81 games in two years, with a big chunk of it coming from a freak accident in 2012, when a piece of luggage fractured his right hand. While certainly unlucky, the injury risk for Lucroy is inherently much higher than it is for Santana, with the latter expected to move to a more permanent role at first base/third base/DH. Lucroy doesn’t have the added benefit of the DH in the National League.
This one is easy: I’ve already outlined Santana’s huge advantage in playing time (three-straight seasons of 600-plus PA), and, with Yan Gomes taking over at catcher, the move to first base/DH gives him a clear advantage in playing time once again.
Although Santana is getting the majority of the check marks in this exercise, it’s a much closer race in reality. What really separates the two catchers is ceiling. Santana has already shown he has 25-home-run power, and the fact he did it in his first full year carries a lot of weight. Lucroy is not far behind, but without a 20-home run season to his credit, it’s very hard to craft a scenario where Lucroy’s peak bests Santana’s peak. Santana’s career 128 wRC+ could continue to rise (it was 135 last season), as offensive numbers for non-catchers are more sustainable. Admittedly, the perception of Lucroy’s offensive production is probably too low. Had a piece of luggage not halted his breakout season, maybe he’d be getting more love, but I don’t envision a future season of 25 home runs and 90 RBI for Lucroy like I do for Santana.
By my triple-checked math, Santana holds a six-to-two (plus one tie) advantage over Lucroy for the categories discussed. If you polled the everyday fantasy man, I’m very sure Santana would be the preferred choice for 2014—as some might even assume he outperformed Lucroy last year and blindly select the former on this very reason alone. The most recent NFBC mock data shows a strong preference for Santana, who is currently the no. 3 catcher with a 66.25 ADP. Surprisingly, four catchers separate the two, as Lucroy comes in at no. 8 with an 85.83 ADP. I stand behind Santana over Lucroy, but my opinion on the latter has changed for the better, and I believe the two are much closer in retrospect. If you’re looking strictly for better value, Lucroy—based on the NFBC data—is clearly your man, but I do expect Santana to finish the season with greater offensive numbers.
And the winner is… Santana