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Lucroy Fortifies his Patience at the Plate in 2014

Before the season, it would have taken a lot of Leinenkugel’s for even Bernie Brewer to predict that the team would have baseball’s best record. After this hot start, you would certainly be justified in praising nearly any player on the roster. However, one guy that stands out in particular is catcher Jonathan Lucroy. After a disappointing Spring Training, the 27-year-old Floridian has come blazing out of the gate, batting at a .326 clip. In fact, he has only played in three games all year without getting a hit. Due to a more patient approach at the plate and improvement against right-handed pitching, Lucroy has emerged into one of the best catchers in the league.

Lucroy has increased his plate discipline this season, swinging at just 40.9% of the pitches he has seen in 2014. To put that into perspective, Lucroy has been the 14th-most patient hitter in the National League. While that doesn’t sound horribly exciting, it is comparable to the discipline of Cincinnati’s Joey Votto (who has swung at 41.4% of pitches, 15th-most patient in the NL), placing Lucroy in pretty solid company. Further, Lucroy’s patience is critical for Milwaukee. His teammates Aramis Ramirez and Carlos Gomez each swing at roughly 60% of pitches — the second and third highest NL totals respectively. Lucroy’s plate discipline provides a nice counterbalance to the aggressive tendencies of his fellow Brewers. Also, his increased patience has enabled him to draw more walks; Lucroy’s 10.6% walk rate is the highest of his career.

Another reason for Lucroy’s great start is his improvement against right-handed pitching. Lucroy, who bats right-handed, generally struggles against righties while posting a career .320 average against southpaws. However, that trend has reversed in 2014. Although he is still performing well against lefties (.308 average, 137 wRC+), he has torched right-handers for a 187 wRC+ and a 1.059 OPS. It is hard to figure out exactly why Lucroy has improved against right-handed pitchers. Perhaps it is because he is seeing more changeups this year, allowing him to hit balls down and inside from right-handers. Regardless, Lucroy’s success against northpaws — if that’s even a word — is certainly encouraging. His BABIP is actually lower against righties than against lefties, revealing that the reversal in his splits is not an ephemeral stroke of luck.

Lucroy has arguably been the best offensive catcher in the majors this season. He leads all catchers in important sabermetrics such as wRC+ (171), and wOBA (.432). Further, Lucroy’s .426 on-base percentage is second among all back-stoppers, and his .571 slugging percentage ranks third at the position. Most significantly, Lucroy is the only catcher to rank in the top three of each of these categories, revealing just how well-rounded a hitter he has been.

Of course, it is hard to envision Lucroy keeping this pace up. His .400 BABIP indicates that his hot start is somewhat unsustainable. Similarly, the fact that he hits ground balls 50 percent of the time, the highest rate of his career, is somewhat concerning. But the only thing that these numbers tell us is that he will not continue to be as dominant as he has been so far. Frankly, that’s to be expected. No one should anticipate Lucroy continuing at his Rogers Hornsby-esque pace all season. However, the fact that Lucroy’s improvement this season is rooted in substantive changes to his approach — the increased plate discipline — is reason to hope that his tremendous performance is more than just an early-season fluke.

*Note: Most 2014 statistics are through games of April 13.