ST. LOUIS -- At the beginning of the season who would have thought, with the well-established careers of Yadier Molina and Buster Posey, that another catcher in the National League would make the strongest case to start the All-Star Game?
Molina has been to the last five All-Star Games, Posey the last two. When fan voting for the 2014 game ends on Thursday at 11:59 p.m. ET, Molina will likely be named the starter -- in the latest results, he led Jonathan Lucroy by over 400,000 votes. And if Lucroy is left off the "Player Ballot" choices, or isn't selected by NL skipper Mike Matheny, the best catcher in 2014 in the National League will not be at the All-Star Game.
There is no unanimous definition of an All-Star since some believe you should only look at first-half results while some believe you should consider a player's career, but an All-Star appearance is certainly a stamp of approval for a great first half. Entering Wednesday, Lucroy leads all major league catchers in batting average (.331), on-base percentage (.401), slugging (.510) and WAR (4.4). (Devin Mesoraco has a higher slugging percentage although not enough plate appearances to qualify for the rate stats just yet.)
Lucroy's stand-out year doesn’t end there. Looking closer, in high-leverage situations -- those times when one swing of the bat can change the game -- Lucroy is batting .406 in 79 plate appearances.
"I've been told by a psychologist before that I have the ability to hyper-focus," Lucroy said before a recent game in St. Louis. "For some reason I enjoy those situations."
Talk about clutch hitting not being a skill all you want, but the bottom line is the first-place Brewers are coming through when the game is on the line. Lucroy is a big part of this. He has 23 hits in high-leverage moments, third-most in MLB.
Lucroy said hitting for a high average in a clutch situation is not luck. He also thinks, despite conventional wisdom that clutch hitters do not exist, that there are guys who can be defined as clutch hitters.
"Guys get mad because you can't quantify that," Lucroy said. "[Stats people] can't put a number on that. But I think within the human brain you have an ability to go, 'OK, I've got to get locked in here.' I just can't go up there and go, 'I'm going to do whatever.' [You have] to lock in and do this. That's hyper-focused."
His approach in high-leverage situations, then, comes down to his mental ability, not mechanics or muscle memory. "This game is really more mental than anything," Lucroy said. "It's amazing how mental this game can get."
Aside from Lucroy's offensive numbers, he is considered one of the best pitch-framers in the game. Along with the extra game-preparation catching requires, there's also the constant not-too-distant reminder that the position of catcher can be dangerous.
"I've had two concussions," Lucroy said. "I haven't had any since I've been in the big leagues, but I had one in college. ... I know what it's like. It sucks. It's one of those things where I'm glad [MLB] addressed it because it's an issue."
As he discusses how catching has unique challenges other positions do not have, a former catcher comes to his mind. "A great guy to talk to about that is Mike Matheny across the way here," Lucroy said of the Cardinals manager. "Mike went through a lot of stuff. Thank god he's OK now. You do think about that stuff though."
Funny that Matheny crosses his mind first, especially now that Matheny may hold the key to Lucroy's All-Star bid should the fans not vote him in.
Still, Lucroy wouldn't have it any other way. He loves being a catcher.
"What I love about it that we're involved in every play," he said. "That we're not just sitting waiting for a reaction, we're actually the action. You know, we start the chain reaction by calling a pitch and whatever happens after that we have a direct line in. So, it's a direct affect on it. So for me, I enjoy that part of it."