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ONE MORNING A few weeks before spring training, baseball's most underpaid player tosses his daughter's crayon drawing onto the floor, pulls on his mitt and drops into an impossibly low crouch.
"That's home plate," Jonathan Lucroy says, pointing to his 4-year-old's picture of a rainbow on the carpet just off his kitchen in Lafayette, Louisiana. The Brewers catcher hunches his frame until his back looks like a snail's shell, until this 6-foot man becomes a 3-foot ball. "This is how low I get," the 28-year-old says. "Have you ever seen a catcher this low?" He flashes his glove -- a patch of brown leather maybe a foot off the floor. He's on the balls of his feet, his butt sticking out, moving his left arm like a barn door. A few inches to the right, then to the left. His elbow a hinge, it never loses contact with his upper thigh. "Very quiet," he says of this motion. "You don't need any more than this. Quiet ... quiet. Low target. Soft but firm hands. Soft. But firm."
As major league catchers go, Lucroy might be the best of the lot, his distinctive squat and mechanics discussed in reverent tones among his peers. "Amazing," the Giants' Buster Posey calls him. "The guy's so dang flexible," says Dodger Yasmani Grandal. "You have to stop and watch," says the Mariners' Mike Zunino. Lucroy finished fourth in the National League's MVP voting last season. He was an All-Star. He produced 6.7 wins above replacement, the fifth-highest total among position players in the majors. What has quietly made him otherworldly, though, is his ability to catch a baseball. To be more precise: It's his talent at catching borderline pitches and making umpires think they've seen a strike.
The next day, he's back in that crouch, this time at the University of Louisiana Lafayette's indoor football facility a few miles from his home. "Let's go," he hollers as I set up to throw him some pitches. From 60 feet, 6 inches away, Lucroy looks anemic, like a sick bird, his body doubled over and pulled tight, a Frisbee mounted on two feet. He sets up and shows his glove. His body is whisper-quiet, his head motionless. He catches the first pitch, and it sticks like a dart. Another. Then another. His mitt doesn't receive the ball as much as it has its own gravitational pull. Pop. Pop. Pop. The throws are a few inches off here, a foot off there. But they all look perfect. "Keep 'em coming," Lucroy says. But the next one-oh, that next one's a mess. It's low, too low, and it smacks into the turf, sending a spray of black rubber pellets into Lucroy's chest.
But there's that glove. Pop. And there's the ball. Lucroy doesn't move. Blink and you'd have wondered ... strike?
Only recently have online stats gurus and baseball front offices begun to quantify this stealth skill -- called pitch framing -- and figure out its effect on outcomes. The results will certainly change the way the league evaluates its most demanding position. And it might also change how we view a player like Lucroy, the poster child for the stolen strike and the prototype from which future strike stealers could be built.
According to Baseball Prospectus, Lucroy produced 121 stolen strikes last season and in the past five seasons clocks in at more than 1,000, the most in MLB. And if you believe the metrics, these stolen strikes have been worth about 18 wins during his five-year career -- just shy of what Giancarlo Stanton's entire output has added up to during the same time. Still, Lucroy's discreetly prodigious output has been underestimated. By fans. By the media. By his own team. And certainly by the game's salary structure. Even in today's post-Moneyball world, pitch framing is viewed through a skeptical lens; a value-added talent, sure, but one for which teams are reluctant to pay. While Stanton cashed in with a 13-year, $325 million contract this offseason and Mike Trout begins the first year of his $144.5 million deal, Lucroy was actually more valuable last year. For that he earned $2 million; this year, he'll make $3 million.
Put another way: The most impactful player in baseball today is the game's 17th highest-paid catcher.
The Real MVP
THERE ARE SIGNS, at least, that pitch framing is having its moment. The Rays figured it out first in 2012, signing Jose Molina, a light-hitting catcher in his mid-30s who was among the best at getting borderline calls. During three seasons with the Rays, Molina's framing alone was worth about 7.5 WAR. (Current WAR statistics don't account for it.) To the dismay of pitch-framing advocates, Tampa Bay released Molina in the offseason, but in came Rene Rivera, a 31-year-old who recorded 177 extra strikes last season with the Padres -- behind only Buster Posey's 180.
The Rays aren't alone. The Astros and Dodgers also made framing-focused trades in the offseason, acquiring Hank Conger and Grandal, respectively. Then there are the Cubs, who finished 2014 with perhaps the game's worst collection of pitch framers. (Former starter Welington Castillo recorded minus-62 calls, turning strikes into balls.) Team president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer spent the offseason on a massive overhaul of their team, one that included trading for Miguel Montero -- who recorded 96 extra strikes last season with the Diamondbacks-and signing journeyman David Ross to a two-year, $5 million deal. The net difference is 212 called strikes. That's equivalent to about 3.5 WAR, an enormous swing for a team that wants to contend for a playoff spot.
Ross, 38, is on his seventh team in 13 years and owns a career .233 batting average. But last season with the Red Sox, he got the benefit of the doubt on 46 borderline calls in 50 games; in 2013, he earned 53 calls in 36 games. "I know there's value in what I do," Ross says. "I mean, I hit a buck eighty-four last year and I just got a two-year deal."
Standing atop a bullpen mound at the Cubs' spring training facility in Mesa, Arizona, Joe Maddon is watching the new lineup come to life. A coach is feeding baseballs into a pitching machine. The balls sweep and curve and smash into Montero's glove. "Yeaw!" one coach shouts when the catcher sticks a tough ball, making it look like an edge-grabbing strike. After 15 or so machine-spit pitches, the Cubs' new manager stops the session and walks toward his starting catcher, a broad grin spread across his face. "Dang!" Maddon marvels. "I knew you were good, but not that good!"
At the other end of the bullpen, Ross is snapping up low pitches. Four other catchers -- including Castillo, who could soon drop off the roster -- are receiving pitches too. Epstein, standing nearby, takes it all in. Maddon, meanwhile, moves behind Montero, crouches over his shoulder like an umpire and watches as more baseballs are fired just outside the strike zone. "Gaw-dang!" he says, his voice crackling through the morning. "That's nice!"
Although Epstein has gone all-in on catching, he admits it took awhile to figure out how to value framing and his team's internal data. "We didn't want to rush to make decisions until we were sure we had the kinks worked out," Epstein says when his catchers move to batting practice. "We haven't been on the cutting edge, and with new data streams coming in all the time, there's a sense that [framing] is still evolving. Baseball is hard to figure out. We don't pretend to have all the answers on this."
Epstein is not just being humble. Even in what might be considered the dawn of pitch framing's golden age, there's caution at the executive level. Of the top 10 framers last season, only two -- Posey and Montero -- made $10 million or more, and those two were paid mostly for their offensive output. Three of the top five framing catchers made less than $550,000; seven of the top 10 earned $2 million or less. There are several reasons for the lagging market. Some worry the new statistics might, in fact, overemphasize framing's role in the game and inflate a catcher's value. Take the Astros' Conger, who played just 80 games for the Angels last season, hit four home runs and got on base less than 30 percent of the time. If you believe the stats, his framing alone was worth about 2.8 WAR, which -- when added to his conventional 0.7 WAR -- made Conger more valuable than 154 games of Justin Upton. Can that be right? Another concern: Might umpires, now armed with names of the game's best framers, start squeezing their strike zones? And how can teams be sure their data is accurate -- that there won't be a development tomorrow that turns framing on its head?
Then there's the thought that any soft-handed minor league catcher with the right coaching could jump to the top of the strike-stealing leaderboard. So why pay a premium for what you can develop on the cheap? "Maybe you could reverse-engineer your team," Epstein says.
Lucroy's knack for pitch framing, for example, is largely a learned talent. When he reported to his first minor league team, after the Brewers took him in the third round of the 2007 draft, "he moved a lot behind the plate," says Charlie Greene, the Brewers' longtime catching instructor. "His glove was flopping all over the place; he'd go down on one knee, then he'd go high. Not real pretty." Although Lucroy was raw, Greene saw potential. He had unusually soft and strong hands and the ability to drop low behind the plate. He could get under an incoming pitch, which opened up the umpire's field of vision and made the plate seem even bigger.
During those early workouts, Greene had a pitching machine fire 100 mph fastballs at Lucroy from 55 feet away. The machine smashed hammer curves, zipped 94 mph sliders. "I wanted to give him stuff he'd never see in the big leagues," Greene says now. "He got 1,000 balls a week. We were emptying buckets." When Lucroy was brought to the majors in 2010, he hit just .253 with four home runs in 75 games. But he quickly made a name for himself as one of the game's top framers -- a reputation that he has only bolstered since, even as he's developed into one of the best-hitting catchers.
"I've had several umpires tell me, 'You make it look so good,'" he says. "And, you know, I'm not trying to trick an umpire. I'm not a magician. What I do is not smoke and mirrors. My job is to make the pitcher look as good as possible."
BACK AT THE house in Louisiana, Lucroy is sitting on a couch across from his agent, Doug Rogalski, when the subject of his contract is brought up. It's become a rough topic since he signed it late in the spring of 2012. Lucroy hit .320 and posted an .881 OPS in an injury-shortened season that year. He hit .280 with 18 homers the next season -- and made $750,000-then exploded in 2014 with a .301 average, a .373 on-base percentage and a league-leading 53 doubles-the most ever for his position. Lucroy's deal guarantees him $7 million over the next two seasons and gives the Brewers an option to buy a year of free agency. Lucroy will make another $5.25 million if his option is picked up in 2017 -- a deep discount no matter who's doing the math. In fact, if you have confidence in the additional 2 WAR that framing would have given Lucroy, his 2014 season would have been worth about $56 million on the free agent market this offseason. (Baseball Prospectus' estimates are based on $7 million per WAR.)
So did Lucroy underestimate himself too? He shakes his head. Consider the timing: He was a career .260 hitter when the Brewers approached him about the extension, and framing was in its infancy. "If I would have known, from an industry perspective, that framing would have become as important as it's become, maybe things would have been different," says Rogalski, his agent.
"It's all hindsight," Lucroy adds. "When I signed the extension, I'd been in the league for a year and a half, and I had a wife and a newborn. It was a calculated risk, and I took the security. I had Ryan Braun, Corey Hart, Rickie Weeks, all these veteran dudes on my team saying the first time you get money in the big leagues you have to take it. I'm sitting there saying, 'Heck yeah, dude. Let's go.'"
If his option is picked up, Lucroy will be 31 when he hits the free agent market -- an age when players are considered on the downswing of their careers. Still, Russell Martin's new contract might be the clearest indication that Lucroy is on target for a huge payday. Martin, 32, got five years and $82 million from the Blue Jays after a 5.5 WAR season and 111 extra strikes for the Pirates in 2014. Another comparison is Yadier Molina, a smooth hitter who's often considered the benchmark for defensive catchers. He'll make $43 million between this season and 2017, when the Cardinals have the option to pick up another year of the then-35-year-old's contract.
What's less clear is whether Milwaukee recognizes Lucroy's full value. GM Doug Melvin said earlier this year the team wanted to put Lucroy at first base more often, a plan that would keep his bat in the lineup and save his body from the constant behind-the-plate beating. The idea gained steam early in spring training when Lucroy was sidelined with a right hamstring strain. But even with the injury, Lucroy -- who played 19 games at first last season -- thinks it misguided to shift him to a different position. "If I'm at catcher, with my offense and defense, people would probably put me up here," he says, raising his right hand above his shoulders. He drops the left hand near his waist, like a scale. "If I'm at first, I'm not going to be as valuable to this team." Later, he adds: "Look at my WAR, then factor in my blocking and the way I catch the ball. Does that translate equally to first base? I don't think it does."
From the opening pitch, it's typical Lucroy. He's lower than low back there, setting up on the outside corner on righties, begging Lohse to paint the corner. In the second inning, against Ryan Zimmerman, Lucroy grabs a first-pitch outside changeup and turns it into strike 1. Two batters later, this time against Ian Desmond, Lohse drops a 2-0 sinker well off the corner. Lucroy holds the ball in front of him for an extra second. Up in the Nationals' television booth, the play-by-play man reacts. "He misses. ... Oh, he catches the outside corner." 2-1.
Lucroy turns another outside sinker in the third into strike 3 against Strasburg. Strasburg freezes, his bat's barrel pointing skyward. He shakes his head and mutters to himself as he walks back to the dugout. Jayson Werth is the next victim. He gets an 0-1 sinker just off the plate. "Two!" the plate umpire shouts. So it goes: Strasburg, again, in the fourth inning, with a low-and-outside pitch. Strike. Strasburg winces. This time, it's the Nats' color guy: "He's thinking, 'I want that one when I'm pitching.'" Then there's Anthony Rendon in the fifth, with a first-pitch sinker off the plate. Strike 1. Rendon snaps his head back. Lucroy has Washington's hottest hitter out of the at-bat almost before it begins. As strike 3 whizzes past five pitches later, all Rendon can do is smirk.
In the ninth inning, with the Brewers up 4-2, closer Francisco Rodriguez whips a first-pitch sinker to Wilson Ramos. It's low and away. Strike 1. Ramos looks back toward the umpire. He eventually hits a harmless bouncer to third base for the second out. One batter later, it's game over. Lucroy and Rodriguez slap hands midway between home and the mound. Seven balls turned into strikes. Lucroy being Lucroy. Baseball's best player just doing his thing.
All for $2 million.