It can’t be coincidence, can it? Within minutes of the Detroit Tigers clinching a massive three-game sweep over the Boston Red Sox, Fox Sports’ Ken Rosenthal reported that the Tigers were talking to the Milwaukee Brewers about potentially acquiring catcher Jonathan Lucroy. Detroit is one of several teams involved in the Lucroy sweepstakes, but a late arrival, as many clubs (including the Cleveland Indians) have been linked with the Brewers for some time.
Earlier this week, Kyle profiled Lucroy and the various ways he could make the Tigers a better team. You should click over and read the entire piece, but I’ll summarize: Lucroy is a very good catcher. Trading for him is not a slam dunk, though. The Tigers would be forced to pay a hefty price for the 30-year-old backstop, and there are a couple of statistical trends in his game worth mentioning. I wouldn’t call them red flags, per se. Lucroy is having an excellent season, after all. However, there are a few reasons why the Tigers’ fan base might want to slow its collective roll when the rumors start flying.
He’s going to cost a ton
Everyone knows that the Tigers have a thin farm system. Rosenthal himself said as much when he first reported the rumor, questioning if the Tigers even have the prospects to acquire Lucroy. With several other teams in on the Brewers’ star catcher and prices for top talent skyrocketing at this year’s trade deadline, one wonders just how much the Tigers would have to decimate their farm system in order to get a deal done. Lucroy’s affordable contract and team option for 2017 only drive up the price further.
How expensive are we talking, though? Rosenthal speculated that the Tigers could include incumbent backstop James McCann in a trade for Lucroy, but odds are the Brewers would also want prospects. Beau Burrows and Derek Hill could be included, along with players like Christin Stewart, Joe Jimenez, JaCoby Jones, or Michael Gerber.
Amazingly, that might not even be enough. The Brewers could skip straight to the top and ask for Daniel Norris or Matt Boyd, and the Tigers would be forced to decide whether they can afford to deal pitching depth in exchange for an upgrade behind the plate. Personally, I would draw the line at Norris — increasing the likelihood that Anibal Sanchez stays in the rotation is like robbing Peter to pay Paul — but a package of multiple prospects could also sting.
His numbers are a bit deceiving
Lucroy is hitting a robust .301/.362/.486 with 16 doubles and 13 home runs this season. He isn’t far off the pace he set in 2014, when he was worth 6.1 fWAR and finished fourth in the National League MVP voting. His 122 wRC+ in 2016 is third among major league catchers, and nearly 40 percent better than the major league average 85 wRC+ for all catchers. Ever since becoming a full-time starter in 2011, Lucroy has put up above average offensive numbers for a catcher.
This year’s numbers may be a bit of a mirage, though. He has a .938 OPS at home this year compared to just .766 on the road. A slight difference in home/road splits is common for most players, but that significant of a margin plus Miller Park’s propensity for yielding home runs — nine of Lucroy’s 13 homers this season have come at home — could signal a bit of regression if Lucroy is traded. He is also striking out at nearly double the rate he posted in 2014, and his swinging strike percentage and BABIP are at all-time highs, though the BABIP is supported by an elevated line drive rate.
The timing of a potential move is also significant. The Tigers would essentially be acquiring Lucroy for the next two months, with the added bonus (and cost) of getting another year out of him afterward. Catchers don’t age well throughout the year, and Lucroy has struggled at times in August and September throughout his career. He has sustained heavy workloads in the past (including another 92 games played already this year) and is a career .260/.333/.357 hitter in September and October.
He might not be that good defensively
Remember last season when everyone got mad at us for pointing out James McCann’s awful pitch framing numbers? He has improved, though the magnitude of that improvement depends on which site you prefer. StatCorner considered McCann the worst pitch framer in baseball last year, and has him at -4.1 runs (bad, but not the worst) this season. Baseball Prospectus actually considers him above average now, at +1.8 runs.
Lucroy, meanwhile, has long been considered one of the best pitch framers in baseball. He certainly was at one point, ranking among the very best backstops in the game from 2011 to 2014. Things fell off in 2015, when he was worth just +1.2 framing runs. It was a decline steep enough to warrant Jeff Sullivan’s attention, who identified that drop-offs in pitch framing are usually permanent. Lo and behold, Lucroy is at -0.9 framing runs this year (per Baseball Prospectus), which actually ranks worse than McCann. StatCorner is in Lucroy’s camp, but Fielding Runs Above Average (FRAA), Defensive Runs Saved, FanGraphs’ Defensive Rating, and Baseball Reference’s defensive WAR all favor McCann in 2016.
Conclusion: buy anyway
Keep in mind that these comparisons between Lucroy and McCann are based on less than a full season’s worth of defensive metrics at a position where said metrics have shown high variance in the past. Evaluating catcher defense is about as easy as predicting the weather on a spring day in Michigan, and the larger body of work (both offensively and defensively) is in Lucroy’s camp. He has been worth 2.8 WAR this year while McCann sits at -0.1, and would still be a big upgrade even if his offensive numbers declined a bit. He doesn’t need to hit home runs to be an effective hitter — Comerica Park’s outfield gaps would yield plenty of doubles — and is still an asset behind the plate.
So, it all comes back to price. If the Tigers can grab Lucroy for a reasonable cost, get him. If not, then hopefully their mere presence in this fray can at least drive up the price so that the Indians aren’t the ones pulling the trigger as the deadline draws near.