PHOENIX -- How did Brewers catcher Jonathan Lucroy wind up behind the plate? He credits his dad for making the call. "He told me I was the only one who wasn't scared to go back there," Lucroy said with a smile. "Maybe I was the only one stupid enough." Turns out it was very smart. Lucroy was 13 then, already showing promise in the Eustis, Fla., Little League. He's 25 today, already entering his third year in the big leagues and his second as Milwaukee's everyday starter.
He's provided some stability at a position previously known for the opposite. Since Mike Matheny exited via free agency in 1998, the Brewers have had 10 different Opening Day catchers in 13 seasons, only one of whom (Dave Nilsson, in 1999) who was developed from within. Nine different players have led the team in starts behind the plate in that 13-season span, including Lucroy in 2010 and '11. But he did not start on Opening Day either season, a fact Lucroy is hoping to change this April.
"My dad actually realized that would be the best position for me and it became the one I could relate to the most," he said. "I'm very involved and very active out there. It's not just sitting there in the outfield waiting for things to happen. I'm the action, not the reaction. "I take a lot of pride in that. For me, it's a challenge to go out there every day and try to get hitters out." He took to the position right away, Lucroy said. "I've always been a very 'go get em-type guy,'" he said. He has enjoyed a sudden rise to the Majors since the Brewers made him their third-round Draft pick in 2007. Less than three years later, Lucroy was No. 87 in his first big league camp, trailing on the Brewers' depth chart the likes of Gregg Zaun, George Kottaras, Matt Treanor and fellow prospect Angel Salome. But Treanor was traded, Zaun hurt his shoulder and Salome decided he didn't want to be a catcher anymore. All of a sudden, Lucroy, who had played only 21 games above the Double-A level when Zaun went down, was a Major League starter. Lucroy made strides since then. Last year, he caught his first full big league season and was charged with only one passed ball. That tied Baltimore's Matt Wieters for best in the Majors among regular backstops. "I think he's a real good catcher," Brewers right-hander Zack Greinke said. "He's pretty smart for how long he's been up. ... Catcher, without a doubt, has to be the toughest job to come up and have to learn. You have to know so much -- each pitcher on your staff, every hitter. You have to figure out a way to work the pitcher [against] the hitter he's facing, and then you have to hit on top of that. It's a lot of stuff. "I'm a really big believer that it takes a while for a younger catcher [to learn on the job]. It's probably not the No. 1 way to go about it," Greinke said. "But we had a veteran catcher, so that makes it easier, I think. If you're doing a young catcher and a young pitching staff, that's a recipe for disaster." Lucroy benefitted from experience and stability last season. The Brewers were the only team in baseball to employ as few as six starting pitchers. But among them were Greinke, with his outstanding slider, and Yovani Gallardo, with his curveball. Both pitchers often "spike" those pitchers in the dirt to induce strikeout swings, and count on the catcher to make a clean pick. "We've got a tough pitching staff to handle," general manager Doug Melvin said. "Think back to the fifth game of the [National League Division Series]. He blocked a pitch with a man on third, and we win the game by one run. That maybe goes unnoticed, but it may have won us the game." Melvin sees better offensive numbers in Lucroy's future, after the pitch-calling side of the game slows down. Lucroy improved in every statistical category in 2011, batting .265 with a .313 on-base percentage and a .703 OPS. He hit 12 home runs and drove in 59. Was he satisfied with his season at the plate? "No, not at all," Lucroy said. "I'm never satisfied, and I don't want to ever get to that point. I want to always have a motivator for working harder, to get better." Lucroy made no excuses while batting eighth, a spot he could fill again in 2012 depending on where the Brewers slot new first baseman Mat Gamel and shortstop Alex Gonzalez. Lucroy said he's already working with new hitting coach Johnny Narron on some adjustments for the coming season. "I like that challenge, too," Lucroy said. "You're not going to get as many fastballs in that spot, but a part of me enjoys people pitching around me a bit. The last couple of years, I don't feel like my swing has been there, mechanically. I'm trying to get to that point." Kottaras appears set to return as Lucroy's backup and personal catcher for lefty Randy Wolf, who is entering the final guaranteed year of his contract. Kottaras, a left-handed hitter, has hit 14 home runs in 323 Brewers at-bats over the past two seasons. Among the other catchers in camp are prospect Martin Maldonado, long considered a quality defensive player who took a big stride at the plate last season, and non-roster invitees Mike Rivera and Paul Phillips. "[Lucroy] kind of gained maturity and confidence as he's come along," Kottaras said. "It's not that easy to go out there every day and play. He did a great job. I'm just going to put myself in position to be the backup, and be ready if something happens."