This is the seventh installment of an Around the Horn series that has already bounced around the diamond to cover the starting rotation, the bullpen, second base, right field, first base and center field. Up next: Catcher.
PHOENIX -- In Jonathan Lucroy, the Brewers have a 27-year-old catcher rising toward the upper ranks at his position. As a bonus, they also have one of baseball's club-friendliest contracts.
Lucroy is entering the third season of a five-year, $11 million extension he signed in March 2012. He earned $750,000 last season as one of the game's most productive offensive catchers, and he is due reasonable salaries of $2 million in 2014, $3 million in '15 and $4 million in '16, plus a $5.25 million club option for '17.
If he stays healthy and continues to improve, it will be money well spent. One of the few Brewers who avoided the injury bug last season, Lucroy led all Major League catchers with 82 RBIs. Of the nine catchers who qualified for the batting title, Lucroy ranked second to St. Louis' Yadier Molina -- the current gold standard at the position -- with a .455 slugging percentage and fifth with a .795 OPS, behind Joe Mauer of the Twins, Molina, Carlos Santana of the Indians and Buster Posey of the Giants.
Mauer is moving to first base this season and Santana to third. Lucroy is staying put behind the plate.
"I haven't looked at all the other contracts to put it in that category [of one of the best for a catcher]," Brewers manager Doug Melvin said. "But it's a nice contract for him and for us, because catchers can go out and get hurt at any time, and it's given him some security. Any contract for a young player gives them a little security to go out and play the game aggressively and take that fear out of the equation. He's performed very well. I think he gets recognized in the league for the kind of player he is, the kind of catcher he is."
It has taken a few years for Lucroy to settle in. He was rushed up to the Majors out of need in 2010, when he had played only 21 games above the Double-A level. Lucroy was still a defensive work in progress, learning to call games at the highest level on the fly, and suffered offensively as a result. In 2012, he broke through at the plate only to suffer a broken hand in May that would sideline him until the end of July.
In 2013, Lucroy was healthy and established, and the numbers rose. He led the banged-up Brewers in RBIs, and batted .303 over his final 111 games to boost his batting average to .280 by season's end. He became a vocal leader in a clubhouse that needed one in the wake of Ryan Braun's suspension, and improved his reputation with the pitching staff.
"I know people knock him a lot on certain things, but it's like, this guy is good," right-hander Kyle Lohse said. "Let's give him his due."
Slowly, Lucroy is getting some defensive due, especially for his ability to frame pitches. Matthew Carruth of StatCorner.com developed a system of measuring the runs saved or given away by a catcher's ability to make borderline pitches appear as strikes to the umpire, and according to Carruth's data, Lucroy was good for a Major League-best 31.1 runs above average in 2013, ahead of the Yankees' Chris Stewart (27.7 RAA) and Molina (19.8 RAA). Lucroy's backup, Martin Maldonado, was 10th-best at 10.4 RAA.
"I watched video of myself from after I was drafted, my first year in the Minor Leagues, and it was terrible. It was embarrassing," Lucroy said. "Now, I take a lot of pride in getting those pitches for guys. It's hard enough for pitchers to throw strikes anyway. I try to do my best, not necessarily framing the ball, but giving the umpire a good look. A lot of catchers will take the ball away, but you want to give the umpire a good look. That's all you want to do. I'm not trying to steal strikes."
Said Lohse: "You don't get rated the way he does if you're a guy who's slapping at the ball, unable to have strong enough hands to hold that pitch and present it there for the umpire. I think it's starting to get more recognition, but it's still a very underrated thing."
By other defensive measures, Lucroy had a down year. He threw out only 21 of 101 runners attempting to steal, the third-lowest percentage (21.6 percent) of regular Major League catchers. Lucroy said he has identified the problem -- he was gripping the baseball like a changeup, with three fingers off the ball, and does not possess the natural arm strength to overcome that flaw.
He is working this spring with bench coach Jerry Narron and catching coordinator Charlie Green on a correction.
"I've always felt like I was a 'hitting guy' before I was a 'defense guy,' but when you get to the big leagues, you want to be an all-around player," Lucroy said. "That's what I'm trying to be."
As he has gotten more confident behind the plate, Lucroy has gotten better in the batter's box. He batted a respectable .293 last season with runners in scoring position after hitting .389 in those situations the year before. Lucroy was the first regular Brewers catcher to lead the team in RBIs since Dave Nilsson split time between catcher and designated hitter in the strike-shortened 1994 season.
"He hits good pitching," Melvin said. "I think a lineup has to have at least four guys who can hit 95-mph-plus fastballs. I'm a big believer in that, and we've lost a few of those in [Prince] Fielder and [Corey] Hart. Lucroy can do that. He's a clutch hitter, he seems to relish that opportunity. You feel good about him when he's up there in a RBI-type situation. Catcher, shortstop, center field -- it sometimes takes years to find those positions. We've got young guys to play those positions."