After Travis d’Arnaud suffered a thumb injury that kept him out of action for nearly three months, the Atlanta Braves were forced to piece together the catcher position. The same day d’Arnaud was placed on the Injured List, his backup Alex Jackson, also hit the IL with a strained hamstring. The Braves relied on rookie William Contreras for a long stretch while shuffling veteran options in and out of the mix. One of those veterans was Jonathan Lucroy, who had a short stay in Atlanta but an eventful 2021 season.
Lucroy actually went to Spring Training with the Chicago White Sox but was released at the end of March. He then latched on with the Washington Nationals, who were dealing with injuries to both of their regular catchers, Yan Gomes and Alex Avila. Lucroy appeared in five games for the Nationals and went 5-for-14, hitting a double off Drew Smyly in the process. After Gomes and Avila returned, Lucroy was again left searching for an opportunity. He signed a minor league deal with the Braves on May 16 and appeared in his first game for Gwinnett two days later.
I don’t think there were any real expectations for Lucroy at this point, as he was just trying to further his career. Given that he’s been mostly replacement level or worse going back to the 2017 season, there wasn’t any real reason to figure he would produce anything at all. That he was unable to stick with a Major League club was probably frustrating for him because he put up good numbers in a tiny sample.
2021 Season results
Lucroy spent the rest of May and all of June with Gwinnett. He appeared in 31 games hitting .220/.351/.330 in 114 plate appearances. With Contreras struggling, the Braves selected Lucroy’s contract on July 7 and paired him with Kevan Smith. He appeared in two games with Atlanta going 2-for-5 at the plate with three walks before he was designated for assignment again on July 17 to make room for Stephen Vogt. Atlanta outrighted him to Gwinnett on July 21 and he elected free agency the next day.
Jonathan Lucroy 2021 Stats
|2-Tms - 7||.316||.409||.368||13.0||17.4||118||.351||.290|
|GWN - 31||.220||.351||.330||14.9||17.5||91||.317||----|
Strangely enough, this wouldn’t be the last the Braves would see of Lucroy who was tabbed to throw out the first pitch of Game 2 of the NLDS in Milwaukee.
A 2021 Brave (Jonathan Lucroy) is throwing a ceremonial first pitch to a 2021 Brewer (John Axford).— Adam McCalvy (@AdamMcCalvy) October 9, 2021
What went right? What went wrong?
Lucroy’s numbers were decent in a small sample. Even at Gwinnett, his .220 average was supplemented by a .351 OBP. Teams however must have determined that he wouldn’t be able to hold up over a long stretch or weren’t satisfied with his work behind the plate. It is still a bit perplexing that he was the odd man out over Smith when Vogt arrived. Whatever the reasoning, Lucroy performed well, but didn’t see a lot of opportunity.
One thing that’s continued to be bizarre about Lucroy is that he went from a very valuable catcher propped up by some mind-boggling pitch framing numbers to a worse-than-your-usual-backup catcher with negative framing value, without too much space in between those two things. It’s not surprising that teams preferred basically anyone else to a guy with a .290ish xwOBA and bad framing even in a small sample, and the loss of hitting prowess with age makes sense, but it’s still kind of odd to see a guy who put up 36.9 fWAR across ages 24-30 struggle to clear even 0.2 fWAR (0.1 of which came in 2021) in his age 31-35 seasons.
Also, this is kind of funny (and includes just Lucroy’s Braves tenure for 2021):
Road to the Title
Lucroy appeared in just two games for the Braves: a blowout win against the Pirates, and a one-run win over the Marlins. While he went 1-for-3 with a sacrifice, a walk, and an RBI in the blowout, he actually lost WPA and cWPA in that game. He did, however, gain WPA and cWPA in the latter, as he went 1-for-2 with a couple of strikeouts and a couple of walks. That WPA gain was largely from the first walk, a leadoff one in an 0-0 game, and then advancing to second on an errant pickoff throw, which led him to score the game’s first run.
Outlook for 2022
Where Lucroy goes from here is unclear. He sat out the remainder of the season after electing free agency. At age 35, the end is near but it wouldn’t be very surprising to see him try to latch on with someone again come February.