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Jonathan Lucroy is heating up at the plate

The Oakland A’s lineup has cooled off, except for the guy who wasn’t hitting before.

Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

The Oakland A’s lineup has cooled down over the last week and a half. Since beating the Astros 8-1 on April 27, they’ve played nine games and scored a total of 23 runs. They’ve fallen from the top of the wRC+ rankings to a tie for seventh in MLB, and their once impressive rate of runs-per-game has dropped down to merely league average. Hopefully it’s just a quick slump and not a permanent crash down to Earth.

On an individual level, several players are suddenly having tough times. Matt Chapman is struggling significantly after his hot early April, Mark Canha is 2-for-20 in his last five games, Matt Olson still can’t find his dingers, and Matt Joyce is repeating his slow start from last year despite a massive walk rate, among others. Jed Lowrie is the only hitter who has maintained consistent success, as he’s still hitting like an MVP candidate.

A new hope has emerged lately, though. For much of the early season, the A’s lineup consisted of eight above-average hitters plus their new catcher, Jonathan Lucroy. The former All-Star seemed to be helping behind the plate, which is his primary responsibility, but he wasn’t doing anything with the bat. That has changed over the last three weeks (each split below happens to be exactly 52 plate appearances):

Lucroy, first 13 games: .239/.327/.304, 81 wRC+, 3 doubles, 5 BB, 6 Ks
Lucroy, last 14 games: .354/.404/.500, 150 wRC+, 7 doubles, 4 BB, 6 Ks

Normally I would focus on BB/K rate in such a small split, but there’s been no change there. He’s hitting for a bit more extra-base power, but not a huge amount and he still has no dingers all year. Rather, the difference here is that he’s turning more of his batted balls into hits. His BABIP was .275 in the first split, and .405 in the more recent one.

Is that uptick a fluke of luck, or a real improvement? It’s easy to scoff at a small-sample BABIP change, but let’s investigate further. In that first, weaker split, Lucroy was hitting the ball on the ground nearly half the time, generating liners about 22% of the time, and achieving hard contact 30% of the time by FanGraphs’ measure. In the more recent, stronger split, his liners have shot up to 31% (almost entirely at the expense of grounders), and his hard-hit rate has spiked up to 57% — nearly double what it had been before.

Lucroy isn’t just getting lucky here, with a few extra routine grounders growing eyeballs and sneaking through the holes. He’s elevating the ball more than before, and making significantly harder contact. His BABIP has gone up because he’s simply hitting the ball better.

None of that is to say that he’s suddenly a force at the plate. The guy who hit 24 homers in 2016 still doesn’t have one this year, and he hasn’t come particularly close. But he’s no longer the auto-out he appeared to be in the first few weeks of the season, and on a fundamental level he’s inching away from his atrocious 2017 performance.

I’m still getting the hang of using Statcast data, but let’s give it a go with Lucroy. The numbers only go back to 2015, so we can’t measure against his career-best years of 2012-14. However, we can at least look for differences between his decent ‘15, good ‘16, and bad ‘17.

Lucroy’s 2017 slump was based on poor contact. His plate discipline remained intact, with an excellent BB/K rate and a career-high contact rate. However, that contact was weaker than normal and stayed on the ground far more than ever before — 53.5% of the time to be exact, nearly 10 point higher than his previous career-high.

Statcast wasn’t surprised by those results. His exit velocity went down a couple ticks from 2015-16, and his launch angle plummeted, which sounds to me like a recipe for weak grounders. This year, those metrics have rebounded back to their previous levels, with his exit velocity in particular back up to the middle of the pack in MLB rather than toward the bottom of the rankings.

Year Exit Velo Launch Hard Hit% wxOBA
2015 88.6 9.9 33.4% .340
2016 87.6 14.7 35.0% .353
2017 85.1 7.8 24.2% .323
2018 88.1 13.8 28.0% .335

What is xwOBA? Here’s a primer.

When I look at those numbers, I see a guy who is hitting the ball more like he did in 2015-16 than in 2017, or at least on the path to that point. He’s still not barreling the ball like he did in his 2016 power surge, which I assume is why the dingers haven’t reappeared yet, but otherwise he’s back to making the kind of quality contact he did en route to a 111 wRC+ in 2015-16 (as opposed to his 82 mark from last year). Among his Oakland teammates, his current real-life wRC+ trails only Lowrie, Canha, and part-time Pinder.

Lucroy still isn’t the same guy he was in his prime with the Brewers, which is fair enough. We shouldn’t expect a nearly 32-year-old catcher to suddenly revert to his mid-20s. However, there is excellent reason to hope that he’s back to being a productive hitter, or at least a decent one. He’s spraying liners all over, getting on base, and rarely whiffing. Even if the homers never come back and he settles back around an average 100ish wRC+ like in 2015, that’ll still qualify as a solid and successful bounce-back campaign.

Lucroy, 2018: .298/.365/.404, 116 wRC+, 10 doubles, 8.7% BB, 11.5% Ks

Click here to see Lucroy’s full Statcast rundown at Baseball Savant.