MILWAUKEE — Much has been made of the Milwaukee Brewers’ difficulties in developing pitchers. But if anything, they’ve had an even worse time cultivating battery mates for those pitchers.
Ever since bringing David Nilsson and Mike Matheny to the big leagues in the early 1990s, the Brewers have hosted a parade of grizzled veteran catchers on their last major league legs.
It’s been a who’s who list of Crash Davis — the fictional broken-down catcher played by Kevin Costner in “Bull Durham” who was brought in to mentor a young pitcher — lookalikes.
For the Brewers, that role has been played by the likes of Henry Blanco, Raul Casanova, Paul Bako, Eddie Perez, Chad Moeller, Damian Miller, Jason Kendall and, most recently, Gregg Zaun.
But all that may have changed when Zaun suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in May. Zaun’s misfortune opened the door for a new era for Brewers catchers — the Jonathan Lucroy era.
Since supplanting George Kottaras as the primary catcher, Lucroy has demonstrated why he has been anointed as the team’s catcher of the future since being selected in the third round of the 2007 draft out of Louisiana-Lafayette.
“I don’t want to speak too soon because he has a long ways to go,” said Brad Fischer, the Brewers’ catching coach, “but I think he can be a fixture here. The total package is there.”
Although that package arrived in Milwaukee a little prematurely, the Brewers clearly like what they’ve seen so far in Lucroy.
“I think he’s done what our minor league people expected him to do,” general manager Doug Melvin said. “He’s here sooner than what we anticipated. We thought maybe midseason this year, but he seems to be taking to the position and what needs to be done at the major league level.
“Catchers are hard to find. It’s very difficult for a young catcher because there’s so much to learn when you’re here. But he’s an intelligent guy, a hard worker, he grasps and retains things, he’s coachable — all the things you need in a catcher.”
About the only thing lacking is experience. Lucroy, 24, has been catching since he was 12 when his dad put him behind the plate, but he arrived in the major leagues with just 21 games of experience at Class AAA.
He began the season at Class AA Huntsville, but after batting .452 in the first 10 games he was promoted to AAA Nashville, officially supplanting Angel Salome as the team’s No. 1 catching prospect. After three weeks in Nashville, he was summoned to Milwaukee.
“At first, it was a little overwhelming,” said Lucroy, who catches four of the Brewers’ five starting pitchers — with Kottaras matched up with Randy Wolf. “But now, as I’ve gotten used to the process and kind of gotten myself into a routine, I’m starting to get a little more comfortable.
“It’s the same game, just a higher level. The only thing that’s different about catching here is that you’re under a lot more pressure — perceived pressure. People are scrutinizing you, looking at you, blaming you a lot of the time. That’s the way it goes. The microscope is on you more and there’s just a huge of influx of information you have to utilize to beat the other team.”
To help accelerate his learning process, Lucroy generally is the first player to arrive at the ballpark, usually around noon for a 7 p.m. game. He goes over scouting reports, watches videos along with Fischer, takes some early batting practice and works on refining his receiving skills.
“He’s an extremely conscientious kid,” said Fischer, who compares Lucroy favorably to Oakland A’s catcher Kurt Suzuki at a similar point in his career. “He does all his homework. He doesn’t want to disappoint anyone; consequently he’s the first one here working on the game plan. He’s easy to work with. He’s a very coachable kid. I’m extremely excited about him
“He invites criticism. He tells me to be critical of him. That tells you that he has confidence. He told me a long time ago, ‘I don’t want to be a backup catcher. I want to be a starting catcher in the big leagues.’ I’m excited for Luke because his skill set is tremendous.”
Living the dream
Known mostly as an offensive catcher in the minors — he had a .298 average in three minor league seasons and is batting .263 with two home runs after a month in the majors — Lucroy’s focus clearly has been on defense. The Brewers would have it no other way.
“He knows the tools of the trade and process of what it takes to be an everyday catcher,” Melvin said. “Some catchers don’t. Some of them focus on offense. We’ve told all our catchers in the minor leagues that the No. 1 focus should be on the defensive side of the game.”
That defensive emphasis ranges from more visible skills like throwing out baserunners to the more subtle tasks, such as blocking pitches in the dirt, getting in sync with his pitchers, learning the tendencies of opposing hitters and calling pitches.
Lucroy, who led the Southern League in throwing out basestealers last year (41 percent), has thrown out a respectable 33 percent so far in the big leagues. By comparison, Kottaras has thrown out 13 percent and Zaun threw out 24 percent.
But while that may be the most measurable part of the defensive part of a catcher’s job, it’s not high among Fischer’s priorities.
“Throwing out runners is down the list a little bit,” Fischer said. “To me, blocking balls is one of the most important things. If we’re going to develop a pitching staff that is going to be effective, they’re going to have to pitch down in the zone. When pitchers don’t develop confidence that a catcher can block a ball, then they’re afraid to make pitches down there.
“In spring training, Luke had trouble with it. It didn’t work out real well so we worked on it and gave him some suggestions on how to improve it. He worked on it, came up here and it was a little better but it still wasn’t where it needed to be. We worked every day for a week or so on a different technique and he picked it up and he’s been tremendous ever since.”
While he’s still let some pitches get away from him, Lucroy is determined to earn his pitchers’ confidence. That’s all part of being an everyday catcher.
“That’s an area I work on every day,” he said. “I know I can do it. I always had that confidence in myself. I knew it was just a matter of time. I always felt like I was an everyday catcher. It’s something I know I can handle.
“It’s been a dream of mine and now that I’m here I want to stay here. I’m enjoying my time and working hard every day to get better.”