Four years ago, before he matured into one of the best catchers in baseball, Jonathan Lucroy was languishing as a rookie with the Milwaukee Brewers.
At age 24, he had been promoted on his reputation as a hit-first catching prospect. But he quickly fell into a familiar trap. He threw himself into learning the nuances of handling a pitching staff, a catcher’s most important job, even at the detriment of his offense.
For all the hype surrounding his bat, Lucroy hit just .253 in 2010, his first season in the big leagues. He followed up by batting .265 in 2011.
Like many young catchers before him, he found himself overwhelmed by juggling his responsibilities, both at the plate and behind it.
It’s precisely the predicament facing Mets catching prospect Travis d’Arnaud.
“At the time, you feel like you’re stuck,” Lucroy said in the visitors’ dugout at Citi Field. “You’re like ‘Man, what am I gonna do? I don’t know what to do.’ As time goes on, you start maturing and learning.”
The Mets hope that d’Arnaud can follow a similar path after his sudden demotion last Saturday to TripleA Las Vegas. Just as Lucroy had done, d’Arnaud broke into the big leagues at age 24, carrying with him the weight of expectations. And just like Lucroy, d’Arnaud has fallen short of meeting them.
D’Arnaud was hitting just .189 in his first 257 plate appearances in the big leagues when he was sent down. In Las Vegas, away from the spotlight of New York, the Mets hope that he can rediscover his swing and regain his confidence.
Earlier this week, with the Brewers in town to play the Mets, Lucroy made it a point to seek out Mets captain David Wright. He asked specifically about d’Arnaud, the former first rounder, acquired from Blue Jays in the blockbuster trade for reigning Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey.
“Whenever a young catcher comes up, I always feel for them when they’re struggling,” Lucroy said. “Because I know what it’s like to go through all that.”
Few understand the plight of a young catcher better than Lucroy.
“It’s just realizing that you have what it takes to be here. I had a veteran at the time tell me ‘Hey man, remember you deserve to be here. You’ve earned it. You deserved it.' At the time, it’s hard, because when you’re trying to catch, you’re trying to call a game, you don’t know what to do, you’re inexperienced, you’re kind of panicking, and all of a sudden you’re questioning your ability. You start questioning yourself. And then on top of that, you’re not hitting, and you’re like ‘Oh man.’”
Lucroy still marvels at the conversation he had with Jason Kendall, the three-time All-Star catcher who retired following the 2010 season after 15 years in the major leagues.
“Jason Kendall told me one time that it took him six years to learn how to call a game in the big leagues,” Lucroy said. “Jason Kendall.”
The learning curve has become even steeper thanks to a growing trend in amateur baseball. Instead of calling their own games, pitchers and catchers often receive instruction from the dugout, where coaches and managers handle the mental heavy lifting.
Once catchers graduate to the professional ranks, Brewers manager Ron Roenicke said they must start at square one, forced to learn perhaps the most difficult aspect of catching at the highest level.
“You’ll see in high schools and colleges now, no catcher calls a pitch,” Roenicke said. “A pitcher can’t shake off. So, these guys have to learn this, a very hard skill, with never having had any practice at this. You sign professionally, you go into the professional ranks, you’ve never called a pitch in your life. Now, you’ve got to call 150 pitches a game.”
Refining other required skills, such as throwing mechanics, blocking balls in the dirt, and framing pitches, often takes a back seat because of the mental stress that comes with learning game management.
“Once that gets easier for them, they’re able to relax, they’re able to see the whole game,” Roenicke said. “And then the skillset comes out.”
But for catchers, particularly for those who are projected to hit, the process takes time.
“You start worrying about your pitchers, you start worrying about calling a game, and getting the pitches right against guys. Next thing you know, it doesn’t work out and other teams are lighting your pitchers up. Now, you’re sitting there going ‘what am I doing wrong?’ second guessing yourself, getting anxiety because you don’t know what to call. You’re panicking. Believe me, dude, I’ve been there. I’ve had pitchers shake me, I’ve had pitchers show me up. It’s all part of it.”
Thirty-two catchers since 1994 have logged at least 250 plate appearances after breaking into the big leagues in their age 24 season, according to Baseball Reference. Just five managed to hit above the league average when measured by adjusted OPS. Neither Lucroy nor d’Arnaud ranked among them:
Perhaps the only difference between d’Arnaud and Lucroy is that one wound up back in the minors while the other stayed in the big leagues, despite his struggles. Still, Lucroy acknowledged that he was spared by circumstance.
“The only reason I stayed? They didn’t have any other options,” he said. “That’s why I stayed.”
“I knew I could hit. And I was more worried about the defensive part, proving that you know what, I can handle this. Just give me some time to learn. I don’t remember the last time a catcher came up and was a Gold Glover his first year. I don’t remember any, as a rookie. You can’t. Being a catcher, it takes time to develop. It took (Yadier Molina) time to develop, I mean Kendall, it took him six years to learn how to call a game. Myself, I’m just now starting to get comfortable with doing what we’ve been doing. And this is my fifth year in the league. It’s tough dude.”
Injuries deprived d’Arnaud of at-bats in the minor leagues. The Mets were well aware of this. Nevertheless, they promoted the catcher last August, hoping that he could adjust on the fly.
Behind the plate, coaches raved about d’Arnaud’s growth. Pitchers enjoyed throwing to him, partly because he had proven adept at making borderline pitches look like strikes. Just as Lucroy has done, d’Arnaud quickly developed a reputation as a capable pitch framer.
But his bat lagged behind.
As the Mets weighed d’Arnaud’s fate, some within the organization insisted that his defense alone was enough to buy him more time. But the decision hinged on a central question: “Is he getting something out of this or is it hurting him in the long run?” manager Terry Collins said this week.
Each night, the answer became more clear. D’Arnaud’s last game with the Mets highlighted all that had gone wrong. He finished 0for3, a performance that included a weak popup and two grounders that the Giants turned into double plays. His average plummeted to .180.
After about 10 days of internal debate, the decision was made. D’Arnaud had run out of time.
The night of the demotion, Collins told d’Arnaud that he was not at fault for the team’s offensive shortcomings, which only brought more attention to his personal struggles. He acknowledged that the Mets “threw him into the fire.”
“We put a lot on your plate eight months ago,” Collins said he told the rookie catcher.
Wright implored d’Arnaud to avoid thinking of the demotion “as a failed opportunity,” and to resist the urge to believe that “now people think less of you in the organization.” He reminded the catcher that “a lot of really, really good players go through this when they get first called up.”
Both Collins and Wright insisted that d’Arnaud block out the chatter from some fans, who have been quick to label him a bust.
“That’s unfair, because you know what? The Brewers could have wrote me off. They didn’t. They stuck with me and they gave me a chance. I think the key words here are trial by fire. That’s the best way to learn. What’s the best way you learn to not touch a hot stove? You touch it. It made me so much better. Everybody can be good and happy whenever you’re doing good. Everybody can be fine. But it’s how you are whenever you’re going bad, and what you take from that, that makes you better down the road.”
One rival scout warned about the danger of writing off d’Arnaud too soon.
“Catchers tend to take longer to develop.” the scout said. “He still has plenty of bat speed and power for the position 25 is still young in catcher years.”
General manager Sandy Alderson took the longterm view earlier this week as he discussed the decision to demote d’Arnaud, who has quickly started his climb back to the big leagues. In his first three games with Las Vegas, he is 6for10 with a double and two homers.
Said Alderson: “If you look at some of the young catchers in baseball, you’ll see that several of them many of them have struggled early in their careers with the bat and gradually figured it out.”
The best recent example happened to be standing across the field.
Lucroy’s early struggles have faded into little more than a footnote now that he has established himself as one of baseball’s best catchers.
At age 27, and in the fifth year of his major league career, Lucroy is in the middle of perhaps his best season yet. Among all catchers in baseball, he ranks first in runs (28), hits (79), doubles (25), average (.341), onbase percentage (.403), slugging (.509) and OPS (.912).
Though he’s behind the Cardinals’ Yadier Molina and the Giants’ Buster Posey in NL AllStar voting, Lucroy has positioned himself for his first AllStar selection based on merit alone.
The Brewers have been rewarded handsomely for showing some patience. With the benefit of time, Lucroy said he finally figured out a routine that works for him, one that allows him to squeeze both his duties in handling the pitching staff and his responsibilities to produce at the plate.
One day, the Mets hope for the same with d’Arnaud.
“The Brewers stuck with me, and they gave me a chance to grind it out,” Lucroy said. “And learn through trial by fire.”