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2 to Watch: Lucroy and Keuchel

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Each week during the season, I will profile two players that are interesting either because they are in the midst of a breakout, are performing way above their heads, are interesting for other reasons, or are widely available and useful. This week, it's Jonathan Lucroy and Dallas Keuchel.

Jonathan Lucroy has been in quite a slide this year (get it?), but will he bounce back?
Jonathan Lucroy has been in quite a slide this year (get it?), but will he bounce back?
Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to the latest edition of 2 to Watch! To read previous editions of 2 to Watch, check out this link. As usual, we'll start by checking in on last week's players to see how they've done in the past week.

Note: all stats from Fangraphs and current up to 8/18

Marco Estrada: 6.0 innings, 3.00 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, 12.5% K%, 12.5% BB%, 7.94 FIP, 6.94 xFIP, 0.063 BABIP

Estrada had just one start this week, but it wasn't great. He did post a good ERA and get a quality start, but look at the FIP, xFIP, K% and BB%, not good. You may be wondering why his BABIP was so low with two earned runs. Well, it turns out that home runs don't count in the BABIP formula. If you take out the two homers he allowed and the three walks, he only allowed one hit. With those walks, he was lucky that the homers were only solo shots. His homer-prone ways and shaky command, along with poor peripherals continue to support my belief that he is not to be trusted.

Domonic Brown: 0 HR, 0 R, 0 RBI, 9.7% BB%, 27.3% K%, .143 BABIP, 0.100/0.182/0.100 (AVG/OBP/SLG)

Brown continued the decline he started earlier this month and had a disastrous week. He did miss a game with an illness and only had 11 PA in the week, so take this all with a grain of salt, but he was bad nonetheless. By itself, this would just be a small sample size quirk and a very short slump, but when it supports the larger conclusions I made last week, I say stay away.

The fearless leader of our corner of SB Nation, Ray, asked for some breakdowns of Dallas Keuchel and Jonathon Lucroy. Ask and you shall receive! Seriously, I sit down to write and select two players five minutes before writing about them, so I am open to all suggested players, provided I haven't covered them recently. There have been several reader-suggested profiles recently, so don't be shy about asking!

Anyway, let's see if we can find out what makes these two tick this year.

Jonathan Lucroy

So, last year (I think that was 2014, right?) Lucroy was one of the best all-around catchers in baseball. He put up 6.1 fWAR, if you're into that sort of thing. That number means his combined offensive and defensive contributions made him the ninth most valuable hitter in baseball. His offensive numbers, shown in the table below along with this year's numbers, were outstanding for a catcher and helped many a fantasy team. This year, things have not gone as well, you might say.

Season Team PA HR R RBI SB BB% K% ISO BABIP AVG OBP SLG wRC+
2014 Brewers 655 13 73 69 4 10.10% 10.80% 0.164 0.324 0.301 0.373 0.465 132
2015 Brewers 334 4 36 26 1 9.30% 14.40% 0.098 0.265 0.236 0.306 0.333 74
2015 ZiPS (R) 133 3 15 16 1 8.60% 12.80% 0.144 0.298 0.274 0.338 0.418 105

That wRC+ number at the end? That's weighted runs created and is a park- and league-adjusted number that encompasses a player's complete offensive contribution as a hitter. I like to use it because it is one number that combines all the offensive values and it is scaled so that league average is 100. Last year he was 32% better than league average and now he is 26% worse than average. He missed one month with a toe injury in April and May, but I don't think we can blame that for his entire season of struggles.

His plate discipline (K% and BB%) stats seem to be just a little worse than last year, but not alarming. His BABIP has taken a huge dive and that is the first potential cause for his decline this year. Let's take a quick break to note this with its own heading.

Cause #1: Bad BABIP luck (mixed with grounders, see below)

That third row in the table is his ZiPS projection for the rest of the year. Conveniently, it shows what would happen to his triple slash line if his BABIP returned to career (and league) norms around 0.298. His average, OBP, and slugging all start to look more like an above average catcher. Sure, his projection doesn't have him returning to 2014 levels, but that may have just been a career year for him.

So, we know his BABIP has hurt him, but as we saw, a typical BABIP would only get him to just above average and not 2014's production. So, what else is up here? Some of the usual culprits for these declines don't help us out. His HR/FB% is down a couple percent from last year, but not really that much. His Soft/Med/Hard% splits (how many hits fall into each of those categories) are almost exactly the same.

The next thing offers a clue: he is pulling the ball 4% less. That doesn't seem like much to me, but let's dig deeper. His line drive % is actually up to a very good 24.5%. That is unexpected considering line drives have a BABIP over .600 and his BABIP is so low. Well, what about his fly balls and ground balls? Here comes the bad news: his ground balls are up 5% (to 47%) and his flyballs are down 6%. Combine that with his reduction in pulling the ball and you have a recipe for a drop in power.

Grounders are not what you want if you want to hit for power. His 47% grounder rate is way too high. That puts him in the company of Martin Prado, Adeiny Hechavarria, Billy Burns, Adam Eaton, Kevin Kiermaier, Didi Gregorious, and well, you get the picture. There are some random sluggers like Carlos Gonzalez, Ryan Braun, and Jose Abreu in that group too, but it is mostly a bad sign. That is probably pulling his BABIP down some too, since grounders aren't great for BABIP when you aren't fast. Dee Gordon and Billy Burns can pull off high grounder rates because they can beat throws to first. Lucroy has no such speed.

Cause #2: More grounders, fewer flies, less pulling of the ball = less power

So, we've got two causes, but there's more! I'm going to use wRC+ again for simplicity: In 2014, Lucroy had a wRC+ of 131 against left handed pitching, He had a wRC+ of 132 against right handed pitching. That, my friends is a balanced attack. In his entire career, his wRC+ against lefties is 126 and 102 against righties. So what about 2015? His wRC+ against lefties (you know, the guys he has the platoon advantage against?) is 19. 19. One more time, 19. Against righties it is 90, remembering that 100 is league average.

This is where I point out that he has only had 73 plate appearances against left handed pitching this year, so it is a very small sample size. Reverse platoon splits are very rare and take multiple seasons to establish so I'm definitely writing this off as a weird blip. However, it still goes on our cause list because being this terrible against guys he normally does the best against is definitely hurting his season.

Cause #3: A sudden inability to hit left-handed pitching

So, now we have three reasons for his decline this year. Now, the question is can he bounce back this year or at least next year?

I believe the BABIP will bounce back up to near 0.300, but probably next year, since his BABIP has been in a three month decline and shows no signs of changing in the remaining six weeks. Next year, I would expect a normal BABIP for him, so we won't be able to blame that. Next up, his ground balls and lack of power. Unfortunately, his ground ball percentage as been increasing each of the last three months. He is trending in the wrong direction and even his season-long groundball percentage has been increasing the last three years.

This trend I can't write off as bad luck. He's not squaring up the ball well. I do not expect his power to rebound very much this year or next. I think 2013-2014 was his power peak. Watch his ground ball % for signs of hope, but lower your power expectations to 10 homers and a 0.400 slugging percentage for next year. Finally, I do expect him to be much better against lefties next year, so that will correct itself and may even start this year.

Overall, I think we were spoiled with the 2013-2014 Lucroy in fantasy and need to adjust our expectations going forward. He may just be a slightly above average fantasy catcher going forward, not a top-3 option.

Dallas Keuchel

There's not too much of interest with Mr. Keuchel because he has been excellent all year and everyone knows that. Well, did you know that some species of frog can throw up their entire stomach, clean it with their feet and then swallow it back down? That gross fact was brought to you by Geico (Geico, please send me money).

Anywho, I'm writing about Keuchel (Kai-cull, if you were wondering on the pronunciation) because Ray wanted to know why he suddenly increased his strikeouts this year and if it is sustainable. First, as always, let's look at his numbers from last year and this year.

Season IP K/9 BB/9 BABIP GB% ERA FIP xFIP
2014 200 6.57 2.16 0.295 63.50% 2.93 3.21 3.20
2015 171.2 7.92 2.10 0.265 63.20% 2.36 2.75 2.70

Normally, I prefer K% and BB% to K/9 and BB/9, but these two were on the top of his Fangraphs page and easier to dig out, so I'm going with them. They tell the same story anyway. His walks and grounders have stayed just as good as 2014 and he has added 1.3 K/9, which is a big jump for a starter. He is already one of the best pitchers in baseball at limiting hard contact and generating grounders and has excellent control, so adding strikeouts seems unfair. His 2.36 ERA shows just how hard it is for hitters.

What's going on with these strikeouts then? First, let me point out that his K/9 has not been higher than 7.23 in his entire minor and major league career. So this is definitely new. His 2013 K/9 was 7.2 over a large number of innings, but still not this high. His overall swinging strike % is up to 9.6% from 9% last year. 9.1% is the league average for starters this year. 7.29 K/9 is also league average. So, his slightly increased whiff rate does support a slightly above league average strikeout rate, but probably doesn't account for all of it.

Looking at his individual pitch whiff rates, his two seam, changeup, and cutter whiff rates are all up this year, with only his slider showing any significant decline. He's throwing the cutter more and it has been generating almost double the swings and misses as last year. His bread-and-butter pitch, the two seam, is getting about average whiffs for that pitch, but that is a significant improvement from last year and is very important since he throws it so much.

His pitch mix the last two years looks like:

dallas keuchel pitch mix

There isn't much of a change here. His four seam was replaced by his cutter until this month, when they switched back to 2014 levels. His slider has seen increasing usage all year, but it still lines up with last year's usage. After increasing the use of this sinker/two seam all last year, he actually peaked its usage in June of this year and started throwing fewer of them, despite his excellent results on the pitch. His best months for strikeouts this season were June and July, which seem to correspond with more cutter use, more two seam use and less of the four seam.

He is also benefitting from a 5.3% increase in looking strikeouts this year over last. His 25.8% looking strikeout rate is close to his 2013 rate, but pitchers only have so much control over looking strikes, so we can't count on those strikeouts continuing. He is showing an increase in swinging strikes, so there has been some real growth that is sustainable, but not all of the strikeout rate increase is due to that.

My final assessment? I think he settles in to a 7.4 K/9, especially if he keeps using the fourseam at the expense of the cutter. I like the cutter's whiff rate and the four seam's terrible 2.7% SwStr% is not going to help him get strikeouts. His fourseam is good for grounders, so I don't expect him to abandon it completely, but I do expect fewer strikeouts if he uses this pitch more. That's all for this week! Tschus!