While I feel reasonably comfortable saying concussions are a bigger, more prevalent problem in the NFL, Major League Baseball has seen more than its share of issues with the brain injury, and it sucks.
Remember Ryan Freel? Multiple concussions as a "hard-nosed, gritty" type of player, and then a suicide at age 36 and a diagnosis of chronic traumatic encephalopathy. Or, for the less morbid point, the Twins duo of Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer. Morneau had a .900 OPS (138 OPS+) from 2006 to 2010, averaging 139 games a year. He started suffering concussions, and from 2011 to 2015, his OPS was .767, his OPS+ was 107, and he played only about 108 games per. Mauer went from superstar catcher with a six-year OPS+ of 141 to a slap-hitting first baseman eking a 101 OPS+ over two years, no longer able to play his chosen position.
Those are three examples. There are innumerate others, including those where a guy had a concussion, missed time and came back fine, or where he didn't even miss time. I'm not out here saying a concussion means the end of one's productivity by any means. Concussions happen; sometimes there are adverse consequences, sometimes there aren't.
I bring them up, though, simply because I can't in good conscience ignore the concussion Jonathan Lucroy suffered near the end of last year. He missed a couple weeks before returning for the season's last 11 days, during which he started only once, coming in as a late-game pinch-hitter the rest of the time and never playing catcher at all.
By all accounts, the concussion issues are gone now, and Lucroy should be fine for 2016. I get that, and hope it's true. But I had to mention it, even if I couldn't analyze it.
There. Mentioned. On to the player.
Lucroy came into 2015 on a three-year stretch with a .297/.359/.472 slash line. That was a catcher with a 126 OPS+, 43 home runs in three years, 1.4 strikeouts for every walk, 12 oWAR. He was a budding superstar, and even the fact that 2015 was his age-29 season didn't dim that status, as he was handily the No. 2 catcher drafted last year, well behind Buster Posey, well ahead of Devin Mesoraco.
That's why his 2015 was so damned frustrating.
Lucroy played only 103 games last year, He missed part of April and all of May with a broken toe, missed that time in September with the concussion, might as well have missed the end of the season. When he played, he wasn't even as good; compared to 2014, his average fell by 37 points, his OBP by 47, his SLG by 74. His BABIP fell, but not that much. His strikeout rate rose, but not that much. He hit more line drives and grounders, fewer fly balls.
This is a situation where, in 2019, we'll look back with a firm conclusion. "Ah," we'll say, if Lucroy is an All-Star part-time catcher and first baseman in the American League, "2015 was an aberration borne of some bad luck and injuries." Or "Oh," we'll shake our heads if he's a backup catcher hoping for some one-year deals as a rookie mentor, "that was the beginning of the end." In 2019, we'll know. In 2016, we're playing our best guesses.
Lucroy is 29, 30 in June. He was a legitimate MVP candidate in 2014. Even if you tend to the side that says 2015 was the start of an inevitable decline, you can't possibly be sure. (Likewise, if you believe Lucroy will bounce back and be fine, you can't be sure. We're talking 75-25 either way.) A recent MVP candidate at a shallow position warrants high consideration. Lucroy was ranked as high as third in our consensus ranks, as low as ninth.
I had him fourth. And there are trade rumors around Lucroy. If he gets dealt, and if he goes to the American League, allowing DH time as catching breaks, I could see third. But he carries the risk of a 30-year-old catcher who has almost certainly had his best season, and maybe his second-best as well.
I've given you no conclusions on Lucroy. I don't have any. I like him. Jeff Sullivan of Fangraphs has talked several times this offseason about a possible trade match with the Brewers and Rangers involving Lucroy, and as a Rangers fan, I love the idea. But I love it with the knowledge that he could, in a pessimistic world, be a downgrade from Robinson Chirinos (though that much is hard to picture). If you were coming here for answers on 2016 Jonathan Lucroy, I don't know what to tell you.
But it's catcher. Before you dive too far into the rankings you're talking about absolute wild cards like Devin Mesoraco, Matt Wieters, Derek Norris. Short of Buster Posey, the position just doesn't have sure things. So maybe Lucroy has question marks. The rest do, too. He's at least got more upside than his peers.