By John Perrotto
Jonathan Lucroy could easily fall into default mood and explain his success by saying he has a chip on his shoulder. Thankfully, he won't.
The Milwaukee Brewers catcher was recruited by exactly one Division I college program while starring at Umatilla (Fla.) High School on the outskirts of Orlando. Even after playing at the University of Louisiana-Lafayette and being the Brewers' third-round draft pick in 2007, he was never considered a premium prospect. Now that he is a productive major league player, he still doesn't get much recognition as he is overshadowed in Milwaukee's powerful lineup by such hitters as Ryan Braun, Carlos Gomez and Aramis Ramirez.
Yet when told that five different scouts had named him as one of the three most underrated players in the major leagues in an informal --- and unhighly scientific poll --- Lucroy just shrugged his shoulder.
"It's never really mattered to me," Lucroy said of receiving recognition. "My main focus is doing everything to help this team win. I've never been one of those guys who feels he has to prove himself to the world. I have a pretty good idea of what I'm capable of doing."
What Lucroy has done this season is play a big hand in the Brewers building a 4 ½-game lead over the St. Louis Cardinals in the National League Central with a 40-28 record. The 28-year-old is hitting .337 with 25 doubles, five home runs, 31 RBIs, a .398 on-base percentage and a .510 slugging percentage in 63 games. He leads the NL with 26 multi-hit games and is second in doubles. He is on pace to hit 60 doubles, which would break the franchise record of 53 by Lyle Overbay in 2004 and threaten the NL record of 64 by Hall of Famer Joe "Ducky" Medwick of the Cardinals in 1936.
"He's been the most consistent hitter we have," Brewers manager Ron Roenicke said.
While Lucroy's other statistics are gaudy, Roenicke's favorite is that he has struck out just 29 times in 269 plate appearance. That is why Roenicke has Lucroy batting third in the order.
"He's not a wild swinger like we know a lot of our guys are," Roenicke said. "He's a guy that will hit to all fields. He uses the other field very well and if you look at every other third and fourth hitter, all the good ones really use the whole field well. He stays on pitches well, so he doesn't chase pitches too much out of the zone. He's a tremendous offensive player."
Especially for his position. Lucroy's .908 OPS ranks second among major league catchers with at least 100 plate appearances, just two points behind the .910 of the Cincinnati Reds' Devin Mesoraco. Lucroy, though, has been to bat 136 times more than Mesoraco, who has been hampered by injuries.
Lucroy is all but a lock to make his first All-Star Game appearance next month in Minneapolis, which would have been hard to believe during his senior year of high school when he wasn't drafted and had only the offer from Louisiana-Lafayette. The lack of interest remains a mystery to Lucroy, who was seen by plenty of professional and college scout while playing in the talent-rich Orlando area. His best guess is scouts were turned off by his size.
"At that time, everybody was looking for big catchers, a big strong Joe Mauer-type, and I'm not a big guy," Lucroy, who is 6-foot-0, 195 pounds. "That's changed now, though. Teams are looking for catchers who are more mobile and can move better behind the plate. I'm more the kind of guy teams are looking for."
Lucroy could certainly start for many more major league teams but he was not a highly touted prospect in the minor leagues. The knock was that he was a poor defensive catcher who did not possess the power or speed to switch to another position. Yet Lucroy made it to the major leagues on May 21, 2010, a little less than three years after being drafted, and has been a fixture behind the plate ever since in Milwaukee.
Lucroy has markedly improved behind the plate since his rookie season. According to FanGraphs' defensive ratings, he is second among NL catchers with at least 300 innings this season behind the Cardinals' Yadier Molina, who has won six consecutive Gold Gloves. Those who study pitch framing consider Lucroy one of the best in the game of making balls look like strikes to the home plate umpire.
However, Lucroy does not feel he is a complete catcher yet. He believes he can improve his pitch calling and the way he hands the staff in general.
Lucroy recalled remember a spring training conversion he had with veteran catcher Jason Kendall when Kendall was Milwaukee's catcher and Lucroy was still in the minor leagues. Kendall said it took him until his sixth season until he totally felt control behind the plate. Lucroy is in his fifth season.
"I think it's one of those things that with experience comes confidence in your ability to call a game and to prepare yourself the best that you can to call a game," Lucroy said. "For a young player, I know, it was really hard to do. And now that I've got a good system down of being able to remember and recall things and how to go about it in certain situations, I think it gives you that confidence to do better."
Lucroy will have plenty more time to develop as a catcher. He is under contract through at least 2016 after signing a five-year, $10.28-million deal prior to the 2012 season that includes a club option for 2017.
Lucroy has also become very involved in a number charitable causes in the Milwaukee community, including one called Fisher House, which is a facility for veterans and their families receiving treatment at the Milwaukee VA Hospital. Lucroy also provides tickets to military families and funds a $5,000 college scholarship each year to a student from a military family.
The military causes are dear to Lucroy's heart because his former college teammate and roommate, John Coker, was severely wounded when shot three times in Afghanistan while serving in the National Guard. Coker's platoon was ambushed and the solders on each of side of him were killed.
Between his play on the field and his willingness to lend a helping hand off the field, Lucroy has become a household name in Milwaukee. The question is when will the rest of the country catch on?
"When we get to where we want to go, which is the playoffs," he said. "When you win and play deep into October, that's when people know you're start to know your name. That's what I care about most, winning. Recognition is nice but it's nicer when it comes because you're playing for a winner."
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John Perrotto has covered professional baseball since 1988 for such outlets as USA Today, The Sports Xchange, Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus and the Beaver County (Pa.) Times. You can find more of his work on Facebook or follow him on Twitter.