Twins Looking for Leadership Out of Suzuki
This offseason the Minnesota Twins found themselves with the difficult task of attempting to replace something irreplaceable.
When Joe Mauer made his decision that he would no longer be putting on the tools of ignorance, the front office and manager reviewed their options. Internally, they were high on Josmil Pinto’s bat but felt his defense needed further refinement before being promoted to full-time catcher. The search led them to the realization that they needed someone who had experience handling a major league staff.
All roads led to the 30-year-old Kurt Suzuki, who had quarterbacked pitching in Oakland and Washington, working with pitchers at the beginning, middle and end of their careers. His skills combined with his preparation made him the ideal option.
“We’re really happy to have him here,” Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said about his new veteran catcher. “His pre-game, the whole package. We know he can call a game, we watched him do it from afar. He’s had some really good pitching staffs that he’s caught. All of our reports were you want this guy on your team. And all of our reports were right. Everybody we talked to said this guy is really going to help you out and you are going to like him a lot. And he is exactly that.”
The Twins are also hoping Suzuki’s preparation and mental approach will be a model for the young Pinto as he begins his career.
“He handles himself very well, very professional and cares a lot about the pitching side of it,” Gardenhire continued. “He knows that’s his job. The hitting part is the other side of it but he really, really takes a lot of pride in his catching. You take Joe out from behind the plate you’re open up a big hole so filling it with Zuke is pretty good."
Replacing Joe’s bat in an offseason would be a near impossibility. Mauer has been a once-in-a-generation type hitter. But, in Suzuki, the early reports are they may have found a strong defensive catcher with leadership skills and a serviceable bat for the position.
Over his career, Suzuki has built a reputation as being an above-average defensive catcher. While he does not profile to be one of the savvy pitch-framers like the Jonathan Lucroy or Jose Molina, he has shown potential to block pitches well. Last year Baseball Prospectus’ advanced catching metrics suggested he was worth about one win above the average catcher when it came to preventing wild pitches and passed balls.
Interestingly enough, for all the discussion of his game-planning and ability to smother pitches in the dirt, in 2013 Suzuki’s pitchers threw more fastballs to him than any other catcher in the game (save for Houston’s Carlos Corporan). With more than 12,000 pitches called while splitting time between Washington and Oakland last year, over 63% were heaters says ESPN/trumedia’s database.
Suzuki said this was not a strategy by design or a fear of breaking balls. The arsenal of the pitching staff dictated what digit he would put down. In the case of the Nationals, they were stacked with flame-throwers and led baseball with an average fastball velocity of 92.8 miles per hour.
“Everybody on the staff in Washington last year threw 95 and above. When you've got guys like that, you don’t want to be sixty percent offspeed,” he said. “You want to attack guys with the fastball and make them hit the fastball. Jordan Zimmermann, a perfect example, won 19-games last year, I caught pretty much all of his starts and he had probably one of the highest fastball percentages. He just attacked hitters with his fastball.”
But the same thing happened in Oakland with a staff that was barely cracking the 90s: fastballs all day long. Knowing the Athletics are an organization always looking for an edge, was it a strategy used in conjunction with the spacious O.co Stadium? Would there be a similar tendency to favor fastballs at Target Field, another pitcher’s park, this year?
“Just because the field is big, I’m not going to call more fastballs. That’s definitely not how it works. You go with what your pitcher's strengths are -- [Phil] Hughes, [Mike] Pelfrey, maybe more fastball guys than like [Ricky] Nolasco. And obviously if you are not feeling your fastball, you might not call it all the time. It kind of depends on the day and scouting report and stuff like that.”
The Twins pitchers’ early impressions of Suzuki’s style have been positive. Staff has mentioned how they like how Suzuki has taken control in spring games, been vocal on his trips to the mound and has generally been sympatico when it comes to what pitch comes next.
“I love it. He’s one of my favorites of my career. Honestly. Definitely in the top two or three. He’s up there,” said the Twins’ Opening Day starter Ricky Nolasco. “He’s really good and that’s just from spring training. So once season starts, everything changes, the philosophy changes, and things like that so it will be fun to work with him. Once he starts seeing different stuff with the adrenaline going, that will be fun to work with.”
His game-calling abilities have taken the thought process away, allowing the pitchers to grip it and rip it.
“There’s not much thinking when he’s back there, that’s what’s good about it,” Nolasco continued. “So you just go with him and he pays attention and sees a lot of things that maybe I may not. I’ve always thought I’ve done a pretty good job of reading hitters but with him back there he does the same thing.”
By constantly preparing for both the competition and his pitching staff, Suzuki has earned the respect and confidence of his pitchers and coaching staff. “I do a lot of scouting reports. A lot of pre-game stuff. It’s one of those things that if you are 100% prepared before you go out there, you feel more comfortable putting down the finger.”
Offensively, his contributions have not been through high on-base abilities or inflated OPS figures. Still, he finds other ways to chip in. Suzuki prides himself on avoiding strikeouts as much as possible, a significant issue for the Twins last year when they struck out in nearly a quarter of their plate appearances and at a whopping 25% clip when runners were in scoring position.
“I hated striking out, going all the way back in high school,” Suzuki said. “I made it my approach that when I get two strikes, I try put the ball in play, barrel on the ball, just do whatever I can to put the ball in play and not strike out.”
Putting the ball in play with two-strikes has been a specialty for the catcher. Last year with two strikes on him, Suzuki was able to put the ball between the chalk lines in 49% of his two-strike plate appearances, well above the league average mark of 40%. While the results of those at bats were not exactly Joe Mauer-like, who led baseball with a .291 two-strike average, Suzuki performed better than the norm by hitting .199 in those situations.
Suzuki is rife with intangibles. The Twins know he is going to make outs, that he is not the on-base juggernaut his predecessor had been. The expectations are he is going to guide a newly collected pitching staff to better results and potentially mentor the future starting catcher. Twins are hoping to get enough production out of him with the benefit of those intangibles to make his addition worthwhile.