The Nationals have signed free-agent catcher Kurt Suzuki for two years and $10 million. The Nationals have had Kurt Suzuki before. In August 2012, they got him from the A’s. In August 2013, they sent him back to the A’s. In between, he batted 445 times, with a backup catcher’s slash line. Suzuki is now 35 years old, and he spent a long time as a relatively unremarkable catcher, by major-league standards. Never good enough or bad enough to stand out. I still don’t think Suzuki stands out in any way in the public consciousness, but when you look at the numbers, his career has taken a turn.
Over the past two seasons, out of all regular and semi-regular catchers, Suzuki the hitter ranks fourth in wRC+. First place is only four points away. His wRC+ ranks above that of Gary Sanchez. It ranks above that of J.T. Realmuto. It ranks above that of Willson Contreras. I don’t mean to suggest that Suzuki and Realmuto are one and the same or anything, but statistics reflect performance, and for the most part, performance reflects ability. Suzuki has had the ability to be this productive, over 661 plate appearances.
I’ll borrow from Baseball Savant. Here are catchers, over the past two seasons combined. You’re seeing expected wOBA, and actual wOBA. Suzuki’s data point is highlighted in yellow.
It’s true that Suzuki has rated out as a below-average receiver. It’s true that he’s rated out as a below-average thrower. But it’s also true that he’s rated out as an above-average blocker, and by many accounts he has a positive reputation, suggesting he gets along well with his pitchers. On the defensive side, it’s something of a mixed bag. At the plate, Suzuki has greatly improved. He’s been able to make better use of his somewhat modest raw power.
Remember that this is a catcher we’re talking about. Suzuki’s two-year wRC+ is 118. The league’s two-year catcher wRC+ is 87, as opposed to the overall position-player average of 100. It’s even worse if you just focus on the Nationals — since the start of 2017, their catchers have combined for a wRC+ of 60, tied with the Red Sox for last in the majors. The Red Sox catchers, at least, have been considered quality defenders. Not so much the case for the Nationals. This is the position that Suzuki is addressing. Any kind of productivity will be welcome.
Suzuki, even now, is hardly a slugger, but looking into the splits, it’s not hard to spot where he’s changed. From the beginning, he’s excelled at getting the bat on the ball. But between 2015 and 2016, Suzuki had a 118 wRC+ on fly balls and liners, ranking him in the lowest percentile in the majors. Between 2017 and 2018, he had a 180 wRC+ on fly balls and liners, ranking him in the 24th percentile in the majors. That’s still not great, but it’s meaningful movement. And here’s what’s happened:
Suzuki has been better able to pull the ball in the air. He’s never been a real threat to the opposite field, and even in 2015 – 2016, Suzuki’s pull rate on air balls ranked him in the 64th percentile. Yet, in 2017 – 2018, his pull rate on air balls ranked him in the 99th percentile. Higher than almost literally everyone. That’s where the added power has come from.
Later-career Kurt Suzuki has hit like Didi Gregorius. He’s hit like Michael Brantley. He’s hit like Yuli Gurriel, or Wilmer Flores. Because of Suzuki’s age, he’s going to decline at some point — no one can play well forever. The next two years probably won’t be quite as good as the last. But the last two years have been really quite good, as Suzuki has quietly turned himself into a quality hitter. One of the better contact hitters in baseball has knocked a few extra balls out of the yard. The Nationals aren’t waiting around to fix their big-league roster, and this is another little move that should help them contend, no matter what happens with that free-agent superstar.
Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.
What about LH/RH splits? His OPS is great, defensive flexibility not so much, but does he accumulate more time platooning than the others mentioned in the OPS board for catchers?
I think his lower playing time is a function partly of his age (35) and partly of his defense (not great at throwing out runners).
He’s had a 107 and a 105 wRC+ against righties the last two years, in 244 and 293 PA, respectively.
He’s had 202 (!) and 118 against lefties in only 65 and 95 PA, respectively.
If anything, he should probably start against more lefties. Tyler Flowers kills lefties, so that’s probably why Suzuki hasn’t started against every lefty. But he should in Washington.
Not unless the Nats make a move for a lefty-hitting catcher. While Suzuki doesn’t have significant platoon splits, the current back up (Spencer Kieboom) hits better against LHP than RHP.
The Braves used Flowers and Suzuki in a timeshare, rather than a platoon. When healthy, they alternated starts regardless of starter handedness. His numbers aren’t a product of being shielded from RHed pitching.