Pick the Catcher

Officially, Ronald Acuna Jr. has been promoted. It’s right there on the transaction wire, with Peter Bourjos getting designated for assignment to make room. In short, it’s Acuna Day, or at least, it’s the first of what people hope will be hundreds or thousands of Acuna Days to celebrate. All the ugliness about service-time manipulation — it’s all still there, and it’s going to happen again, but at least Acuna himself won’t have to play in the minors ever again, barring a slump or a rehab stint. Today is the first day that Acuna will earn a major-league salary.

Acuna is pretty much the center of attention. Indirectly, though, that makes the Braves kind of the center of attention on the team scale. And, you know what, all things considered, the Braves have had a pretty strong start, even without their top prospect. They have more wins than losses, and one thing I’ve been struck by are surprise contributions from various journeymen. Even though he’s presently hurt, the Braves have gotten use out of Anibal Sanchez. Ryan Flaherty has been outstanding in the infield, even though he’ll shortly be replaced by Jose Bautista. Preston Tucker has been fine as a regular outfielder, even though he’s being replaced by Acuna. And then there’s backup catcher Kurt Suzuki. The backup to the currently injured Tyler Flowers.

For Suzuki, we’re not talking about only a productive first month. This would’ve been incredibly easy to miss, but Suzuki was tremendous in 2017, too, as a part-timer. Then the Braves re-signed him for $3.5 million. It’s been a long time since Suzuki was considered someone compelling. He’s 34 years old, which means he doesn’t have many playing years left. I don’t know how much more Kurt Suzuki is going to do. But as a fun little exercise, I’ve put together a short quiz. Let us give Suzuki the credit he deserves.

Contact

Traditional Hitting

Power Hitting

Overall Hitting

Advanced Hitting

Statcast!

Are you all done? I hope so. And, what use is a quiz, if you never get to know the answers? The answer to the first question is Suzuki. Only Jonathan Lucroy has struck out at a lower rate, among catchers. The answer to the second question is Suzuki. Only Buster Posey has hit for a higher average, among catchers. The answer to the third question is Suzuki. No other catcher has hit for so high an ISO. The answer to the fourth question is Suzuki. Only Austin Barnes has produced a higher wRC+, among catchers. The answer to the fifth question is Suzuki. Only three other catchers have hit for a higher expected wOBA. At last, the answer to the sixth question is Zunino. Come on now.

For Kurt Suzuki — the long-time unremarkable Kurt Suzuki — it’s been a stunning late-career development. One would’ve thought that, when Suzuki entered his mid-30s, he would’ve gradually faded away. What upside did he honestly have? Quite a bit of it, it turns out. There’s no other way to interpret this table.

Kurt Suzuki
Year(s) PA BA OBP SLG wRC+ BB% K% GB% HR/FB% Pull% Hard%
2012 – 2016 2113 0.252 0.303 0.353 78 6% 12% 42% 4% 43% 28%
2017 – 2018 375 0.290 0.361 0.547 137 6% 12% 34% 17% 51% 35%

Suzuki’s power has taken off, and he’s practically doubled his wRC+. He’s hit far more fly balls, and he’s hit far more balls toward left field, yet he hasn’t had to sacrifice any contact or discipline. Absolutely, a sample of 375 plate appearances is not all that big. And Suzuki has probably benefited from being overlooked — what pitchers are going out there worried about how they’ll face Kurt Suzuki, of all people? But there’s still a change here, a meaningful change, around exactly the age when we might’ve expected Suzuki to have to settle for an NRI or two. As Suzuki demonstrates all by himself, even a 33-year-old isn’t too old to improve. And the explanations don’t have to be complicated.

“I used to do a one-handed finish in batting practice, and I wouldn’t do it in the game, and I’d tell myself mentally in the game to do it, to let go with one hand, and I couldn’t do it,” Suzuki said. “So (Seitzer) said, ‘Why don’t you just practice the way you hit in the game?’ So I went and hit and I probably hit about 150 balls that day. I just tried to be loose and finish with two hands until it became a habit. I can’t let go now, it’s hard for me to let go with one hand. So it’s instilled now.”

That explanation doesn’t even really talk about Suzuki’s in-game swing. If he’s made a change, it’s been to his batting-practice swing, which, okay. This isn’t the usual order of things. But I’m not here to do a Kurt Suzuki deep dive. I’m sure he’s made a few other adjustments. I’m not going to break down Suzuki’s current hitting mechanics, alongside videos of the way he used to swing. The only real point here is to highlight the astonishing but undeniable fact that, since the start of last season, Kurt Suzuki has been one of the very best offensive catchers in baseball. He’s hit better than just about everyone else, and yet he’s not even the Braves catcher who’s drawn the most attention. Tyler Flowers has made his own progress, and Suzuki has been outstanding in the shadows.

I don’t know what it means, except that many of us probably get far too comfortable with our own ideas of player ceilings and development curves. We don’t actually know how good a given player can become. And we don’t actually know when a given player is too old to get better. You’re not likely to see too many cases like Kurt Suzuki’s. But, that’s one.





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.

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TomahawkChoppermember
4 years ago

Thanks, Jeff. Since the beginning of 2017, Kurt Suzuki has the 24th highest wRC+ in baseball, the 22nd highest wOBA, the 22nd highest ISO, the 18th highest FB% and the 16th highest SLG (minimum 350 PAs).

Yirmiyahu
4 years ago

Just as unexpected: since the start of 2017, the Braves are 2nd only to the Dodgers in catcher WAR (5.8). Both Suzuki and Flowers have been defying their projections.