Over a Twins Daily, the discussion regarding what to do with catcher Kurt Suzuki leading up to the trade deadline was a highly debated topic.
On one hand, the Twins have a commodity that is having one of the best years of his career and his trade value might never be greater. For an organization trying to rebuild, capitalizing on this value would be beneficial by potentially bringing in new talent with the option of finding a new catcher in free agency again this winter if need be (though, admittedly, the trade market for Suzuki never seemed to materialize after the Cardinals and Orioles appeared uninterested in the backstop). On the other, you have a player who is well-respected on the team and provides a stable presence in a vital position. While not necessarily a defensive whiz, pitchers like Phil Hughes, Glen Perkins and Kyle Gibson have all touted and benefitted from his abilities.
Leaving those elements aside, let us simply focus on the question of whether or not Suzuki can sustain his offensive output over the duration of his extension.
As far as catchers, Suzuki has been an on-base machine as of late. Dating back to August of last year, he has had the third-highest OBP among American League catchers. That figure is buoyed by the best batting average (.306). At the same time, his power numbers have been awful. His isolated slugging percentage (.085) is the second-lowest in all of baseball in that duration. Nevertheless, with a position that places an emphasis on defense, having a handler who can produce those on-base numbers at the expense of power is a net positive. But can it continue?
When a player in the middle of his career suddenly has his best offensive season, there is an immediate tendency to consider it an anomaly. The belief is that because of this single-season spike, regression will often follow. For this reason, Suzuki’s 2014 numbers have rightfully been scrutinized. At 30 years old and in his eighth season in the majors, the Minnesota Twins’ catcher has significantly outperformed his numbers -- specifically the batting average and his on-base percentage.
Is he suddenly hitting rockets around the field? Absolutely not. According to ESPN/trumedia Suzuki’s Hard Hit Average (an observation-based metric from Inside Edge’s video scouts that measures if a ball was well-struck or not) has been the lowest since his 2009 season. No one watching would be fooled into thinking he is hitting frozen ropes around the yard but he’s hitting them where they ain’t. While he is in possession of his lowest Hard Hit Average in the past seven years, he has compiled his highest batting average on balls in play -- a gaudy .324 compared to his .274 career average.
To summarize, Suzuki's current success if based on the fact that he is hitting pitches softer than ever and is yet somehow finding seams and vacant real estate. That’s not reassuring, is it?
In spite of these key indicators that would suggest massive regression in his future, Suzuki’s improvement goes beyond luck.
At the beginning of the season when Suzuki came out of the gates on fire, I reviewed his video footage and noticed a small yet important change in his swing: He altered his front foot landing.
Look at the comparison of the clips below. In the first clip from when he was with the Washington Nationals in 2013, Suzuki swung his leg open slightly and landed toward the pitcher. In the clip from this season, Suzuki’s stride and landing would keep him slightly toward first base.
This has allowed for improved plate coverage for Suzuki. Already a disciplinarian when it comes to the strike zone, he struggled with pitches on the outside portion of the plate.
According to ESPN/TruMedia’s data, from 2009 through July 2013, he hit just .230 on pitches away. Since implementing the changes after being traded to Oakland last year, he has batted .297 on pitches outside. No longer would he be pulling away from those pitches but better suited to drive them, as his line drive rate increased along with the changes.
Also note the position of his hands. Instead of moving them to load, as he is seen doing while with the Nationals, he keeps his hands back at the onset and has little movement when loading.
Along with the firm front side, Suzuki shows less head movement which appears to be resulting in improved contact. Because of this, assigning his offensive performance in 2014 to luck does not seem like the right conclusion.
Off The Bat
Along with the mechanical tweak, Suzuki’s approach has shifted as well.
At one time a marginal power producer, he has seen that decline significantly in 2014. Part of the impetus is the fact that he is no longer hitting fly balls. Instead, he is putting up the highest line drive and ground ball rates of his career -- also a product of his changes as he hits the top-middle of the ball more frequently. This is important to note because line drives and ground balls become hits more often than fly balls but at the expense of power.
If he is able to maintain this batted ball distribution -- which based on his mechanical changes seems plausible -- then Suzuki has a better chance of continuing to hit safely and thereby sustaining his on-base percentage.
To be sure, Suzuki will likely see some decline in his numbers over the next two seasons because of age and some balls not squeaking through the infield. After all, teams are deploying Tom Verducci's illegal defenses at an alarming rate this year and they may figure out a way to combat Suzuki's ground balls as well. Still, with his mechanical adjustment and his sound approach at the plate, Suzuki has the potential to continue this output at a similar level for the next two years.