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  • Is the Twins' Kurt Suzuki for Real?

    When the Minnesota Twins signed Kurt Suzuki this past offseason the focus was on his defensive capabilities and his offensive abilities were basically an afterthought.

    “We wanted to add some leadership to help the pitching staff,” Twins assistant general manager Rob Antony said in March. “We went out and got some starting pitching, but we also wanted somebody to help them on defense. With Joe [Mauer] moving to first, we were willing to sacrifice some offense for defense.”

    So far this year, the leadership with the staff has not manifested into success in the rotation but, more surprising, is the fact that Suzuki has outhit the catcher emeritus.

    Coming into the season Suzuki had a .253/.309/.375 (average/on-base/slugging) career line. While the 74 plate appearances this season are nothing to base any accurate assessment on, it should be noted that he is hitting an unexpectedly robust .305/.397/.407 and his performance has been largely overshadowed by the production of players like Chris Colabello, Trevor Plouffe, Jason Kubel and Josmil Pinto. But with nearly a month in the books, this is starting to deserve attention.

    Under most circumstances this sort of spike would scream small sample size success ripe for regression -- after all, Suzuki’s career rates do not point to sustainability at this level. While there is likely regression in the future, Suzuki has made some adjustments at the plate that may stave off the decline.

    Below are two clips of Suzuki’s mechanics from 2013 with the Washington Nationals and this year with the Twins:



    The thing that should jump out is the stride and front-foot landing. With the Nationals Suzuki’s front foot would land almost straight at the pitcher. This year’s version has Suzuki landing with a closed front-side, having his front side aiming towards the second baseman and his foot strike closer to the plate.


    Suzuki changed to this style at some point following his late season trade from Washington to Oakland. Since the trade, he has been hitting .304/.380/.457 with a 9-to-12 strikeout-to-walk rate in 109 plate appearances.

    For Suzuki, an already above-average contact machine with good strike zone comprehension, this approach has greatly improved his coverage. According to ESPN/TruMedia’s data, from the beginning of 2012 until his trade to Oakland, Suzuki hit just .220/.270/.270 with a 17% swing-and-miss rate when being pitched away. Since then, he has posted a solid .308/.373/.423 with a 10% swing-and-miss rate on those same type of pitches. He also jumped from an 18% line drive rate to 27% line drive rate suggesting that the contact was superior as well.

    In addition to the success when being pitched away, Suzuki is seeing strong production on pitches up in the zone, another area he has struggled with in the past. Again, from 2012 until his trade to the Athletics, he hit .153/.279/.193 with a 16% swing-and-miss rate. Post-A’s trade, Suzuki has been hitting .414/.500/.483 with a 4% swing-and-miss rate on pitches up in the zone.

    These are both positive signs that Suzuki’s adjustment has been the source of his unexpected offensive numbers and not just a small sample size fluke. That being said, it is a small sample size and that fact cannot be ignored. Whatever the Twins can get out of Suzuki offensively that goes above and beyond the previous expectations is gravy.

    Now about that leadership for the starting rotation...
    Comments 16 Comments
    1. Sconnie's Avatar
      Sconnie -
      It looks like Zuke rolls over the outside of his front foot, wouldn't he get more solid contact planting that foot on the stride? At least he would get of the batters box quicker.

      Good stuff Parker, I hope Zuke's hitting continues, and I agree with you. For as much of a deal was made about his catching and leadership, I haven't seen the results.
    1. cmathewson's Avatar
      cmathewson -
      It would be interesting to see the difference between where the Suzuki sets up and where the pitches are thrown. I've seen more pitches across the plate from his glove than I remember seeing from a Twins staff. And a lot of pitches are much higher than his glove. With the exception of Gibson, they have not been hitting his glove regularly. Leadership means nothing if they don't execute the pitches he calls.
    1. Gernzy's Avatar
      Gernzy -
      Suzuki has been one of the pleasant surprises on this team. The offense has made this team fun to watch.
      Now if the starters can get it under control, we might be able to contend.
    1. kab21's Avatar
      kab21 -
      I think people need to realize that suzuki posted a pair of excellent seasons at 24/25 and wasn't actually that bad the following two years (close to a .700 OPS at catcher). The strange thing is if he can break this downward trend (2 very good years, 2 fairly good years followed by 2 bad years).
    1. DJL44's Avatar
      DJL44 -
      Quote Originally Posted by cmathewson View Post
      I've seen more pitches across the plate from his glove than I remember seeing from a Twins staff.
      Nolasco was terrible at that last week against the Rays. His ball was moving but he couldn't hit his spots. If Nolasco hits his spots he's pitching as well as last year.
    1. BigTrane's Avatar
      BigTrane -
      Guess what I'm gonna say...?

      Nice to see some love for Suke, especially given his accomplishments, especially contrasted with the many dire predictions 'round these parts during the offseason.

      In other words, I've been a believer since the signing.

      What's intriguing to me is that his improvement is not unique in the Twins offense. Somebody (hint, hint) needs to dig into the approach at the plate and find out if it's Bruno or Molly who accounts for the change. Anyway, can't argue with results...

      The surprise for me, though, has been his defense. Haven't seen a game yet (limited sample size) where he excelled. Rotation? You could point to Gibson... or Pelfrey and Correia.

      But we already know about them.
    1. LaBombo's Avatar
      LaBombo -
      Nice work on the comparison between the two swings; it's certainly possible that it's contributing to an improvement in his offense.

      That being said, no, it's not likely that Suzuki can sustain a .300 average over 400+ AB's, let alone a walk rate more than double his career average.

      Maybe a more valuable question to have the answer to is whether he can sustain a more realistic level of performance somewhere around halfway between his career and current average and OBP.

      A .275 average and .350 OBP with a slugging average in the high .3's with good defense would make him a valuable backup to an offense-first catcher like Pinto, but it shouldn't even begin to distract the Twins from the their task of grooming Pinto to be the primary catcher.
    1. Dave T's Avatar
      Dave T -
      Agree completely. That's why I think Pinto will be demoted to AAA as soon as Arcia or Willingham are ready. The team really needed a DH, and Pinto delivered, but he's not ready to be up here as a catcher.
    1. longstrangetrip's Avatar
      longstrangetrip -
      I have really enjoyed watching Suzuki take professional at bats this year. And the difference between him and Pinto defensively is vast (that's another issue, but Pinto has been a huge disappointment to me behind the plate so far).

      That said, I wonder if he really has changed his stride, or if we are just seeing an appropriate reaction to two very different pitches. In the first one, he gets a very good 2-seam fastball that dives inside, forcing him to open up his hips a little quicker. Striding toward the plate would have been ineffective against a pitch like that. In the second example, though, he gets a pitch up and away, and the appropriate response was to stride more toward the plate (he should have driven that pitch to the right center gap though...trying to pull it almost always results in a roller to the SS).

      I'd like to see video of Zuke against the same type of pitch, last year and this, to see if he has really changed his approach.
    1. Parker Hageman's Avatar
      Parker Hageman -
      That said, I wonder if he really has changed his stride, or if we are just seeing an appropriate reaction to two very different pitches. In the first one, he gets a very good 2-seam fastball that dives inside, forcing him to open up his hips a little quicker...
      Don't worry: I cull through a lot of video before selecting samples that appropriately demonstrate the trend. Yes, they are different locations of the same velocity of pitch but over the course of his time with the Nationals, the stride was the same -- straight-forward. Since joining the A's and now with the Twins, he has strided closer to home plate.

      If you notice the picture below, both of those are fastballs in the inside portion of the zone. Suzuki (video link here: http://m.mlb.com/video/v32000981/?c_id=mlb).

      Wonder no longer! He has changed his stride.
    1. cmathewson's Avatar
      cmathewson -
      Quote Originally Posted by Dave T View Post
      Agree completely. That's why I think Pinto will be demoted to AAA as soon as Arcia or Willingham are ready. The team really needed a DH, and Pinto delivered, but he's not ready to be up here as a catcher.
      Huh? He's hitting .402/.495/897 this year .398/.566/.963. He has nothing left to prove in AAA.

      He's made a couple of throwing errors, but otherwise, he's done a nice job receiving when given the opportunity. Who would you have as the back-up if not him?
    1. jokin's Avatar
      jokin -
      Quote Originally Posted by cmathewson View Post
      Huh? He's hitting .402/.495/897 this year .398/.566/.963. He has nothing left to prove in AAA.

      He's made a couple of throwing errors, but otherwise, he's done a nice job receiving when given the opportunity. Who would you have as the back-up if not him?
      I'm not sure you can say Pinto's done a "nice job" receiving. "OK" for a rookie, probably. Obviously, the results indicate that he hasn't passed the framing test. Stopping and controlling errant low pitches is also an area for improvement. FWIW...,.of 56 Catchers rated defensively by Fangraphs, Pinto ranks 51st, down there in John Buck, Derek Norris territory:

      http://www.fangraphs.com/leaders.asp...ter=&players=0
    1. longstrangetrip's Avatar
      longstrangetrip -
      Quote Originally Posted by jokin View Post
      I'm not sure you can say Pinto's done a "nice job" receiving. "OK" for a rookie, probably. Obviously, the results indicate that he hasn't passed the framing test. Stopping and controlling errant low pitches is also an area for improvement. FWIW...,.of 56 Catchers rated defensively by Fangraphs, Pinto ranks 51st, down there in John Buck, Derek Norris territory:

      http://www.fangraphs.com/leaders.asp...ter=&players=0
      I have to agree with jokin's take on Pinto defensively, although I don't think I would even call him OK for a rookie. Yes, his throwing has been terrible, but I have actually been disappointed with all aspects of his catching, including framing and moving his feet. I have to admit that I'm not yet convinced that he is the catcher of the future...seems like he has a long way to go.

      This really presents a dilemma for the Twins, because his hitting has exceeded my expectations. I don't think his propensity for walks is an aberration...he seems to have an uncanny ability to lay off breaking stuff out of the zone that eats up so many young hitters. And when he gets his pitch, he hits it as hard as anybody on the team. He has a major league bat...now they have to figure out where to play him. If they want him to be a catcher, I don't think that catching 1-2 games a week is going to help him. As much as I love his bat, I'd be inclined to send him down when Arcia and Willingham are ready, so he can catch 5 days a week and try to master the trade. It's too early to think of him as just a DH, but I think he's going to have to put in a lot of work before he's ready to be a No. 1 catcher in the bigs.
    1. Clare's Avatar
      Clare -
      Thanks for this interesting analysis again Parker. Always insightful. What struck me most when I watched the video was how still his head is now compared to before. He appeared to dip and change the level of his head then. Now he appears to stay on the same plane and, in this swing at least, really drives through the ball.
    1. cmathewson's Avatar
      cmathewson -
      Quote Originally Posted by longstrangetrip View Post
      I have to agree with jokin's take on Pinto defensively, although I don't think I would even call him OK for a rookie. Yes, his throwing has been terrible, but I have actually been disappointed with all aspects of his catching, including framing and moving his feet. I have to admit that I'm not yet convinced that he is the catcher of the future...seems like he has a long way to go.

      This really presents a dilemma for the Twins, because his hitting has exceeded my expectations. I don't think his propensity for walks is an aberration...he seems to have an uncanny ability to lay off breaking stuff out of the zone that eats up so many young hitters. And when he gets his pitch, he hits it as hard as anybody on the team. He has a major league bat...now they have to figure out where to play him. If they want him to be a catcher, I don't think that catching 1-2 games a week is going to help him. As much as I love his bat, I'd be inclined to send him down when Arcia and Willingham are ready, so he can catch 5 days a week and try to master the trade. It's too early to think of him as just a DH, but I think he's going to have to put in a lot of work before he's ready to be a No. 1 catcher in the bigs.
      That's not what I've seen. Though, admittedly, I've only seen him catch three games on TV. But he sets a good target. He has a strong arm, which was accurate early and has looked a bit rusty lately. His form on catch-and-tag plays is as good as I've seen. And he is the second best guy the Twins have at blocking pitches.

      It's easy to say he has work to do, which I will freely admit. But he is clearly the second best defensive catcher in the system. Having watched Hermann and Fryer, I can say they belong in AAA, at that. They're not even close at any of the skills I list above. Pinto is not great, but he is adequate. And he is learning from the best tutor in the organization--Terry Steinbach.

      People forget when they criticize guys: It's not about all the stuff guys have to work on. It's how they stack up against the competition in the organization. Every guy has stuff to work on. But as long as he's better than the guy below him, there should be no talk of sending him down in favor of an inferior player. Should he start ahead of Suzuki? Not at this time. But he's still young for a catcher. And he can learn.
    1. Parker Hageman's Avatar
      Parker Hageman -
      What struck me most when I watched the video was how still his head is now compared to before. He appeared to dip and change the level of his head then. Now he appears to stay on the same plane and, in this swing at least, really drives through the ball.
      Very good observation.
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