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Article: Will Kurt Suzuki's Offense Continue?

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#1 Parker Hageman

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Posted 01 August 2014 - 07:48 AM

At 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 some would like you to believe, pitchers like Phil Hughes, Glen Perkins and Kyle Gibson have all touted and benefited 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 go, 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 of 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?

Small Changes
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.

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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 he would be better suited to drive them, as his line drive rate increased 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 this 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 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.

Conclusion
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.

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#2 Mike Frasier Law

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Posted 01 August 2014 - 08:11 AM

Do you think those adjustments help account for his career best k% rate and nearly career best bb% rate? He's at 8.3% for both, which is a pretty solid k% rate (third best among qualified hitters in the league, led by Revere at 8.0%)


#3 Brandon

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Posted 01 August 2014 - 08:18 AM

I think he can hit .280 with 25 2Bs with 1 walk per 10 AB for the next 2 seasons.  If it was longer than that age will start to creep in.  I think he'll be fine for his age 31 and 32 seasons. 

 

Brian Harper hit like that through age 34.  based on that and a bunch of other research I would be more concerned with his age 34-36 seasons. That's when he brakes down for good in my estimation.


#4 Thegrin

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Posted 01 August 2014 - 08:45 AM

Thank you Parker.  Your earlier article   has strongly affected my attitude towards Suzuki this season. http://twinsdaily.co...the-plate-r2553

Every season sees a couple older players rethink their batting approach and have continued success into their mid to late 30's. (see Cuddyer last year, time will tell how he will be after his injury.) 

Suzuki doesn't try to do too much. He has been a consistent bat at the back end of the Twins batting order. His ability to handle pitchers should not diminish with age.

He can be a mentor to Pinto & Hermann.  It is good for a young player to watch good catching as well as listening to the wisdom of the coaches.

If Suzuki can maintain his better batting average and on base percentage he can also be an example for the young hitters as well.


#5 Badsmerf

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Posted 01 August 2014 - 09:22 AM

Parker, you are immensely valuable to this website. That foot placement also would force him to hit the top part of the ball, resulting in less power and a higher average. I don't really like it, because a closed stance doesn't allow you to fully open your hips and square a ball up. At some point defenses will adjust. Still, if he can continue his plate discipline and maintain a nice OBP he will be worth his contract.

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#6 Parker Hageman

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Posted 01 August 2014 - 09:49 AM

Parker, you are immensely valuable to this website. That foot placement also would force him to hit the top part of the ball, resulting in less power and a higher average. I don't really like it, because a closed stance doesn't allow you to fully open your hips and square a ball up. At some point defenses will adjust. Still, if he can continue his plate discipline and maintain a nice OBP he will be worth his contract.

 

First off, thanks.

 

In regards to staying closed a losing the ability to square the ball, I am perfectly fine with that for Suzuki. If he were a different type of hitter (an Arcia or someone with power potential) I would probably have more concern. However with Suzuki's high contact approach, I am OK with sacrificing the occasional extra base hit via a fly ball for additional base hits and the added OBP. He does fire open well when he is hunting for inside pitches too. 

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#7 iastfan112

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Posted 02 August 2014 - 05:30 PM

His BABIP is .50 points higher then his career average and its not merely a function of somewhat changed batted ball profiles, he's getting better average off of each type of contact then he has in the past 3 seasons. I'm not convinced by the small changes and write off most of this season as "luck".  I see him hitting .275 with little power in a realistic best case scenario and would not be shocked to see him dip back down around .240.


#8 Parker Hageman

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Posted 02 August 2014 - 05:48 PM

His BABIP is .50 points higher then his career average and its not merely a function of somewhat changed batted ball profiles, he's getting better average off of each type of contact then he has in the past 3 seasons. I'm not convinced by the small changes and write off most of this season as "luck".  I see him hitting .275 with little power in a realistic best case scenario and would not be shocked to see him dip back down around .240.

 

So, in spite of the mechanical changes, the increase in contact and different batted ball distribution, you still think it is simply "luck"?

 

Interesting.


#9 USAFChief

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Posted 02 August 2014 - 06:19 PM

So, in spite of the mechanical changes, the increase in contact and different batted ball distribution, you still think it is simply "luck"?

 

Interesting.

You've looked at lots of video, right Parker?  Is this slight difference in front foot placement consistent, or is it simply the difference in a swing off a RH pitcher on a pitch tailing in over the inside corner, and a swing off a LH pitcher towards the outer half of the plate?

 

I don't know, of course, but I'll admit to skepticism that a small change in the placement of his front foot is going to have a long term, big influence on his hitting skills.  I could be wrong...I hope so.

Go Twins!


#10 Brock Beauchamp

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Posted 02 August 2014 - 06:28 PM

You've looked at lots of video, right Parker?  Is this slight difference in front foot placement consistent, or is it simply the difference in a swing off a RH pitcher on a pitch tailing in over the inside corner, and a swing off a LH pitcher towards the outer half of the plate?

 

I don't know, of course, but I'll admit to skepticism that a small change in the placement of his front foot is going to have a long term, big influence on his hitting skills.  I could be wrong...I hope so.

 

I don't know if it's the foot but something has changed. Suzuki is currently posting five-year bests in the following categories:

 

Swinging Strike %

Contact %

Swing %

Outside Zone Swing %

 

Is all of this luck? It's possible but when a guy is swinging less and making better contact than he has in five years, there's at least a decent chance that something significant has changed in his swing.

 

Even if his BABIP drops next season, the fact that he's putting wood on good pitches and swinging less at bad pitches leads me to believe that something bigger than "luck" is involved in his 2014 success.


#11 DocBauer

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Posted 02 August 2014 - 07:42 PM

First off, I wasn't opposed to selling high on Suzuki if there were a quality return available. But I really like the re-signing. There really isn't anything in the upcoming FA period that probably surpasses his ability/value. Arguements can be made his signing blocks Pinto. And I don't know, perhaps that is true. But then again, if Pinto is not yet truly ready to be an everyday catcher, debateable I know, it's too valuable position to just be throw open to "whatever's" and "will sees". At the end of the day, even forgetting offense, and throwing out runners and pitch framing, a catcher's number one job is calling a good game, having the trust of the staff, and just flat out catching and blocking the ball. Suzuki is good at those things. He still might prove tradeable if/when Pinto proves ready. And if it doesn't happen, he's a solid option until Garver and others should be ready/closer. And as someone pointed out elsewhere, his contract isn't so great that the Twins would feel bad about sliding him in to a reserve role. Parker, your observations are awesome and very much appreciated. And I hope your thoughts here on Suzuki are acurate and he can continue to hit at a rate at least close to what he's been doing. I haven't broken down his hitting in detail, but casual observation and reports have him as a hitter earlier in his career before his slid, and now re-birth. But he has always made decent contact overall, and not been a burden OB% wise. There aren't many catchers that are true offensive forces. Goodness knows how spoiled we've been with Mauer behind the plate the past few years! But the reality is he's not behind the dish any longer, and while the Twins have 3-5 interesting C prospects in the lower minors, they are not close. Pinto still has a real chance. And I would argue and debate about Herrmann as well, even as a decent and versatile backup. The same for Pinto as a DH backup type at worst. Not to be trite about things, but honestly, to paraphrase an old parable: having one solid starting catcher in hand is better than two in the minor (bush) leagues. Even should Suzuki regress beyond this year's performance, expected to some degree, but could maintain the changes you've pointed out here, a .270-.280 hitter with contact and decent OB%, at a defensive position near the bottom of the order would still be a solid! contributing player in the lineup.

"Nice catch Hayes...don't ever f*****g do it again."

 

--Lou Brown


#12 spycake

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Posted 02 August 2014 - 09:35 PM

So, in spite of the mechanical changes, the increase in contact and different batted ball distribution, you still think it is simply "luck"?

 

Interesting.

To be fair, Parker, you've had similar articles this year about Plouffe and Parmelee, both of whom have reverted to career norms shortly thereafter.  (Actually, maybe you should stop posting these articles about Twins who are hitting well. Post a few about good White Sox hitters for a change. :) )  Mechanical changes leading to a temporary different result, while not "luck" in the traditional sense, is probably pretty close to "baseball luck" as commonly understood.

 

That said, I pretty much agree with you, although the ground-ball rate and lack of power trouble me to a degree, especially since the walk rate increase isn't that huge and he's not likely to have a lot of protection in the Twins lineup.  Seems like pitchers and fielders are going to have a lot of latitude to adjust on this guy, and I'm not sure if any of his changes are significant enough to withstand those tests.


#13 ShouldaCouldaWoulda

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Posted 02 August 2014 - 09:47 PM

I have heard the talk of him handling the staff well, but is that quantifiable? Not sure they are all that accurate, but all of the advanced statistics for catcher defense show him to be one of the worst catchers in the league. Terrible framing, range, and throwing runners out. Looks like he just doesn't miss the easy balls to block is all. If a guy is likable and outgoing, would that ever possible lead others to say good things about him? Maybe he really does call a good game, but are there many catchers that call really bad games? He just doesn't seem to pass the eye test as a good catcher while watching him either. Maybe I am missing something, I am not buying his bat though either. Can't remember where I read it recently, but there was an article that showed that pitchers have started to simply challenge him straight down the plate and its working.  Means they don't fear his bat. All that said, its not like we have a better option..im just not buying into him being all that good defensively or offensively. He does seem likable and i hope i am wat wrong on him.


#14 Brock Beauchamp

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Posted 02 August 2014 - 09:54 PM

Can't remember where I read it recently, but there was an article that showed that pitchers have started to simply challenge him straight down the plate and its working.

 

Is it? Suzuki's .811 OPS in July was his best of the season.


#15 Parker Hageman

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Posted 02 August 2014 - 10:26 PM

To be fair, Parker, you've had similar articles this year about Plouffe and Parmelee, both of whom have reverted to career norms shortly thereafter.  (Actually, maybe you should stop posting these articles about Twins who are hitting well. Post a few about good White Sox hitters for a change. :) )  Mechanical changes leading to a temporary different result, while not "luck" in the traditional sense, is probably pretty close to "baseball luck" as commonly understood.

 

That's a fair point and I was actually wondering when someone was going to bring some of those up. That said, the changes are not created equal and do depend on the foundation of the hitter. In Parmelee's case, this gave him more power but his swing had plenty of holes in it to begin with. Plouffe's changes resulted in more up the middle/opposite field batted balls but cost him some power numbers. In both cases, I noted that the changes left them susceptible to adjustments from pitchers. In Parmelee's case, they pitched him up while Plouffe them pitched him down and away more. Suzuki did not have the same hole in his swing as either of these two. 


#16 Parker Hageman

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Posted 02 August 2014 - 10:31 PM

You've looked at lots of video, right Parker?  Is this slight difference in front foot placement consistent, or is it simply the difference in a swing off a RH pitcher on a pitch tailing in over the inside corner, and a swing off a LH pitcher towards the outer half of the plate?

 

I don't know, of course, but I'll admit to skepticism that a small change in the placement of his front foot is going to have a long term, big influence on his hitting skills.  I could be wrong...I hope so.

 

It is consistent. Keep an eye on it when watching the games. 


#17 Lonestar

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Posted 03 August 2014 - 07:12 AM

My biggest concern about Suzuki (besides blocking Pinto) is that the Twins will play him too much, wearing him out.  That has happened in the past.  The Twins need a much better backup, preferably one with some versatility like Pinto or Hermann.

 

On a side note, it's interesting that the Twins have trusted the development of Meyer and May to Pinto and Hermann.  I wonder what Meyer and May have to say about Pinto's catching.




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