I can’t say that I was a fan of acquiring Kurt Suzuki last January.
Not sure anyone would give more than a nacho order for Suzuki, but okay. It’s not the worst signing – just seems unneeded.
— Tommy Poe (@WalkOffWalk1) January 21, 2017
At the time, it seemed just as useful to bring a couple of journeymen catchers to camp to compete with Anthony Recker for the backup job. But someone saw something in Suzuki and fortunately for the Braves, Kevin Seitzer and Suzuki quickly meshed as a combo. The Braves hitting coach worked with Suzuki to alter his swing during practice. After a great deal of work, Suzuki found power he had never shown in previous seasons. For instance, from 2013 to the end of 2016, Suzuki hit 21 homers with a .102 ISO in 1671 plate appearances. Entering play Saturday, Suzuki had hit 18 home runs this season in 287 plate appearances with a .255 ISO.
This newfound success for a guy who was still without a job on January 21 of this year has been astounding. For a signing that angered many because they passed on Matt Wieters, Suzuki has turned into one of John Coppolella’s gems. In addition to setting a personal high in home runs, Suzuki will post just his second season of a 100 rRC+ or better along with his second 2-win season since 2009. While his framing continues to be below-average, his other defensive metrics are positive even if he’s not throwing out too many runners.
The question turns to how likely Suzuki is to repeat his success in 2018. Well, the answer is not likely, but that’s not necessarily going to make this extension not worth the investment. Beyond the price tag, which is a reported $3.5 million base salary, Suzuki has made some adjustments that could lead to continued success in 2018 even if the catcher falls back to Earth a bit. The Braves like to swing as a team and be aggressive at the plate, which may have worked in Suzuki’s favor. He grew up in the A’s organization, one that preaches patience. While I prefer the approach, it doesn’t work for everyone. This season, Suzuki has swung at 53% of all pitches seen, roughly 9% higher than his career rate. With a better swing in general, more swings should lead to better contact and that is exactly what we have seen. With a 34% hard-hit rate, he’s 7% above his career average. Finally, Suzuki’s not necessarily hitting the ball much harder (about a 2mph average exit velocity better than 2016), but he is making a higher quality of contact. Last year, he averaged 2.1 barrels per plate appearance, ranked 377th. This year, it’s up 5.6 brls/PA – or 122nd right behind Corey Seager.
Further, a lot of the so-called luck stats don’t apply here. The big one is BABIP and Suzuki is actually below his career average. It’s also worth mentioning that his swing mechanics have also led to a higher pull rate, which depending on the player can be a good or bad thing. When it comes to Suzuki, it’s difficult to think it’s anything but good at this point. He’s also put a stop to three years of a below 40% flyball rate. A lot was written earlier this season about Yonder Alonso‘s flyball rate, which was leading to big power numbers. Suzuki upped his flyball rate 10% in one year and 9% over his career average. The changes at the plate have led to a lot of positive results and to some degree, these results could be sustainable.
To some degree. It would be foolish to expect Suzuki to continue to post a .255 ISO. But it’s not foolish to expect Suzuki to post good numbers in 2018, even if it will be his Age-34 season. With Tyler Flowers likely to return after his $4M option is picked up, the Braves have a pair of catchers returning who have combined for a 4.5 fWAR. This situation is perfect for the Braves, who have a wealth of catching brewing in the system led by Alex Jackson, who is likely to open 2018 in Gwinnett.
When Suzuki signed in January, I was indifferent. Now that he’s signed an extension, I’m shocked by how little it ultimately cost the Braves. It goes to show that sometimes, the right situation trumps money and playing time.