It’s been a roller coaster of a tenure for Kurt Suzuki in a Twins uniform. Signed to a one-year contract to see if he could adequately take over the catcher’s position from Joe Mauer, it seemed like a questionable move at the start due to his regressing offense. Though he was a solid bat at the position in his younger years, he was run into the ground by the Oakland Athletics and his batting average plummeted in 2010. However, he was still offered reasonable production with some power, but that too evaporated starting in 2012. It wasn’t like the Twins brought on another Drew Butera, but Suzuki was looking like your prototypical light-hitting catcher.
So naturally, Suzuki turned in his best season in years when he hit .288/.345/.383 with a 107 wRC+, the first above-average offensive season of his career. He was actually hitting above .300 for most of the year, encouraging the Twins to hand him a 2-year contract extension with a vesting option for a third year. The trial run worked and it looked like the Twins had a solid stopgap until some catcher of the future would arise.
But, Suzuki promptly returned back to his offensive rut in 2015. With two stints as an Athletic and one with the Washington Nationals, Suzuki was roughly 35% worse than the average hitter in 2012-2013. His 2015 season, he was 34% worse. This season appeared to be more of the same and it started to look like that contract extension was yet another mistake by the Twins front office.
Then June came around and all of a sudden, Kurt Suzuki became one of the hottest hitters in the lineup. Behold the turnaround:
After looking like a black hole at the bottom of the lineup, Suzuki has suddenly improved his triple-slash up to .273/.312/.416. His improvement has coincided with a switch to the Axe Bat, a bat with an axe-like handle that is supposed to reduce the risk of injury to the hamate bone in your hand. Additionally, studies have shown that the Axe Bat allows for greater bat control and bat speed. Along with Suzuki, other Axe Bat users include Dustin Pedroia, Mookie Betts, and Carlos Correa.
Because of Suzuki’s poor 2015, the vesting option looked to be a concern. If Suzuki received 485 plate appearances this year, he would automatically have a $6 million contract for the 2017 season. Therefore, the Twins worked to give Suzuki plenty of days off throughout the year. The difference has been stark, as shown below.
2014: 71.0% of catcher starts
2015: 75.9% of catcher starts
2016: 62.7% of catcher starts
Suzuki had 503 plate appearances in 2014 and 479 in 2015. We can see that he’ll easily fall under that threshold at his current pace of starts. However, I started wondering, perhaps the frequent rest has actually been a blessing for Suzuki. We know he was abused by the Athletics early in his career (he made 79.6% of all catcher starts for the A’s from 2008 to 2011) as if he was Salvador Perez of the Kansas City Royals and catching is the most physically taxing position. Joe Mauer’s “bilateral leg weakness” season was such a big deal because squatting is already tough enough without having to deal with soreness caused by other maladies.
While it would be easier to credit Suzuki’s frequent rest if he had been hitting all season, it does give me faith that he’s more likely to sustain some level of offensive aptitude for the rest of the season. No, that .426 BABIP in June isn’t going to stay that high forever and he does need to start drawing some more walks (1.6% walk rate in June, which even Eddie Rosario walked more often than that this season), but I have reason to believe that he could settle in somewhere between what he’s currently doing and his lack of offensive output from last season. This makes it a little easier to stomach that John Ryan Murphy has been struggling this season and assuming he finally gets back on track, the Twins would have a pretty decent tandem behind the plate to close out the season.