Catcher Kurt Suzuki is coming off his two best years at the plate, hitting .276 with an .825 OPS over the last two seasons with the Atlanta Braves.
Now he is back with the Nationals. And maybe more importantly, not with the Braves.
Against the Nats for 12 games in 2017, Suzuki hit .340 with three doubles, four homers and 13 RBIs. In 2018, he was not as formidable against the Nats in 11 games with a .265 average, two homers and two RBIs. He hit .317 in late-and-close situations, according to Baseball-Reference.com.
From the Nationals’ point of view, if they could get consistent production from that position in the lineup, it could pay huge dividends to make their offense more potent and allow their pitchers a little bit more wiggle room if they allow a couple of runs here or there. Their margin of error will be wider with Suzuki getting on base and giving the Nats a chance to turn lineups up over instead of quick innings.
In his first tour with the Nats, Suzuki averaged .239 with .641 OPS in 122 games. In Minnesota for three seasons, his average went up to .263 with a .680 OPS. Then he had his best offensive season with the Braves in 2017, when he hit .283 in 81 games.
So did he make an adjustment to his swing? Suzuki made it clear he didn’t make any drastic changes. He said it’s about focusing on each pitch and taking advantage of what the pitcher gives you. Make the pitcher do the work.
“Honestly, I have no idea,” he said of his hitting skills the last two seasons. “I started my career doing pretty well, then hit a little slump. The last two years at age 33, 34, kind of had a renaissance, I guess.
“I really haven’t changed much. I go out there and I really don’t think about launch angle and all those kind of analytical things. I go out there and just try to do some damage. If they throw a pitch I think I can do damage with I swing. I just try to battle up there, out a good at-bat together. Obviously, pitchers are throwing a lot harder now so you don’t have to do as much. I just try to stay loose and just let the pitcher supply the power.”
Early in his career, Suzuki did a nice job of pulling the ball when he made contact. The last two seasons, he got back to doing a nice job of pulling the ball again. Was that one reason why he has done better at the plate?
“I think it’s the way pitchers work people now, honestly,” said Suzuki, whose two-year, $10 million deal with the Nationals became official yesterday after he passed his physical. “There’s so much information both offensively and defensively that you get. You kind of study the data that you have. Pitchers are going to work you and you make adjustments as a hitter.”
“I don’t go up there looking to hit a ball in a certain spot. I just try to go up there and get a good pitch to hit. Whether it’s pulling the ball, whether it’s center or right, it doesn’t really matter to me. When I try to hit balls in certain areas, that’s when I get myself in trouble. Where I just kind of go up there free and easy and let the contact point dictate where the ball goes.”
You hear that a lot from hitters when they are going well: Keep it simple. Plus, they don’t want to over analyze when things are going well, just like they don’t want to get too freaked out when they are in a slump. Suzuki concentrates on each pitch and doesn’t want to overthink why something is good or not. It seems to be a formula for success you hear from a lot of good hitters like Daniel Murphy and Anthony Rendon when things are going well: just looking for a pitch to hit.
Suzuki got to catch Stephen Strasburg his last time through D.C. Is he excited this time to be able to catch a three-time Cy Young winner in Max Scherzer?
“It’s a good rotation. I think it’s one of the best rotations in baseball,” Suzuki said. “Nobody is really talking about Joe Ross coming back from surgery either. He’s got a great arm and he showed was he’s capable of when he’s healthy.
“Just having the three horses with Tanner (Roark) and Strasburg and Max anchor your staff, I think any team would love that. I think you throw in some complementary pieces, maybe some younger pieces, younger arms. I don’t know what (general manager Mike) Rizzo is going to do, but you have those three guys at the top of your rotation you know that are going to go out there every fifth day and give you a heck of a chance to win. That’s all you can ask for.
“As a catcher, that is great because it makes your job that much more fun. We can go out there on a daily basis, knowing that you got a chance to do something special with the pitcher on the mound. That’s exciting, man. That’s really exciting.”
Now the big question: Is Rizzo done shopping at catcher? The answer: Rizzo is never done at looking to improve the Nats in the offseason, the most important time of the year for his job. If a key player can be found on the free agent or trade markets, he will do his best to acquire him, even J.T. Realmuto. But if he can’t pull off such a deal, Suzuki is outstanding insurance and improves the Nats at that spot.