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2018 Atlanta Braves Player Review: Kurt Suzuki

To talk about Kurt Suzuki’s 2018 season, it really requires looking back on his 2017 season, which was a wondrous, remarkable thing. While his 2017 campaign wasn’t his overall best, owing to him sharing the catcher position with Tyler Flowers, it was a stunning offensive improvement for the veteran. Suzuki’s 126 wRC+ was not only over 20 points higher than he had ever managed before, but it came after two seasons where he finished with marks of 86 and 64. His 2.6 fWAR in 309 PAs didn’t quite top his 2008 (3.2) and 2009 (3.1), but he amassed those latter totals in 600ish PAs each year, and got nearly that entire amount in half the playing time in 2017. It was awesome. Remarkable, and awesome.

Suzuki’s role didn’t really change heading into the 2018 season. He re-signed with the organization before the conclusion of the 2017 campaign on a one-year, $3.5 million pact, and there was a bit of an open question as to whether the Braves would get weirdly-resurgent-veteran-Suzuki or generic-bleh-veteran-catcher Suzuki. The end result was closer to the former than the latter, but it’s the way that he got there that was fascinating.

The story of Suzuki’s transition from weak-hitting backstop to homer-prone masher between 2016 and 2017 was not unfamiliar. Always contact-oriented, he severely increased his fly ball rate and de-emphasized hitting the ball the other way. His average launch angle shot up three degrees, his opposite field rate fell seven percent, and his xwOBA went from a pathetic .292 to a solid .348. Regression relative to his 126 wRC+ was likely always in the cards, as he had a .372 wOBA in 2017 on the back of that .348 xwOBA. A crazy 17% HR/FB rate, for a guy who hits a ton of fly balls, explained a lot of the wOBA-xwOBA gap.

But, the variation between 2017 and 2018 is just kind of weird. The bottom line is that his wRC+ fell, not in line with the .348 xwOBA from 2017, but further — it fell to 108, still more than solid, but not quite awesome. Beyond that, his xwOBA fell as well, down to .331. That’s not weird in and of itself: there’s an easy story that we can tell ourselves about how Guy Does X, Isn’t Good, Guy Starts Doing Y, Is Good, Guy Stops Doing Y So Much, Is Less Good. But that’s not the Kurt Suzuki 2018 story.

Even before delving any deeper, try this on for size: exit velocity went up, average launch angle stayed the same… but xwOBA went down, xwOBA on contact went down even more, and the barrel rate was close to halved. And yet, the rightmost column, which reflects the percent of balls hit at an exit velocity of 95 mph or greater, also went up. Note further that (not shown), Suzuki’s walk rate actually slightly increased, and his strikeout rate fell further by over a percentage point. So you already have an annoying puzzle: same overall launch angle, slightly more exit velocity, slightly more balls hit hard, but much worse quality of contact. The below doesn’t help, either.

Zone swing went up – great. Zone contact went up – great. Chase rate went down – great. Chase contact went down – given that we know his overall exit velocity increased, and that his strikeout rate went down, this is also a good sign. The whiff rate fell, and the rate of swinging at meatball pitches went up a lot. These are all positive, good process signs. Yet, somehow, the overall hitting quality was just worse. In the batted ball profile, the signs are also positive: fewer pop-ups, and fewer of the “really undesirable” contact quality outcomes (weak contact, topped, hit under). Even the solid contact went up. The real difference seems to be the fall in his barreled ball rate, and its replacement with more flares. I don’t know how to reconcile that with all the good process plate discipline stats, or anything else. Maybe it’s as simple as “his timing was off,” or it’s a complex narrative involving worse contact in certain contexts that isn’t as easy to parse into the types of summary statistics we have easy access to. The real point, though, is that Kurt Suzuki was worse in 2018 than 2017, not just in results but in terms of xwOBA as well — but the reasons why are not easy to pinpoint. For my money, he wasn’t really doing anything that different, except in terms of positive things that should have yielded better, not worse, outcomes… but it happened anyway.

That’s enough about that. You’ll notice that the above did not mention his defense in any way. That’s because his defense is perhaps best left undescribed. By DRS, Suzuki tallied a dreadful -7 in 749 innings. By Baseball Prospectus’ catcher defense stats, which include framing, he finished 105th out of 117 players to don the tools of ignorance in 2018, at seven runs below average. Thinking just about his framing, Baseball Prospectus had him at 108th out of 117; his control of the running game only improved his position to 93rd. According to Statcorner, only two catchers with as many chances as him were worse on a per-game basis in terms of pitch framing, and only four gave away more value than he did in the game-within-a-game that is trying to steal strikes while not giving them away. What’s more baffling here is that there seems to be little interfacing or information exchange between Suzuki’s catching tandem partner, Tyler Flowers, and his own framing acumen. As detailed here, Flowers spends a substantial portion of the time honing his framing craft, and nothing he’s doing requires some kind of unique physical skill, just dedication, thinking, and practice. In that article, Flowers says his goal is to top Baseball Prospectus’ framing leaderboard — I’m not saying Suzuki needs to set his own goal to top said leaderboard himself, but at least “not being negative” could be a good starting point to work on.

Bottom line, what did he do in 2018? A 108 wRC+ and 2.0 fWAR in 388 PAs, which is nothing to sneeze at. (Even by WARP, inclusive of his lack of framing value, he was at 2.1, or among the top 130 position players in baseball, on a total sum basis, which is just fine.) Only nine catchers in baseball provided more value to their teams (without framing) than Suzki did in 2018, and only 11 with framing, so his 2018 was pretty noteworthy in a good way.

Will he be on the roster next year? It’s certainly possible. The Braves have already re-signed the other half of their catching tandem, and if Suzuki is amenable to another year in Atlanta, he represents a potentially low-cost option if the Braves want to use their resources elsewhere. After being tied for first in catcher production in 2017, the Braves were still sixth in this regard (and again, this is before pitch framing is taken into account) in 2018, so they could do worse, especially if they let Kurt Suzuki walk and aren’t able to acquire a better player in the process.

What is he going to do next year? Suzuki will be playing his age-35 season next year. He may not be able to weather the strain of a full-time catching gig, but after two weirdly resurgent mid-30s seasons, there’s not much indication he’s going to break down and resemble his early-30s, marginally useful self. A season in the area of 1.5-2.0 fWAR over 300-400 PAs, with poor framing, seems like a safe guess for 2019.

Highlight of 2018: One of them is the pinch-hit go-ahead single that gave the Braves a short-lived lead in Game 4 of the NLDS. Unfortunately, that one didn’t end so well for Suzuki’s team, who were eliminated thanks to a different two-run pinch-hit single later in the contest. But, in terms of something that did end happier: on April 11, Kurt Suzuki hit two homers. It was his only two-homer game of the year after collecting three of those games in 2017. But the cool thing about the April 11 game was that both of his homers were go-ahead shots. The Nationals tied the game after he hit both, but the Braves still ended prevailing in extra innings. Still, two go-ahead homers in the same game? That’s awesome, Kurt.

Lowlight of 2018: There aren’t many good ones to choose from, here. On May 28, he failed to drive in the tying run from third with one out by popping out to short, but he was also facing Jacob deGrom at the time. (The Braves won on a Charlie Culberson walkoff homer.) On August 7, he had a fairly brutal game, going 0-for-4, failing to drive in a run in a first-and-third, none out situation when down a run, and then failing to do anything with the go-ahead run on second and none out in the ninth. (The Braves won that game 3-1, as Inciarte tripled after Suzuki’s out.)

So, let’s go with this: the time Kurt Suzuki grounded out because a pitch was going to hit him and hit the knob of his bat instead, and rebounded into the field of play. Worst. Groundout. Ever.

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