Durable, experienced Suzuki gains trust with pitchers

Twins catcher Kurt Suzuki has a career batting average of .253 and hit a combined .232 with five homers and 32 RBI last season with the Washington Nationals and Oakland Athletics.

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FORT MYERS, Fla. — Kurt Suzuki doesn’t aspire to be the next Joe Mauer. According to the Minnesota Twins, Suzuki shouldn’t have to.

"We wanted to add some leadership to help the pitching staff," Minnesota Twins assistant general manager Rob Antony said of signing Suzuki to a one-year, $2.75 million deal as the team’s primary catcher. Mauer has the rest of this week to complete his conversion to being full-time first baseman.

"We went out and got some starting pitching, but we also wanted somebody to help them on defense," Antony said of signing Suzuki. "With Joe moving to first, we were willing to sacrifice some offense for defense."

Mauer won three American League batting titles and sports a lifetime batting average of .323.

Suzuki has a career batting average of .253. He hit a combined .232 with five homers and 32 RBI last season with the Washington Nationals and the Oakland A’s, the team that groomed him and gave him his first six seasons of experience out of Cal-State Fullerton as a second-round draft pick in 2004.

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Aside from his offensive inefficiencies, few catchers have been more durable or effective behind the plate than Suzuki, who fares much better in the durability department than Mauer.

Suzuki has caught 738 games over the previous six seasons, more than any other catcher in the game but Yadier Molina (796), A.J. Pierzynski (754) and Russell Martin (752).

"It’s been very exciting for me and very encouraging," said Twins bench coach Terry Steinbach, who like Suzuki is a former Oakland A’s catcher. "I like what I see. You can tell he’s a veteran catcher who has a very good understanding. He knows what his role is back there. He communicates very well with the pitchers He wants to catch the potential starters so he can get an understanding of what they like to do, how they like to do it and how they like to go about their business."

Suzuki has been using the six weeks of spring training get acclimated with the top four starters in the rotation: Ricky Nolasco, Phil Hughes, Kevin Correia and Mike Pelfrey.

"I like him a lot," Nolasco said of Suzuki. "He’s really smart. He know what he’s doing back there."

Correia also gave Suzuki a rave review.

"He has played in the American League for a long time," Correia said. "He knows the hitters pretty well. So when he’s calling the game, it helps us stay on the page versus working with a younger catcher who doesn’t know the hitters as well as he does."

Suzuki had faced many of the Twins rotation members as an opposing hitter, and he faced them again during live batting practice sessions in the early going of spring training.

"It’s just a matter of getting comfortable with each other," Suzuki said. "It’s nice to get a head start. Facing these guys, you get to know what they like to do against hitters. A lot of this is just going out there and getting comfortable, learning these guys. Some of the older guys, they know what they want to do.

"They all have great stuff. It’s all about learning to work together."

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Replacing a regular catcher over an offseason, Steinbach, said is more complicated than replacing a regular at another position.

"It’s very challenging, just because the catcher has to learn a whole staff," Steinbach said. "He has to learn five starters and then the relievers. What pitchers do you have? What are their tendencies? How do they like to pitch? When they get ahead, do they like to throw an offspeed pitch? Are they trying to hit the corners? None of it is right or wrong. But you have to learn what each pitcher’s style is. You have to learn what the pitcher’s makeup is.

"You can read books about it. You can study videos. But you have to come here, and the challenge is you have to try to catch as many of the guys as you can. Part of it depends on the personality of the catcher, and Kurt is rock-solid on that. He has a great personality."

Suzuki’s experience with the A’s has given the Twins pitcher a level of trust.

"It’s a good ice breaker," Steinbach said. "If I see a guy with seven years of big-league experience on the depth chart like he is, I might be more open-minded to working with him than a young catcher."

Suzuki has a resource available to him should he need one: Mauer.

"Joe is here to help me," Suzuki said.

That said, Suzuki would be looking to help himself and his teammates, too.

"I’m not going to try to be the guy who’s going to come in and be like Joe Mauer was," Suzuki said. "I’m just going to come in and do my job and handle the pitchers. That’s pretty much the only thing I can control. The transition will be a lot smoother I think. It’s not easy coming to a new team, but having done it before, that will help me."

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Rank Name, Team Games
1. Yadier Molina, Cardinals 796
2. A.J. Pierzynski, Red Sox 754
3. Russell Martin, Pirates 752
4. Kurt Suzuki, Twins 738
5. Brian McCann, Yankees 733