If Twins catcher Kurt Suzuki plays in next month’s All-Star Game at Target Field, it will likely be a result of the numbers he’s put up offensively — many of which have exceeded expectations.
It’s the things Suzuki has done behind the plate, however, that have been equally as valuable of an addition for Minnesota this season.
When the Twins were looking for a free-agent catcher this past winter to replace Joe Mauer after Mauer’s move to first base, they settled on Suzuki and inked him to a one-year deal. The reports on Suzuki were that he might not hit a ton — he had a career .253 average before this season — but he’d be able to handle a pitching staff, call a good game and play solid defense.
"We’d heard exactly this," said Twins manager Ron Gardenhire. "And they probably didn’t give him as much credit for what we’re seeing."
One thing Suzuki is also showing is that he’s durable. The 30-year-old backstop has caught 56 of Minnesota’s 77 games this year and was in the lineup four other times as the designated hitter. He’s taken numerous foul tips off the mask, backswings that graze his arm, and other dings and nicks associated with the catcher position.
Yet amid all of that, Suzuki is on pace to have one of his better offensive years of his career. Entering the weekend, Suzuki is batting .308 — tops among all American League catchers — with 32 RBI and 15 doubles. He’s already matched his RBI total from last year, when he drove in 32 runs in 94 games with Washington and Oakland.
"I’ve got to give a lot of credit where it’s due. (Tom) Brunansky the hitting coach, we’ve been working really hard in the cage and getting everything right and talking with (Paul Molitor) just about certain things that he went through," Suzuki said. "Everybody’s helping out a lot. It’s nice to see all the hard work pay off a little bit."
But when the discussion in the Twins clubhouse turns to Suzuki, many of his coaches and teammates rave about what he’s provided defensively. They praise his preparation and admire his ability to work with the pitching staff, adjusting to each pitcher’s strengths and weaknesses.
"He really handles the staff well," said Twins right-hander Phil Hughes. "He’s a guy that I’ve said all along, even after a strikeout or something like that, he doesn’t put a lot of weight into his at-bats. He comes right back to the dugout and wants to talk about the next inning and really works hard back there. . . . He gets beat up and he’s always sticking in there and hanging tough. It’s great to have him back there. It’s certainly a luxury for the pitchers, for sure."
Minnesota has used a few options at the backup catcher position whenever Suzuki needs a day off. Josmil Pinto was the Twins’ primary option for Suzuki’s backup, but he’s now at Triple-A Rochester after struggling in the majors. Eric Fryer is currently the No. 2 catcher on the roster but has only caught three games.
The fact that Suzuki has caught 56 of the Twins’ 77 games speaks to how highly Minnesota’s coaches and front office view him.
"I really like the way he handles himself behind the plate. I like his rapport with our pitchers," said Twins bench coach Terry Steinbach, a former All-Star catcher. "He’s doing a fantastic job blocking the ball for us. I know a big thing for that is our pitchers want to throw to him, and that’s huge. He’s been consistent with that all year. He’s starting to develop a real good sense of confidence so that when our pitchers take the mound, they see him back there and they feel they can throw well and win games."
The statistics of Minnesota’s pitchers indicate that Suzuki has had an impact on that part of the game. When Suzuki is behind the plate, the Twins pitchers have a combined 4.12 ERA with an opponent batting average of .263. In the 18 games that Pinto caught, that ERA jumped to 4.72, while opponents hit .282. Fryer’s three games at catcher are too small of a sample size to draw any conclusions from, but Minnesota’s ERA in those games is 7.11.
Suzuki will found out early next month if he’ll be representing the Twins at this year’s All-Star Game. It would be the first such honor for the eight-year veteran. His numbers offensively stack up well with the other catchers in the American League, so he’ll at least be in the running for an All-Star nod.
Regardless of whether or not Suzuki makes this year’s All-Star Game, Minnesota believes he’s deserving of it.
"We’re having a lot of fun with him," Steinbach said. "He’s the ultimate competitor back there. He comes early. He’s very, very prepared for every game. I get more excited with the defensive part of what he does. . . . To me, the bonus is the way he swung the bat."