Twins’ catcher Suzuki still wary of advanced defensive metrics

By Mike Berardino St. Paul Pioneer Press MINNEAPOLIS -- Mention his improved standing in the controversial area of pitch framing, and Kurt Suzuki all but rolls his eyes. It's not just because the Twins' beleaguered pitching staff has spent the pa...

(Bob Stanton, USA TODAY Sports) Minnesota Twins third baseman Trevor Plouffe catches a pop up in front of catcher Kurt Suzuki during the third inning July 17 at Coliseum in Oakland, California.

By Mike Berardino

St. Paul Pioneer Press

MINNEAPOLIS - Mention his improved standing in the controversial area of pitch framing, and Kurt Suzuki all but rolls his eyes.

It’s not just because the Twins’ beleaguered pitching staff has spent the past two weeks reversing the gains of the season’s first four months.

“I still think that thing is false,” said Suzuki, the Twins’ all-star catcher.


Traditionally, advanced metrics have never been very kind to Suzuki on either side of the ball, which is one reason he maintains a wary skepticism when it comes to baseball’s analytics revolution.

Never a darling of the sabermetrics crowd, Suzuki is more of a scout’s favorite for his all-out playing style and willingness to sacrifice both his body and his plate appearances for the greater good.

So, sure, he is somewhat pleased to hear rates him 36th among 52 big-league catchers with a pitch-framing sample size of at least 500 pitches. His overall rate of minus-1.6 runs above average places him just behind defensive specialist Drew Butera, one of his Twins predecessors, and just ahead of the New York Yankees’ Brian McCann, signed to an $85 million contract.

“He’s working at it,” said Twins bench coach Joe Vavra, who doubles as the team’s catching instructor. “He’s working at holding the glove a little bit longer, letting the umpire get a better look. He’s working with the umpires, letting them see. That was a priority for him, trying to get that (rating) up.”

Typically, Suzuki has been rated in the bottom 10 or so of all big-league catchers in this area, which has always seemed counterintuitive to those that place great value on his preparation and catching fundamentals.

“I try to just present it well for (umpires),” Suzuki said. “When you’re a guy that doesn’t frame everything, when you do hold something it might give them an extra look. Like, ‘OK, that was close.’ If you’re a guy that tries to frame everything, they’re going to take it as, ‘Ah, he’s just trying to do his thing again.’ You’ve got to pick your spots.”

Analytics companies such as Baseball Info Solutions and Inside Edge have made great strides in driving such defensive metrics as Ultimate Zone Rating and Defensive Runs Saved into the public lexicon. While there are still plenty of holdouts, many find such data fairly accurate for those playing the infield or outfield.

Then again, accurately measuring a catcher’s defensive contributions with analytics? Suzuki isn’t ready to admit that is even possible.


“You can’t do it,” the nine-year veteran said. “It’s pretty cool they’re trying to come up with those (defensive) numbers, but at the same time it’s the toughest thing to do. It’s becoming a part of the game. It gets more people involved on the creative side of the game. It’s good for baseball and it’s not good.”

The former Johnny Bench Award winner as college baseball’s top catcher at Cal State Fullerton misses the days after he first came to the majors in 2007 and was groomed by old-school catcher Jason Kendall with Oakland. Back then, even with the QuesTec electronic evaluation system, umpires seemed to have more latitude to factor in the so-called human element.

The reputation of a given hitter or pitcher could be layered into the ball-strike decision in a way that rapidly seems to be disappearing in the PITCHf/x era, when umpires’ ratings and ultimately their employment are tied to their performance against the eye in the sky.

“I think you earn your stripes,” Suzuki said. “I think as a rookie, you shouldn’t get the same calls as a Torii Hunter or a Joe Mauer. Guys like Torii and Joe, they shouldn’t have that borderline pitch called on them. It’s that respect factor. That’s just how it should be.”

In recent years, the strike zone isn’t just skewing significantly lower. It’s also becoming identity-blind.

“It really puts the umpires in a tough position,” Suzuki said. “They have that box they have to (adhere to), and I know a lot of them don’t like that box. They’re getting graded on it so they’ve got to do what they have to do. For the most part, I have a really good relationship with all of them. They tell me and they talk to me about it.”

What’s more, it wasn’t that long ago that pitches that hit a catcher’s target without requiring even the slightest twitch would bring automatic strike calls. Those that forced a catcher to reach across his body almost without fail were called balls.

That dynamic has changed as well, and Suzuki doesn’t like it.


“Now it’s just becoming more of, ‘Shoot, if they think it’s in the box, they’re calling it a strike,’ no matter what,” Suzuki said. “That’s good for catching but bad for hitting. When I first came up, you never saw that happen.”

He took note of the July 28 independent league game in California in which former Oakland A’s outfielder-turned-broadcaster Eric Byrnes called balls and strikes from the stands with a laptop hooked up to the PITCHf/x system. That same system, by Sportvision, is installed in all 30 big-league stadiums.

The concept of a robot umpire calling balls and strikes might not be so far-fetched anymore.

“It’s getting a little ridiculous now,” Suzuki said. “It’s getting a little out of control.”

What about the human element that baseball had always worked so hard to protect in the century before replay review and pace-of-game clocks?

“It’s gone,” Suzuki said, shaking his head. “It’s gone.”

The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.


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