Judging the Royals

Kurt Suzuki: Inside the mind of an All-Star catcher

Twins catcher Kurt Suzuki, left, was an All-Star this year. He knows a thing or two about how to catch a game.
Twins catcher Kurt Suzuki, left, was an All-Star this year. He knows a thing or two about how to catch a game. AP

Ballplayers are often accused of being shallow and speaking in clichés, but much of the time, that’s our fault. Some ballplayers have a lot to say, but they don’t think we have the interest or attention span to understand what’s really going on, so they give us a cliché quote instead.

But if really you want to know what’s happening — if you show enough interest — sometimes they’ll tell you the real deal.

Let’s go inside the mind of the Minnesota Twins All-Star catcher Kurt Suzuki.

How Kurt Suzuki prepares for a game

You might hear it argued that the ballplayers and coaches are Neanderthals who ignore the numbers and instead rely on gut instinct, but smart ballplayers and coaches care deeply about numbers — they just care about different numbers than many fans do.

Take Suzuki.

I talked to Kurt on the same day the Twins signed him to a two-year contract extension: $6 million in both 2015 and 2016. The deal also included a $6 million vesting option for the 2017 season. If you’ve never interviewed a guy who just got a deal that gave him a shot at $18 million dollars, I can highly recommend it — Kurt was in a good mood.

I asked Suzuki how he prepares for a ball game and off we went.

Kurt starts by looking at every pitch thrown to a hitter by right-handed pitchers that year; then he does the same with left-handed pitchers. He wants to know what happened in 0-0, 1-0 and 0-1 counts: is the hitter really aggressive within the first two pitches? If he swings, what does he swing at? Do you need to throw this a guy a strike or will he chase early in the count?

Then Suzuki likes to look at a “conversion count” — 1-1. It’s called a conversion count because the next pitch will change the odds dramatically; go 2-1 and a hitter’s average soars, go 1-2 and the odds of getting a hit drop like a rock. Suzuki believes 1-1 is the biggest count in baseball.

Kurt wants to know if a hitter is aggressive in that count or if they sit on a particular pitch. And some guys will chase a marginal pitch once they have one strike; they want to avoid a two-strike count because they’re afraid of striking out. Knowing which hitters chase and which hitters remain disciplined is crucial.

Next, Suzuki wants to know what happens when pitcher is behind in the count: 2-0, 2-1 or 3-1. Does the hitter look for a pitch in a particular zone in those counts? Does he want something in or away, does he look up in the zone? You can take advantage of hitter’s tendencies by appearing to throw the ball to that zone and letting the ball’s movement carry it to a less desirable location, or you can go somewhere else in the zone and get the hitter to take a strike. If you do your homework, you know what pitches he’ll take.

Suzuki also wants to know what the hitter does with two strikes; does he lean out over the plate and hit the pitch that’s on the outside corner? Does he look inside figuring you’ll bust him in on the hands? Does he sit on the breaking ball? Does he chase a lot? Does he chase pitches up out of the zone?

Kurt wants to know all this for every single hitter on the other team, and it can all change depending on whether the pitcher is right or left-handed.

The prep work doesn’t end there. He also has a sheet that says who is hot over the last 10 games. And if a hitter is hot, what pitches is he hot on? Suzuki also wants to know who’s cold; and if a hitter is cold, what pitches is he not hitting? If there’s no clear pattern — if the hitter is in a gray area — Kurt will go with the scouting report.

But the game can change everything.

Suzuki does all that homework, but it’s all “eyewash” if the hitter has made a recent adjustment. The prep work goes out the window because Kurt has to adjust to the adjustment the hitter has made. And the same thing happens if the pitcher doesn’t have a particular pitch that night: You can plan to throw a guy an 0-2 slider, but if the pitcher is hanging that pitch, come up with a new plan.

Here’s where the metrics guys and the players part company: numbers tell you about the past and it’s good to know what has happened, but games are played in the present and the players need to adjust to what’s happening right now.

Jason Kendall: Suzuki’s mentor

At this point in the conversation, former All-Star catcher and current Royals special assignment coach Jason Kendall spotted us talking in the visiting dugout, walked over and advised Kurt to tell me what I could do with myself, then told me to leave Suzuki alone — Kurt had work to do. Jason walked off, Suzuki started laughing ... and then he started talking about Kendall.

When they were both with the Oakland A’s, Jason was the starting catcher and Kurt was the backup. Kurt didn’t want to invade Jason’s space, so he followed him around and watched what he did. One of the things Suzuki noticed was Jason often starting some games by calling fastballs down and away.

Kurt wanted to know why.

“That’s how you get this guy locked in. If he gets extension on that fastball away, his sinker becomes better, his slider becomes better, his changeup becomes better.”

But what about the scouting report?

“I throw all that (stuff) out the window at the beginning. Because if my guy can’t get comfortable and settle in, what’s the scouting report for? He’s gonna be horse (bleep) anyway.”

Suzuki then recalled a Manny Ramirez at-bat with Kendall behind the plate: it was a big situation in a tight game. Oakland was winning, there was a runner in scoring position and two outs. Jason called three fastballs on the outside corner to one of the best right-handed hitters in the game. Ramirez took all three for strikes — see ya.

Kurt asked Jason how he got away with that and Jason said: “Because he was sitting off-speed.” Suzuki said Kendall had the feel for it; he’d tell Kurt that when he got out there on the field, he had to go with his gut. Once you have enough experience, gut instinct is your subconscious talking to you.

You can’t attack a hitter’s weakness if you don’t have the right pitch

The night before our conversation took place, Suzuki had caught Twins pitcher Phil Hughes. Suzuki freely admitted Hughes’ changeup was his worst pitch; Kurt wasn’t giving away secrets — everyone can see the video and the results Hughes gets with that pitch.

So Suzuki might avoid using that pitch even though the guy at the plate has trouble with changeups. What if Hughes throws a changeup down the middle? The scouting report might say this hitter has trouble with the changeup, but how does he handle bad changeups?

A hitter who struggles with a good changeup can still hammer a bad one.

Helping the pitcher settle in

In Suzuki’s mind, the first order of business is to let the pitcher get established and comfortable. Throwing fastballs down and away is a good way to start a game; as Kendall said, the pitcher has to extend to get the ball there and that extension helps all his other pitches. If a pitcher isn’t extending, he’s cutting off his throwing motion; breaking pitches hang, fastballs stay up — plus, down-and-away is a “safe zone.” Miguel Cabrera might do something spectacular with that pitch, but most hitters wont.

With other pitchers Suzuki might want to use the off-speed stuff early. If that’s an important pitch for the guy on the mound, throw it early and let the pitcher get a feel for it, but throw it in non-crucial situations — situations where the pitcher didn’t necessarily have to throw the pitch for a strike. He gets a feel for the release point, even if he bounces the pitch. That way the pitch will be there when it matters, later in the game. Suzuki wants to make sure the pitcher has that “money pitch” in the sixth or seventh innings.

Because the curve got established early, Suzuki doesn’t necessarily have to use it in the middle innings — he can save it for later in the game and know if the pitcher needs throw three curves in a row, he can do it when it matters most.

But catchers and pitchers can do a lot of prep work, come up with a game plan in the clubhouse, and then once they hit the dirt, everything changes. The the hitter’s made an adjusment or the pitcher can’t control a pitch, forget the game plan — you’re screwed. When that happens, Suzuki goes off “swing recognition” — he pays attention to the hitter’s reaction to each pitch. The signs are there if you know how to read them.

Swing recognition

How’s the hitter swinging on the heater? How’s he swinging on the breaking pitch? Is he seeing the breaking pitch? The breaking pitch might be awful, but if the hitter swings and doesn’t hit it, Kurt can keep calling it. Does the hitter recognize the breaking pitch and lay off? That might mean he’s seeing it real well and won’t chase a pitch out of the zone, but hammer a curveball left in the zone.

Suzuki also reads the hitter’s body language: If the hitter takes a breaking pitch and remains balanced, be careful — he’s seeing the ball well and remains in a good hitting position. If the hitter takes the pitch, but leans out on his front foot, he wants it; he wants to hit that pitch. The hitter might have held up on the first breaking pitch, but Suzuki thinks the hitter might chase if he calls it again.

Kurt watches their feet, their hands; if he sees a guy choke up it might mean he thinks he can’t get to the heater. If a hitter moves in the box, that might tell the catcher what to call. If a hitter moves closer to the dish Suzuki might throw a slider away, well outside the strike zone: the hitter wants to hit something away, give it to him — but make it too far away.

Figure out what he wants and use that against the hitter.

How smart is the hitter?

Suzuki talked about Alex Gordon:

“Last night we pounded him in, pounded him in, pounded him in — then we throw one ball on the outside corner and he hits it off the wall. In my mind, I was thinking no way he’s looking out there after all those balls in, but this guy stayed with his approach. That’s why he’s such a good hitter, because he doesn’t veer off and let a pitcher dictate what he’s going to do.”

Those are the guys that are toughest.

The guys you can screw around with are the guys who think: “He threw me a pitch inside ... he might be doing that again” —then you go slider away. Then, if the hitter worries about the slider away, you’ve got him trying to cover the whole plate, which is virtually impossible.

Now take the guy who sits on his pitch: Unless he has two strikes, he won’t swing unless he gets it.

Kurt uses Torii Hunter as an example: You think he’s looking fastball, but he’s waiting for the off-speed pitch. But he can still hit a good fastball, if he’s looking for it. Guys in their late 30s probably know what they’re doing; they know they can’t hit everything — then it’s a cat-and-mouse game. You try to mess up Hunter’s timing and hope he’s not guessing with you. If he guesses right, he can hurt you.

How conditions change the game

Spray charts are helpful but you have to take the park into account; how fast is the turf? You can’t stand in the same place in different ballparks. Boston has the Green Monster, Yankee Stadium has the short right-field porch — you can jam a guy and he can still hit it out or bang it off the wall. The dimensions change the way you pitch.

How about the weather? If it’s cold and the wind is blowing in? Let the guy hit it as far as he likes, just keep it in the big part of the park; don’t give him a chance to pull the ball.

But you can’t overthink it. You can throw in so many factors that you start second-guessing every decision.

When in doubt, hit a four-spot

Suzuki says you can throw fastballs in fastball counts — sometimes that’s what you should do. He doesn’t care if a hitter is looking for that pitch and here’s why: say a guy is sitting on a heater. He’s going to be aggressive for that heater when he sees it, but if the pitcher can hit down and away, the hitter has very little chance of doing anything with it. Maybe a single to the opposite field, be he’s more likely to pop it up or rollover and hit a grounder to short or second.

When in doubt, hit a four-spot — baseball terminology for down and away — and you can never go wrong.

Late in the game, you don’t want to get beat inside; if a guy hits a home run there’s no time to make up for it, so you go down and away. You might need to come inside to open up that down and away pitch, but come in off the plate. If you never come in you’re going to get clobbered.

Suzuki as a hitter

Good catchers want to get the hitter thinking, good hitters don’t think; they sit on a pitch and won’t get it off it until they have two strikes.

Kurt sometimes thinks with the pitcher and the situation, but most of the time, tries to simplify things: “The pitcher has to throw the ball right here and I’m going to sit on that spot and whack it when it comes in there.” When Kendall and Suzuki were with the A’s, the two of them got paired; they’d hit in the same group. Smart coaches do that — they’ll stick a young guy with a veteran and hope the young guy is smart enough to follow the older guy’s lead.

Suzuki was.

Kurt says he was a pull guy when he got to the big leagues, but watched Kendall spray the ball and use the entire field. Jason would point to the right side of the field and say: “Get your money.” Kendall was pointing out where it was. That’s when Suzuki started trying to use the whole field.

Receiving a pitch

I ask Suzuki about “framing” reports that show him in an unfavorable light. But as usual, things aren’t as simple as they seem.

We can use technology to get a fair idea of where a pitch was in relation to the strike zone, so can we say that catchers who get balls called strikes are good at receiving pitches, and catchers who get strikes called balls aren’t so hot?

Here’s an example of why that might be a mistake:

Say a catcher sets up on the outside corner and the pitcher misses in. The pitch might be within the strike zone, but if the catcher has to lurch across the plate to catch the ball, it won’t look so good — the umpire is unlikely to give the catcher that call. The catcher did nothing wrong, but he’ll still get downgraded for having a strike called a ball.

Or say the pitcher is erratic. If he’s missed with three straight pitches, and then nips the corner of the zone, the umpire — once again — might be reluctant to make that call. It can also work in reverse: We’ve all seen pitchers get calls off the plate because they kept banging the mitt. Do that often enough and umpires will sometimes start calling those pitches strikes, but the catcher did nothing special to earn those calls — it was the pitcher who changed the zone.

And how about star power?

Say Miguel Cabrera looks back and glares at a rookie umpire because he didn’t like a call. That pitch might not be a strike any more — especially if the game’s in Detroit. If you’re an umpire and the pitcher throws a borderline pitch to David Ortiz in a 3-2 count with the bases loaded, are you ringing Big Papi up in front of the Fenway Faithful?

There’s a human element to the game, and if we ignore it, we’re missing something.

Kendall was right

By this time Suzuki and I had been talking the better part of an hour and I knew Kendall was right — Kurt did have work to do. I thanked him for his time and the insight he provided.

Not every ballplayer wants to talk about the game in this way, but the ones who do deserve our gratitude; they give us a better idea of what’s actually happening out there on the field.

And if you stuck with this article all the way to the end, I owe you a thank-you. This is why I write — for the readers who really want to understand.

Thanks … and see you back here tomorrow.