Judging the Royals

A conversation with Twins catcher Kurt Suzuki

Twins catcher Kurt Suzuki
Twins catcher Kurt Suzuki AP

How a smart catcher prepares for a game

In July of 2014 I sat down with Kurt Suzuki to talk about how he prepares for a game—and it’s mind boggling.

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. Suzuki wants to know what happened in 0-0, 1-0 and 0-1 counts: is the hitter 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; if the pitcher throws a ball and the count goes 2-1, the hitter’s average soars. Throw a strike, 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 as we’ve seen, 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. So 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?

Once you know a hitter’s tendencies you can take advantage of those 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 Kurt does his homework he knows which pitches a hitter will 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 pitches 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: Suzuki 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.

You gotta go with what you see

Suzuki does all that homework, but it’s all eyewash if the hitter has made a recent adjustment. Then 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 working that night: you can plan to throw a guy an 0-2 slider, but if the pitcher is hanging that pitch, you better 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.

Kurt Suzuki’s mentor

At this point in the conversation Jason Kendall spotted us talking in Kauffman Stadium’s visiting dugout, walked over and told me to leave Kurt alone, he had work to do. And Kendall was the guy who suggested I talk to Suzuki.

Jason walked off, Suzuki started laughing and then started talking about Jason 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 Kurt followed him around and watched what he did. One of the things Suzuki noticed was Jason often started 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 out the window at the beginning of a game. Because if my guy can’t get comfortable and settle in, what’s the scouting report for? He’s gonna be (lousy) 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."

How did Jason know? Suzuki said Kendall had the feel for it; he’d tell Kurt that when he got out there on the field, Suzuki had to go with his gut. Once you have enough experience, gut instinct is your subconscious noticing things and 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 is motion 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.

The pitcher 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 off-speed pitch 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 to throw three curves in a row, he can do it when it matters most.

But catchers can do their prep work, come up with a game plan in the clubhouse, and then once they hit the dirt, everything changes. The hitter’s made an adjustment 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. And the signs are there if you know how to read them.

Swing recognition

How’s the hitter swinging on the fastball? 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 them.

Does the hitter recognize the breaking pitch and lay off? That might mean he’s seeing it 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 forward 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 it if he calls it again.

Kurt watches the hitters’ 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 around in the box, that might tell Suzuki 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 the hitter 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."

And those are the hitters that are the toughest to get out.

The guys you can screw around with are the guys who think too much: "He threw me a pitch inside…he might be doing that again." Then you go slider away. Then, if you can get the hitter to worry 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 this hitter has two strikes, he won’t swing the bat 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 thirties probably know what they’re doing; they know they can’t hit everything and then it’s a cat and mouse game. You try to mess up Hunter’s timing and hope he’s not guessing along with you.

If he guesses right, Torii Hunter can hurt you.

When in doubt, hit a four-spot

Suzuki says you can throw fastballs in fastball counts—and 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—a four-spot—the hitter has very little chance of doing anything with it. Maybe a single, but most of the time not.

When in doubt, hit a four-spot—baseball terminology for down and away—and you can rarely 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. Make the hitter back off the dish.

If you never come in, hitters will lean out over the plate and you’re going to get clobbered.

Suzuki is smart at the plate as well as behind it

Almost a year after I talked to Kurt Suzuki, Rusty Kuntz and I were talking about hitters with a good two-strike approach and Rusty brought up the Minnesota catcher.

Rusty said Suzuki was the kind of guy who would look to ambush a fastball early in the count, look to pull the pitch for extra bases, and if that didn’t work immediately go back to hitting the ball the other way.

Kurt Suzuki is smart at the plate as well as behind it and I hope this piece gives you some things to watch for as this series progresses.