The Washington Nationals just made a brilliant, or utterly futile, free agent signing that either will upgrade their biggest positional weakness significantly or leave them smacking their heads asking, “Why did we bank on a 35-year-old catcher?”
Popular, heady veteran catcher Kurt Suzuki, who played for the Nats late in the 2012 season then for much of 2013, is returning to Washington on a two-year deal worth $10 million. But he’s not the same weak-hitting guy who left back then. And the Nats know it.
“[General Manager] Mike Rizzo was really aggressive. I took to that. He told my agent that I’m the guy they want. . . . Catch 90 games or 120, I’ll do whatever you want,” said Suzuki, who, per at-bat, has been one of the best hitting catchers in MLB the past two years, and according to one respected metric — weighted on-base percentage — the No. 1 offensive catcher in that time (.351).
“I was impressed with how persistent they were. [The Nats] spoke with my agent at length, seemed like they’d do whatever it took to get me signed,” said Suzuki, who has 31 homers, 100 RBI and an .825 on-base-plus-slugging percentage in just 623 at-bats over the past two years — basically the per-at-bat career levels of Anthony Rendon and Ryan Zimmerman. “I’ve played for Riz before. You want to be wanted.”
The past two seasons, Nationals catchers have tied with Boston for the worst offensive production in MLB with a hideous weighted runs-created-plus of 60. Suzuki has been at 116, just behind Buster Posey and Wilson Ramos, and tied with J.T. Realmuto for third.
So, welcome back, Kurt.
Many may be shocked — I’m shocked — but Suzuki appears to be the kind of “front-line” catcher that Rizzo last week said the Nats were pursuing to catch roughly 120 games for them. That description brought to mind free agents who have been all-stars such as Ramos or Yasmani Grandal or perhaps a trade for Miami’s Realmuto.
But, once again, Rizzo appears to have had radically different, and very independent, ideas about where he could find value and help give his team an offseason with tons of financial flexibility. Suzuki has signed, and is happy about it, at a salary that is basically the MLB average. If he is pleased, the Nats are giddy.
Why was Suzuki available so cheaply after the two best offensive seasons of his career when an altered hitting style — pull the ball in the air as much as possible — is a logical explanation for what Suzuki called “a career renaissance.” The answer: Just as modern analytics identify those who have been the best producers in the past , such as Suzuki in 2017-18, they also predict that any player older than 30, especially a catcher, might as well be carrying the plague.
The Nats are apparently rolling the dice — big time — that analytics have identified an underappreciated fine-hitting catcher but that analytics will be wrong in predicting that his breed, an aging catcher, will fall apart.
In the past two years, better late than never, Suzuki has learned that the one thing he always did well at the plate — pull the ball in the air to left field — is the only thing he should have tried to do his whole life. In all parts of his career, Suzuki has had an OPS near 1.200 when he pulled to left field. But in his first 10 years, he pulled just 26 percent of the time. The past two years, 36 percent.
“I really haven’t changed much,” Suzuki said, but in the next breaths he talks about waiting for pitches where he can “do damage” and focusing intensely on analytics for the first time in his career, especially last season.
Could Suzuki really gear up to 120 games of catching a year? Well, for the past 11 years he has averaged 121 games and has topped 130 six times, including 131 in both 2014 and 2015. The only reason he has averaged 97 games the past three years is that no one has asked him to do more. And Suzuki does what’s asked.
“I got no ego. I never did. Whether 50 games or 120, I’ll do whatever. . . . I’ve never played in the World Series. That’s my goal. . . . And this team competes to win a World Series, as their goal, every year,” Suzuki said. But “no ego” or not, he made it clear how important it was to him that “I’m the guy they want here.”
Have the Nats sold themselves an aging bill of goods? Can Suzuki match his 83 starts at catcher and 105 games last year for division rival Atlanta? And what’s up with Rizzo, and now Suzuki, volunteering “120 games?”
If Suzuki ages as quickly and badly as most catchers at 35, the Nats will have wasted money and time while leaving a huge problem unsolved. Get ready for plenty of spunky Spencer Kieboom. But the Nats use scouting for 65 percent of their player analysis and analytics for 35 percent. To Rizzo, the ferociously conditioned Suzuki, a good all-around athlete, always has passed his eye test for longevity. Well, Carlton Fisk once hit 37 homers at 37.
Rizzo’s eyes and the number-crunching of his analytics department have combined to take a big gamble. However, given the bleak landscape of the current catching market, where you can either overpay or go hungry, it could be one of the Nats’ best moves of the offseason. The cost of Grandal, 30, may be $50 million more than Suzuki. Ramos’s knees have made him as fragile as Suzuki has been limber and durable. Finally, the Nats’ two-year dream of trading for Miami’s Realmuto is a fantasy. The Fish want Victor Robles or Juan Soto, both under team control for the next six years, in that trade for just two years of control of Realmuto. The Nats aren’t dopes.
But have they duped themselves? If Suzuki fixes the catching problem for 105 to 115 games, then the Nats found enough money to improve their chances to sign their starting pitcher (perhaps Dallas Keuchel) and quality reliever (among a half-dozen fine ones) of choice. In fact, Suzuki’s reputation for pitch-calling and framing, though he’s a bit below average at throwing out runners, might influence a free agent pitcher to come to D.C.
Or you can include all that “found money” in your holiday Bryce Harper fantasy.
The Nats are an annual offseason treat because they know their own mind and love to act quickly, setting up other moves and options. No team acts more surprisingly. When Rizzo mentioned he wanted that 120-game front-line catcher, many scratched their heads. Who could it be? Why would Rizzo tip his hand?
Maybe the GM was just showing off. Not one person in MLB, except him, was thinking, “The answer is Kurt Suzuki.”
For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.