Kurt Suzuki replaced Joe Mauer’s production this season. Just let that sink in.
For how much Minnesotans complain about their erstwhile hometown hero, Mauer’s production has been off the charts since he joined the Twins in 2004. His 2009 numbers (.365/.444/.587, 28 HR, 96 RBI) will be difficult to replicate, even for him, but what made them even more impressive was he did that while catching.
His days of chasing .400 seem far away, but before his career-altering concussion the former Cretin-Derham Hall star was hitting .324/.404/.476, good enough for his fourth Silver Slugger Award. His head injury ultimately removed him from behind the plate, and the Twins, having traded Wilson Ramos in an ill-fated transaction years earlier, needed somebody to fill in at catcher while Josmil Pinto developed.
Suzuki was that man.
The longtime Oakland A’s backstop was hardly unknown. He was a decent hitter and solid defensive player in the South Bay from 2007-11, but his numbers dropped as he split time with Oakland and the Washington Nationals in 2012 and 2013. After topping out as a .275 hitter in 2008 and 2009, his second and third years in the league, Suzuki hit .230 in the last three years before joining Minnesota.
The common thought was that he was worn down from frequent, aggressive play. In Oakland he was known to play upwards of 130 games a year. In 2008 and 2009 he played 148 and 147 games, respectively, but was held to 94 games last season. The 1-year, $2.75 million contract he received from the Twins hardly suggests they thought he was going to be the offensive force he became this season, but a combination of need, fit and the fact that it was a contract year created a perfect formula for Suzuki in Minnesota.
While the Hawaiian probably was not thrilled about playing in the cold early in the year, he instantly felt comfortable in the Twins’ clubhouse and was well received among the pitching staff and position players. “Those catchers, man, those catchers have those personalities where they kind of click with the pitching staff and the hitters," says reliever Casey Fien. “I mean, we’re kind of segregated, but with the catchers, they’re the neutral party so they need to be with everybody. Kurt has that personality of being able to click with everybody and having something in common."
The question is: How does he do it? How is he having his best year at age 30? How did he fit in with a team of people that he, for the most part, didn’t know?
And, ultimately: Will he stay?
Replacing Joe Mauer
Six-time All-Star; three-time batting champion; three-time Gold Glove Award winner; and
American League MVP.
Mauer received all those awards while catching for the Twins. He was the anomaly: the backstop that could hit. He was the first overall pick in the 2001 draft. Paul Molitor and Cal Ripken Jr. said that he had the best swing they had ever seen. And on top of that, he averaged more than 20 points per game as a guard at Cretin and was offered a football scholarship at Florida State University to play under Bobby Bowden.
He had a fall from grace in 2011, of course, when he suffered from bi-lateral leg weakness, but came back and hit well above .300 in 2012 and 2013. Had it not been for his concussion, Mauer still would be calling games and Suzuki probably would have signed with another team.
Suzuki doesn’t deny it: He knew that he would be compared with Mauer the day he signed with Minnesota. “I believe it, and rightfully so," he says. “I’ve got so much respect for Joe. I played against him when I was with Oakland and last year with Washington a little bit. That guy goes out, he wins batting titles, he’s an MVP while taking a beating back there, and that’s impressive.
“He’s definitely one of the guys that I respect probably most in this league. And to be able to be on his team now, I’ll take comparisons all day long if I get to suit up with Joe."
“I’m not going to get caught up comparing the two players," says Jared Burton, who played with Suzuki in Oakland’s farm system, “but he’s done better than anybody could have expected. I knew he would be utilized here, especially with the move we made with Joe. It’s been perfect. He slid right in and became a great catcher for us."
A perfect fit
Burton lobbied hard among the players to get Suzuki to join the team. He had played with him in Oakland’s minor league system in 2005 and 2006 and developed a strong relationship with him before being selected by the Reds organization in the minor league portion of the Rule 5 draft in 2007. “Whenever we played the A’s last year, Burton always talked about how Kurt was an awesome guy, somebody he would love to throw to," says Fien. “We heard a lot of good things about him through Burt, and Burt doesn’t throw around comments like that very often."
“I can’t imagine there being a better fit for him, personality-wise, than this team," says Burton. “When we signed him this offseason, I was really happy for this organization and happy for him because I knew he would fit right in."
The Twins knew what they were getting when they signed Suzuki. Gardenhire says that he talked to other teams and knew he was an asset in the locker room as well as out of it. Twins general manager Terry Ryan echoed that same sentiment about the catcher, saying he had a track record and was a targeted player, even if the team had been aiming at A.J. Pierzynski and Jarrod Saltalamacchia in the offseason as well. “He’s had a pretty good career already," says Ryan of Suzuki, “even before coming here. I’m glad we have him; he’s done a nice job here. He’s good in the clubhouse, he’s good in the community, he’s produced -- I don’t know what else I can tell you."
Suzuki says that having Burton in the locker room helped right away, even if he is outgoing and personable by nature. “Definitely knowing some guys makes it comfortable," he says. “Having played with Burty for a few years with Oakland definitely helped."
Instead of addressing him as Jared, Suzuki calls him Lights Out Levi, which is derived from Burton’s given name. “Everybody has heard me call him Levi, and I don’t know if anybody would call him that," says Suzuki, laughing. “They might have, but I’ve always called him Levi since we played together in A-ball."
“I knew his name was Levi," says Fien, a smirk developing across his face when asked about the moniker. “Actually, I heard [the nickname] this last road trip. Me and my wife were talking to him and my wife loves his name, Levi, so then he started talking nicknames, and so I kinda knew."
Stockton resident Bill Richardson, a local super fan of Oakland’s High-A farm team, gave Burton the name. “He would travel on the road sometimes, and then all of a sudden you’d just hear him yelling and you’d be like, ‘Oh, he’s there.’" says Burton, shaking his head. “I took over the closer role like halfway through the season that year and pitched really well and he would yell, ‘Lights Out Levi!’ and Kurt kind of took it, and that’s what he’d call me that year."
Ryan says that despite their relationship and the fact that Burton was lobbying among the players to sign Suzuki, he did not reach out to his reliever in his evaluation of the catcher. “I don’t talk to players too often about that because it could be one guy’s favorite," he says, “and it could be the other guy’s enemy."
In this case, that doesn’t look like it would be a problem. Everyone seems to like Suzuki.
Suzuki grew up in Hawaii, loves to surf and listens to reggae. Put him on the diamond, however, and he gets all fired up. “He’s a red-ass," says Gardenhire. “You can print that."
The same guy that leads pitcher’s meetings with the composure of a CEO and offers young hurlers the calming presence of a shrink also has the incendiary qualities of his manager. “He’s got a little fire in him, and that’s okay, I like that part of it too," continues Gardenhire. “He gets frustrated when we give up runs, and he’s got a little bit of that."
Gibson remembers a moment when he walked a guy on a 3-2 breaking ball earlier this year. He was about to get out of the inning, but suddenly found himself in a jam. As Suzuki walked out to the mound, Gibson knew what was coming. “I can’t say every word he said," offers Gibson, laughing, “but he comes out and said, ‘That was a stupid pitch, I let you get away with it, and don’t do it again! Let’s get this guy out.’"
Safe to say, Gibson got the next guy out.
“He’s not afraid to do that," continues Gibson. “He takes pride in what he’s doing. If I walk a guy or give up a run, he kind of takes it personally."
“He yells at himself in the dugout," says Gardenhire, chuckling. “He takes a lot of pride in not giving up runs."
“I hate losing, and I hate failing," admits Suzuki, “I’m pretty intense, but between the lines I try to be laid back. There’s certain times to be the ass and certain times to be calm, but I’m just competitive by nature, and I definitely hate losing."
Burton believes that Suzuki developed that attitude as a walk-on at Cal State Fullerton, one of the best college baseball programs in the country. “He’s just got that mentality that he’s never going to be satisfied," says Burton. “You take a guy that walked on at a program like Cal State Fullerton and turned himself into a second rounder, that’s pretty impressive. That lets you know what he’s all about."
“I’ve always had to be that guy that had to prove himself. Nothing was really given to me," says Suzuki. “Having to walk on at Fullerton, my mindset is always go out there and not just prove people wrong, but prove to myself that I can do it and be successful."
“I had to go out there and earn it, and I believe that’s how everything should be," he adds. “You should have to earn everything you’ve got."
A natural leader
Suzuki didn’t just develop an attitude at Fullerton; he also procured a strong work ethic. He played under three coaches there that ended up being head coaches at other programs shortly after he left. George Horton, who was the head coach at Fullerton from 1996-2007, is currently the head coach at the University of Oregon. Dave Serrano, who took over for him, is currently the head coach at Tennessee. And Rick Vanderhook, who is the current Fullerton coach, was an assistant while Suzuki was there.
“That’s just what kind of program you’ve got when you’ve got three leaders like that that you get ready to play for," he says. “I feel very fortunate for that, and it definitely helped lead me to where I am today."
“He still does the same things (he did at Fullerton), still prepares as much as anybody," says Burton. “He’s watching video at the beginning of each series; he’s leading the pitcher’s meetings because he knows exactly what these guys do."˙
“He’s got that assertive personality," says Gibson. “He’s not afraid to say something, step up and tell you when you’re wrong and admit when he’s wrong. But he knows what he’s talking about a lot of the time."
“He’s our leader," says Fien, emphatically. “He’s the guy everybody goes to if we have a problem. He’s also in with the coaches; the coaches love him here."
“He’s one of the chemistry guys," echoes Gardenhire, “but also a very good baseball player."
Here’s the crazy thing: Had the Twins got Pierzynski, ostensibly their first choice, they would have gotten a clubhouse cancer -- Pierzynski signed with the Boston Red Sox and was recently designated for assignment. With Suzuki, they got an instant leader.
What makes Suzuki special is that he offers both the comfort of a laid-back Hawaiian dude, and the jolt of reality from somebody that has that assertive personality and will get in your face. He’s relatable to the player that needs to calm down after a bad outing as well as the guy that needs to be told he’s underperforming. He’s also a missing link: guys like Mauer and Phil Hughes tend to lead by example, Trevor Plouffe has a fun, playful energy, Brian Dozier is cheerful and conversational and Josh Willingham just says it as it is. But nobody was the igniter until Suzuki showed up.
“There’s guys that lead by example. He leads by example well, but he’s also got that fireball personality that allows him to speak up well," says Gibson. “It just depends on the team you have. I mean, Joe’s always been the lead-by-example guy: You rarely see him get fired up or allow his emotions to take the best of him. You need guys like both of them, so it works out really good."
It’s not all personality, of course. For many players it is his preparation. Suzuki knows all the hitters, the strengths and weaknesses of his pitching staff and the repertoire of the starting pitcher he will face that day. It all goes back to his college days: He was the un-recruited high schooler that had to walk on to his college team and go the extra mile to stay on it. He has a drive to be one step ahead of everybody mentally in order to let his natural talents and assertive attitude manifest itself.
“That’s what you need with a guy behind the plate," says Burton. “You’re unsure about what to throw to a guy, then you’re going to be confident throwing whatever he puts down."
A ‘suggestion box’
Fien says that building a repertoire with Suzuki wasn’t difficult, and after a few outings, the two had established a sublime connection -- something that is common among all the pitchers and Suzuki. “A couple games is all you need to see what is working for me to get people out and what he sees," says Fien, “and once we’re on the same page, I’ll tell him what I want to do."
He pauses. “But sometimes he has a different idea."
During one of his first outings with Suzuki, Fien said that he wanted to go fastball in. Fien does not throw particularly hard, but locates the ball well and tends to use his fastball in and out to throw hitters off balance, while mixing in a steady diet of cutters to change speeds and create movement on the ball. At 30, he has a pretty good idea of what he wants to do on the mound, but that day Suzuki walked up to the mound and had a different plan in mind.
“I said I want to go fastball in and he goes, ‘No, we’re not going to go fastball in,’" says Fien, “and I go ‘Alright, let’s go fastball away.’" Unhappy with the selection, Suzuki told him, “No, let’s not go fastball away, let’s throw a cutter back door."
“And I was like, ‘Alright, let’s go cutter back door,’" Fien says, laughing as he recalled the story. “He knows the hitters, he knows what he wants, and I don’t know why he didn’t just come out and say it."
Among the staff, almost everybody says they have shaken Suzuki off at least once, but because the meetings are so thorough and he knows the pitchers so well, there’s often no reason to disagree with him. “He definitely gives you the freedom to shake," says Gibson. “The more I throw to him, I wouldn’t say I ever lacked confidence in him because from the get-go, you know his history, you know how long he’s been in the league and the job he’s done with other staffs, so he just makes you feel comfortable and allows you to throw any pitch with conviction."
“He’s not really one of those guys (that you can’t shake)," says Burton. “He knows as a bullpen guy, more often than not we’ll come in and face a guy one time [and] we’ll go with our strength. He may put something down that may suggest something he’s seen in the video room, but we want to go with something else, and we can both live with that."
“Listen, I’m a suggestion box, and if a guy shakes me off and he feels 100 percent convicted in throwing that pitch, throw it," says Suzuki, his fiery attitude slowly emerging as he speaks. “Obviously if he doesn’t throw it at the right spot, we’re going to have a little talk about it."
A little talk, mind you, that typically involves high decibels and a few choice words.
“I’m a suggestion box," he says, “with a strong suggestion."
Living on the edge
On July 1, while chasing a pop up in foul territory in a game against the Kansas City Royals, Suzuki ran into a pole near the dugout at full speed. His foot slid into a hole behind the pole and he took the brunt of the impact in the chest. This was only a few days after he was stunned for a few minutes by a foul-tip to the same region and another one that hit his facemask.
“He’s nuts," said Gardenhire after the game. He paused for a few seconds, put his face down and laughed to himself in front of all the cameras. “I don’t know what he’s -- he’s a psycho man running through that wall," he continued. “Everyone was saying, ‘No. No. No.’ And he just kept running, and then he said, ‘That really hurt.’"
Everyone laughed at that comment. “It sure looked like it did," concluded the manager. “Tough guy, you know."
Suzuki’s toughness appeared to have caught up with him in recent years, however. He’s a guy that likes to play every day, and wrist issues, as well as general wear and tear, had caused his production to drop in his last few seasons with Oakland and Washington.
When asked about why Suzuki’s production has increased this season, Twins general manager Terry Ryan immediately pointed to his health.
“Well, he’s 100 percent," Ryan said. “I know he had some wrist issues last year. But he’s been good since the first day, he’s really solidified some of that behind the plate, allowed us to pick and choose when we wanted to play Pinto and now bringing [Eric] Fryer -- he’s got the durability and stamina, he can play a lot so you don’t have to worry too much about that position."
The key for Suzuki, then, is to balance being a wild man and being an everyday player.
There are a lot of questions surrounding Suzuki in the second half of the season: Will he stay, or will the Twins trade him? Can he keep up his production after taking a beating night-in and night-out? Minnesota will also have to weigh the risks of re-signing a 30-year-old catcher based off of one good season who may want a long-term contract.
Those concerns can wait until later, however. For right now, let’s just focus on this: The Twins made a savvy pickup in the offseason, and Suzuki is a perfect fit in Minnesota.
Tom Schreier can be heard on The Michael Knight Show from 2-3:00 on weekdays. He has written for Bleacher Report and the Yahoo Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @tschreier3.