Washington Nationals: Recent success of Kurt Suzuki seems sustainable

ATLANTA, GA - JULY 31: Kurt Suzuki #24 of the Atlanta Braves hits a two-run double down the third base line in the fourth inning during the game against the Miami Marlins at SunTrust Park on July 31, 2018 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images)
ATLANTA, GA - JULY 31: Kurt Suzuki #24 of the Atlanta Braves hits a two-run double down the third base line in the fourth inning during the game against the Miami Marlins at SunTrust Park on July 31, 2018 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images) /

The Washington Nationals will be hoping for a lot of improved production from the catcher position. Kurt Suzuki should be able to do his part in that.

Ever since Wilson Ramos went down with a torn ACL towards the end of the 2016 season, the Washington Nationals have struggled for offensive production from behind the plate. But in 2019, the team will be hoping Kurt Suzuki and Yan Gomes can change that.

Yan Gomes is coming off of an All-Star season in 2018 where he hit very well, for a catcher at least. He had a relatively solid .266/.313/.449 slash line with 16 homes runs in 2018, which hasn’t been too far from his career norm when he’s played a large portion of games.

However, there has been plenty of skepticism about Suzuki’s recent success with the Atlanta Braves. In the last two seasons, Suzuki led the major leagues in OPS by a catcher with at least 200 plate appearances with a .825 figure. Yes, more than Ramos and even J.T. Realmuto.

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It’s perfectly reasonable for Nationals fan to be worried about whether this production is sustainable for Suzuki. After all, he was pretty underwhelming in his first spell with the Nationals.

After his trade from the Oakland Athletics in 2012, Kurt Suzuki finished off the year with a positive .725 OPS, but it dropped down to .593 in 2013 before he was traded back to Oakland. So it’s fair to wonder what it was that caused the sudden increase to .825 that we’ve seen in that last two years.

Some of the statistics that would indicate that this was down to luck appear to have remained the same. For example, Suzuki’s BABIP in his two years in Atlanta sat at .272 with his career BABIP actually a touch higher at .273. His walk rate actually dropped from a 6.2 percent career number to 5.6 percent, as his strikeout rate stayed relatively consistent from his 11.7 percent career rate to 11.8 percent with the Braves.

Well, it looks like most of his improvement is down to Suzuki’s launch angle. Seeing as launch angle tracking only started in 2015, in 2015 and 2016, Suzuki posted a launch angle of just 13.5 degrees, according to Baseball Savant. But per Baseball Savant, in 2017 and 2018 with the Braves, he recorded a launch angle of 18.2 degrees which caused the improvement in many of his hitting stats.

That caused his groundball rate to drop from his career 40.9 percent rate to 35.2 percent in Atlanta, while his flyball rate went from 39.5 percent to 43.6 percent. This meant some more of those nice batted balls that he had in his career began to change from routine groundouts to nice singles or doubles.

Somewhat strangely, Suzuki makes it sounds like this hasn’t necessarily been a conscious effort to raise his launch angle. On a conference call with reporters shortly after his signing, he told Byron Kerr of MASN Sports the following:

"“I really haven’t changed much. I go out there and I really don’t think about launch angle and all those kind of analytical things. I go out there and just try to do some damage. If they throw a pitch I think I can do damage with I swing. I just try to battle up there, out a good at-bat together. Obviously, pitchers are throwing a lot harder now so you don’t have to do as much. I just try to stay loose and just let the pitcher supply the power.”"

As noted by a reporter on the conference call, Suzuki has also been pulling the ball a bit more at this stage in his career, which could explain his recent uptick in form. However, there could be an even more simple explanation for the improvement.

Historically, he has performed better between March and July compared to August and September, so fatigue could well be the case here. So, we look at the situation that he’s leaving in Atlanta, and the one that he’s entering in the nation’s capital.

With the Braves, for the first time in his career, he was not the primary catcher for a full season on one team. Being able to have Tyler Flowers there to shoulder slightly more, and sometimes split the games played, clearly helped Suzuki thrive.

The new backstop now enters a similar situation in Washington with Gomes, who could end up being the primary catcher. That should allow Suzuki to catch two or three times per week and be able to hit just as he has with the Braves, forming a potent offensive tandem behind the plate. Just what the Nats need.

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Kurt Suzuki appears to be a fairly underrated signing by the Washington Nationals this offseason. If he can sustain the success he had with the Braves, he’s sure to surprise plenty of Nats fans with his offense in 2019.