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Kurt Suzuki’s remarkable season

The mystical rejuvenation powers of hitting a bunch of fly balls, through the lens of a backup catcher.

MLB: Atlanta Braves at Arizona Diamondbacks Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Words are strange. Case in point: “remarkable.” Just looking at the word in and of itself, you get, “can be remarked upon.” But, if you go to a dictionary definition, you get something somewhat different:

1. notably or conspicuously unusual, extraordinary;

2. worthy of notice or attention.

Beyond that, its synonyms are rife with value judgments: notable, noteworthy, striking, extraordinary, wonderful, unusual, singular, uncommon. But, I still come back to the word itself — “can be remarked upon.”

As July 2017 winds to a close, Kurt Suzuki, 33 years old, has appeared in 46 games and has garnered 167 PAs for the Atlanta Braves. His season has not been remarkable, in the conventional sense. It has not been particularly notable, noteworthy, striking, extraordinary, wonderful, unusual, singular, or uncommon. But, it is certainly remarkable, in the sense that it is capable to remark on it, perhaps with a smidgen of wonder. That’s what this post is.

This post was prompted by Suzuki’s monster two-homer game on July 25 at Chase Field against the Arizona Diamondbacks. Suzuki came into the season with 83 home runs. He had amassed just a couple of two-homer games: one in 2010, and one in 2011. Those games both came in his erstwhile starting catcher days with the Oakland Athletics, when he was a slightly-below-average-but-passable hitter. Since August 2011, Suzuki had not homered twice in a game. He homered twice in a game not just once, but twice, in the month of July 2017 alone. (See how this works? It’s remarkable, and I’m remarking on it. Magic.)

Suzuki’s first home run last night, off of former Brave farmhand J.J. Hoover, was hit at an estimated 100.8 miles per hour, and traveled an estimated 411 feet. His second blast was hit harder, at 106.4 miles per hour, but only traveled an estimated 401 feet, as it was hit more on a line (21-degree launch angle for the latter, compared to 31 degrees for the former). If you go to the Statcast leaderboards, you will find that his second homer of the night was the hardest ball he’s hit all year. If you go back to 2015, when exit velocity data were first collected by Statcast, you’ll find that it was the hardest ball he’s hit in the past three years. The gif of the homer has been replaced due to operator error, and apparently never existed in the first place. Please call Rob Manfred and ask him to allow media embeds to appear in Google AMP, so we can integrate them into posts again — thanks in advance.

As noted, Kurt Suzuki is 33 years old. Kurt Suzuki had an 86 wRC+ last year. Kurt Suzuki has a 118 wRC+ so far this year. Let’s look at Kurt Suzuki’s annual wRC+s since his debut:

A remarkable wRC+ graph.

Players have good seasons all the time, even at 33 years old. This isn’t particularly singular/uncommon/noteworthy in and of itself. But it gets moreso, when you realize:

  • Suzuki’s BABIP is currently the lowest of his career;
  • Suzuki’s strikeout rate is among the highest of his career;
  • Suzuki’s ISO is .248, which is 1) higher than his 2015 and 2016 ISOs added together and 2) nearly a top-50 ISO in baseball (among all 2017 hitters with 100+ PAs), higher than the ISO put up so far this season by Carlos Correa, Kris Bryant, Chris Davis, Marcell Ozuna, Mark Reynolds, and a bunch of other names that I could probably list but won’t.

So, we live in a world where Kurt Suzuki, power hitter is a thing. But, is “Kurt Suzuki, powerful hitter,” a thing? Weirdly (or perhaps not weirdly), not so much. Suzuki’s hard-hit percentage puts him around the top 40 percent. That’s more average than face-melt-y. (For comparison, his ISO puts him in the top 15 percent.) If you use the Statcast leaderboard, you’ll notice:

  • Suzuki’s maximum achieved exit velocity (on the homer whose gif is posted above) is way towards the bottom of the league — most guys knock at least one ball around 110 miles per hour; and
  • Suzuki’s average exit velocity is just 86.9 miles per hour — below average.

So he’s not hitting the ball particularly hard, but he is slugging. (I included only those two stats from the Statcast leaderboard, but he’s average-ish or below across the board, and probably looks even less impressive if you up the minimum batted ball event threshold to exclude pitchers and the like.)

Kurt Suzuki: he’s got ten homers, and his average exit velocity resembles that of Jeff Mathis (two homers, 47 wRC+ this year). (It also resembles that of Andrelton Simmons, Tommy la Stella, the carcass of Carlos Beltran, Martin Prado and a bunch of other guys this season. Baseball is weird.)

At this point, you might be thinking: “Okay, Ivan, why am I reading all this about Kurt Suzuki?” My snarky answer would be, “Look, I just said he’s remarkable. I’m remarking on him. Remarks!” But, this is section where the real answer lies.

Take a gander at this chart.

Cromulent is kind of like remarkable, if you think about it.

Yes, you’re reading that right. Suzuki has now hit 50 percent of his batted balls into the air. Not on a line, either — his 14.5 percent liner rate this season is a bottom-20 figure in baseball. Only six players to get 100 or more PAs so far in 2017 have skied more balls than Kurt Suzuki.

Now, let’s add a bit more to the chart.

Remarks! Remarks!

The red line reflects Suzuki’s HR/FB, or the rate at which his fly balls leave the yard. The gray line is just the league-average benchmark. HR/FB has grown throughout baseball since 2014, after staying pretty steady for the early part of his career. And, after some flirtation with having his fly balls leave the yard at a league-average rate between 2007 and 2011, and then a lengthy doldrums period where with some fairly poor performance, Suzuki appears to be back with a vengeance.

The story is strange, or, again, perhaps not that strange, depending on how you look at it. Suzuki isn’t really hitting the ball all that hard. Sure, he’s hitting it harder than he was previously, but he was a featherweight as a hitter over the last few years: before this season, his two most recent wRC+s were 65 and 86. The difference is that he’s hitting a bunch more fly balls, and doing so in a way that helps them leave the park, resulting in better offensive production for him and some much-appreciated runs for his team.

In short, there’s no doubt that Suzuki is uppercutting the ball way more now than he ever has in the past. The progression below makes this pretty clear.

That’s a huge change in approach. But, one thing still sticks out as unexplained. Increasing your fly balls should increase your homers proportionally, based on your HR/FB rate. To date, Suzuki’s HR/FB rate has been pretty weak, and well below league-average (see charts above). Suddenly, he’s flipped the script, and is putting up a league-average HR/FB rate. How is he doing this? I think this is the remaining mystery.

  • His swing could be uniquely geared to take advantage of the new (juiced ball-aided?) run environment.
  • He is hitting the ball somewhat harder, which explains some of the HR/FB improvement. For example, his 2016 exit velocity on non-grounders was 90.2 miles per hour, while it has increased this season to 93 miles per hour. Does this explain all of the deviation? If so, is this sustainable? Has he made a mechanical change that is part of, or in addition to, his newfound uppercut tendency that lets him generate more power?
  • Is this all just a small sample size artifact? After all, Suzuki’s average estimated homer distance this season is just 394 feet, which is fairly below average. Given that he only has 10 homers this season, even one of his longshots being caught at the wall or being hit in an unfavorable park or field location would substantially dip his current HR/FB rate.

Going forward, will Suzuki’s uppercut approach, which leads to a ton of fly balls (the denominator of HR/FB), combined with some more “normal” (and less remarkable?) outcomes on fly balls have him once again comfortable settle in at a below-league average fly ball rate? I’m not sure this thought occurred to me before this morning — but suddenly — I’m excited to find out.

The term “fly ball revolution” has been bandied about with increasing frequency lately. One only has to look at Yonder Alonso to see how a focus on lifting the ball can rejuvenate and augment a pretty uninspiring major league career. To read more about the fly ball revolution, you can really just punch it into Google - a boatload of results will pop up. I do recommend the initial descriptor from Jeff Sullivan (Fangraphs) and a more skeptical/cynical take from Russell Carleton (Baseball Prospectus). Carleton writes:

There’s probably some room for a few players who had untold, untapped power unlocked by focusing on fly balls. They met with success, so they kept going with it. Their success made for a good story to write about, and so their cases got famous. The advent of the new Statcast metrics tied in nicely, and provided some nice color to those articles and a vocabulary to talk about what had happened.

But was it a revolution or a couple of convenient cases that fit a pleasing narrative? What about the guys who have tried the fly-ball thing and gotten awful results? What about the guys who may have messed around with a fly-ball swing in batting practice, realized it wasn’t going to work for them, and then went back to what got them into the majors to begin with?

At least so far, Suzuki looks like one of those “few players.” I’m not sure it’s made him famous, but it’s made him something to think about, if only fleetingly. He’s definitely trying the fly ball thing, and the results have been the best of his career. If nothing better, he’s transformed a completely soporific backup catcher role into something both intriguing and productive. And, if nothing else, I can at least definitely say that that’s remarkable.

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