Kurt Suzuki: Anatomy of an Underrated Player

“Overrated” and “underrated” are overused terms in the blogosphere, particularly the sports blogosphere. Thank goodness I never fall into the trap of using them. But hey, it’s Friday, I can loosen the tie a bit.

What makes a baseball player underrated? It can be a number of things: not playing for a contender, not playing in a big market, not being verbose with the media, and, of course, not having skills that are commonly remarked upon. While I don’t know about Kurt Suzuki‘s clubhouse witticisms one way or the other (one interview can be found here), I do know that he seems to meet the rest of the requirements.

Oakland has neither contended nor had excess national media coverage since Suzuki became their full-time catcher following Jason Kendall‘s trade to the Cubs during the 2007 season. Given the As’ recent performances, Suzuki might seem to be just another cog in the machine of the seemingly endless (to casual observers, anyway) rebuilding process in Oakland. But the whole point of an “underrated” post is to show that he isn’t just another player. Suzuki isn’t just another player. But to see this, one has to look a bit more closely than usual.

Offensively, Suzuki has been just slightly below average over his major league career with a 97 wRC+. CHONE has him slightly better than that at 99 wRC+, and the other projection systems see him as about the same. That may not be too inspiring, but one has to keep in mind that Suzuki is a catcher, and not many catchers can produce near-league average offense. Combined with his ability to play almost 150 games a season, in each of the last two seasons, Suzuki has been around three Wins Above Replacement. Not bad for a pre-arbitration player.

But wait, there’s more! While catchers like Mike Napoli and Jorge Posada have superior bats to Suzuki, not only do they play fewer games at catcher than Suzuki, they also have poor gloves. While FanGraphs doesn’t have catcher defense (yet), there are some sources for it. Rally’s Wins Above Replacement has Suzuki at +11 defensively in 2008, and +1 in 2009 (which matches my 2009 figure). That bumps his 2009 figure just slightly, but makes him about a 4 win player in 2008. CHONE projects Suzuki at +3 defensively for 2010.

Adding it all together, one gets a 3+ win player, which is about how the Fans have him projected. This again illustrates how valuable a player’s pre-arbitration seasons are to a team, and again, as I wrote earlier this week, it is particularly clear this off-season in light of the contracts recently given to below-average veteran catchers. While the As’ crazy-range outfield may get the bulk of the publicity, Suzuki is just as important to a team that might sneak up on their competitors in AL West in 2010.

Then again, if 42 fans understand how good Kurt Suzuki is, how underrated can he be?




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Matt Klaassen reads and writes obituaries in the Greater Toronto Area. If you can't get enough of him, follow him on Twitter.

24 Responses to “Kurt Suzuki: Anatomy of an Underrated Player”

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  1. Gopherballs says:

    I am disappointed by this article’s failure to portray the Kansas City Royals in a positive light. I expect more from Fangraphs. Please cancel my subscription.

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  2. The A Team says:

    Every time I see a reference to the fan forecasts I get worried. If we have a consistent player like Suzuki has been and we list the last 3 years of data right next to the “make your projections,” shouldn’t we expect the fans to spit out the average of the 3 seasons, maybe with heavy weighting on the more recent?

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    • Ramah71 says:

      Well keep in mind that almost all of the people who make projections for players here at FanGraphs have the resources and better knowledge about baseball in general to make more accurate predictions than almost any other blog on the Internet. So there is that. But for the most part, citing the fans as verifiable evidence isn’t the best way to predict any player’s future season.

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  3. Steve says:

    Hey I have a question…. Are the WAR figures on the link for Rally’s (baseballprojections.com) the same as WAR figures on this site???

    If they are it is a DAMN shame that Lou Whittaker and Alan Trammel are not in the HOF…. Whittaker is #55 on the all time list and Trammel was like 67th or something…

    Why isnt the sabermetric communtiy more involved in Trammels HOF case???

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    • Steve says:

      Trammel was 69th… sorry… But they are the 2 highest players that are eligible but not in yet from what i can see…

      I did some more research and see that Bill James ranks Whittaker as the 9th best 2B of all time…

      i know this is an article on Suzuki, but talk about UNDERRATED…

      I only bring this up because I clicked the link for Rallys projections and perused the list of all time WAR…

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      • Steve says:

        another thing i find funny is, while looking at the pitchers list, almost every guy ranked 80 or higher that is in the HOF played for one of the NY teams…

        The HOF is a joke…

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      • Tom B says:

        WAR is not a fix-all, there are lots of shortcomings in both of those players careers (career 113 combined OPS+ for the 2 of them, color me uninmpressed) and a lack of hardware(trammel finished 2nd in MVP once, Whitaker only even GOT votes once).

        Baseball Reference has HoF indicators on every page, i’d go check those out to better understand why they get no hall support.

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    • No, they aren’t the same. Rally’s are fine, and the only reason I avoid citing them regularly here is to avoid confusion for newcomers. I cited Suzuki’s numbers from Rally’s site because he has a system implemented for measuring catcher defense, whereas FanGraphs doesn’t yet.

      Anyway, I’m not an expert on Rally’s stuff and the differences between his and FanGraph’s versions of WAR. I don’t think one is necessarily better than others — obviously, there are some things that could be judged better than others, but sometimes there is just a different way to do things. Here are some of the differences as I understand them (and I’m open to correction):

      – the big one is that while FanGraphs uses MGL’s UZR using source data from Baseball Info Solutions, Rally uses his own defensive systems: his Retrosheet-based TotalZone system for the mid-50s (or so) on, and for other seasons, an adjusted version of Range Factor. He does something else for catcher defense. This means he can get defensive numbers for pretty much all of major league history, while FanGraphs is currenlty limited to 2002-present. On the other hand, while TotalZone is very good, I think UZR’s source data makes it generally a more accurate system. While there are similar measures, there are also some pretty big differences between TotalZone and UZR figures — this is especially apparent in some outfield figures.

      – Rally adjusts positional adjustments and replacement level for era (and league, in the case of replacement level. Obviously, for FanGraphs’ WAR, there isn’t much of a difference in “era” at this point.

      – Rally’s offensive linear weights are adjusted to fit team-specific scoring, FanGraphs linear weights are adjusted for the league. I don’t think there’s a conflict here, it depends on what sort of value you are trying to measure.

      – For pitching, FanGraphs uses FIP, Rally uses an adjusted RA based on the defense behind the pitcher (not sure exactly how this works — perhaps he takes the team defensive runs above/below average then prorates it for innings pitched?)

      – Rally includes non-SB baserunning, FanGraphs doesn’t yet.

      Again, I’m not saying one is better or worse than the other, just laying out (some of) the differences as I understand them. I’m open to correction if I’ve misunderstood.

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    • Also, I think there are plenty of sabermetric types are behind Trammel. Don’t know if I qualify, but I definitely think he should be in. And so should Bobby Grich, and Lou Whitaker, and so on. At the moment, Tim Raines and Bert are the big causes, I guess, for better or worse.

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      • Steve says:

        thanks for all the info….

        and Bert was the highest on the pitchers list that is not yet in of players that qualify…

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    • ToddM says:

      Trammell is getting ^$*#ed in the #^%, and Whitaker’s getting dropped from the ballot in his first year was even an more egregious offense, one of the greatest in the history of HOF voting.

      You’d think two guys with big enough personal numbers and the added bonus of playing together longer than any other 2b/ss combo would get some damn respect. They won a #&@$ing title in 1984, they were solid or better in pretty much every aspect, and neither did anything to shame themselves, their team, or the game itself.

      I know Sweet Lou was a Jehovah’s Wtness and never said anything to the media, but good lord, this is a travesty.

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      • ToddM says:

        To wit,

        Craig Biggio is widely regarded as a first-ballot HOF. His defense was generally good but not remarkable (4 GG’s though). His career OPS+ was 111 in 12,503 plate appearances.

        Lou Whitaker wassn’t a spectacular defender, either, but he won 3 GG’s of his own. Although he only had 9967 plate appearances (a full 20% less than Biggio), his carrer OPS+ was 116.

        I don’t claim Whitaker, as a candidate, is at Biggio’s level, and I know Biggio stole a lot more bases and certainly racked up greater counting stats (including the magic 3000 hits), but given these similarities, how can anyone claim Biggio is a first ballot guy and Whitaker doesn’t belong at all?

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  4. Ivan Grushenko says:

    Suzuki has also been a basically average base runner (non SB/CS) according to Dan Fox’s numbers (+2 Runs over 1450 career PA) during his career, which is probably better than most catchers. So he might have been underrated even in an article about how underrated he is!

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  5. Choo says:

    I’ve been a Kurt Suzuki fan since his Cal State days, but my favorite Suzuki moment came last season. He and Jason Giambi converged on a routine popup near the first base dugout. Suzuki scooted into position and was calling off Giambi, who countered by turning around once or twice before flopping to the ground like a walrus in front of Suzuki. The ball may have bounced off the bill of Giambi’s cap, or maybe it was his wristband. Giambi was in a heap so I don’t remember. What I do remember is when Suzuki reached down and appeared to offer Giambi a hand, Giambi reached out and grabbed a handful of air – Suzuki had picked up the ball instead and stood over Giambi, giving him the sort of look reserved for that once in a lifetime ocassion when you encounter a homeless man wallowing around in his own feces.

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  6. Hard to call a player who is less than league average in OPS and sports a .313 OBP as ‘underrated’. Regardless of stellar defense a catcher still has to hit. The fact is Suzuki is somewhere in the middle of the pack of starting catchers in MLB. That’s average. When you’re average…how can you be ‘underrated’?

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    • joser says:

      Because “ratedness” has nothing at all to do with stats, but with general perceptions and notoriety? Ask the average fan for, say, any NL East team to list all the major league catchers who were “average” or better — how many of them would list Suzuki on the first try? Or at all?

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  7. Joe R says:

    Suzuki: .274/.313/.421
    League average C: .254/.321/.396

    But throw Suzuki into a neutral park, and his #’s (according to b-r) are .282/.323/.432. OPS+ relative to catchers of 110. Not to mention durability, as he led all MLB Full time catchers in plate appearances.

    So slightly above average bat + above average defense for the position = good player.

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  8. JayCee says:

    At one point, fairly recently, Suzuki’s ADP was roughly the same as Miguel Montero’s. I’d have a hard time calling Suzuki “underrated” in that context.

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    • joser says:

      I know it’s hard to believe sometimes, but the people who follow Fantasy are not the entirety of the baseball universe.

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  9. joser says:

    Then again, if 42 fans understand how good Kurt Suzuki is, how underrated can he be?

    I don’t know, I think it’s possible to find 42 fans with a clue, even in Oakland.

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