Suzuki makes strides with bat at Midland
See also: Previous Double-A Report
FRISCO, Texas--Oakland’s farm system has a history of producing solid catchers, with Ramon Hernandez and Terry Steinbach as two examples that immediately come to mind. The next name on that list could be Kurt Suzuki.
Suzuki was a second-round pick in 2004 after helping lead Cal State Fullerton to the national championship, with the game-winning hit in their College World Series-clinching win over Texas.
Despite this being only his second full professional season, he has already reached Double-A Midland. Suzuki continues to impress players and coaches alike in the Texas League, including his own manager, Von Hayes.
“I’m very impressed with the way Kurt works every day,” Hayes said. “He brings a lot of energy to the team, which is all you can ask for. There are a lot of times where he’ll catch four or five days in a row and you look to get him some rest, but he never wants it.”
Suzuki was at high Class A Stockton last year and hit .277-12-65. He followed that up by hitting .342 with seven RBIs in 13 games in the Arizona Fall League. He was hitting .294-4-30 this season and continues to show his effectiveness as a line-drive hitter, as evidenced by his 16 doubles.
“He’s not trying to do too much and is trying to keep it simple,” RockHounds hitting coach Webster Garrison said. “He’s working real hard in the cage to keep it like that. So far he’s having a real good year and hopefully can continue that.”
Suzuki knows his success is due to knowing what kind of hitter he is and accepting his role. “I’m not going to be the guy who hits 20 or 30 home runs,” he said. “I’m more of a line-drive, gap-to-gap type of hitter.”
Several conversations earlier this season with Greg Sparks, Oakland’s roving hitting instructor, reinforced the importance of using the whole field to be most effective. That’s not to say Suzuki doesn’t have pop. He hit a career-high 12 home runs last year, numbers Garrison sees increasing in the future.
“This is only his second full year in pro ball,” he said. “He’s still growing and will definitely get stronger. If he keeps working on his line-drive stroke, it will turn into some more power as he gets older.”Different Spots, Same Results
In his brief pro career, Suzuki has hit up and down the batting order. In 2004 at short-season Vancouver, he got the bulk of his plate appearances batting second and hit .284. Last season, the majority of his at-bats came in the fifth spot, where he hit .282.
With Midland, Suzuki has again moved all over the lineup card. But Hayes said it isn’t a reflection on his young backstop, but instead due to a wave of injuries that have hit his team.
“He’s a guy that can drive some runs in if you need to put him down in the order, but he’s an on-base percentage guy also,” he said. “I see him more as a No. 2 hitter, someone who can hit the ball to the opposite field and do some hit-and-runs with. His bat gives me a lot of flexibility.”
In 2004, Suzuki’s on-base percentage was .394, which included 18 walks and being hit 12 times. Last season, it dipped to .378 with a full season of at-bats, but he still walked 63 times and was hit 12 times. This season, his OBP sat at .400 and he had already worked 34 free passes.
Suzuki said it doesn’t matter much where in the order he hits because his approach is the same in any spot.
“If I’m on top of the order, my main focus is getting on base and trying to be in a position where I can score for the guys hitting behind me,” he said. “If I’m hitting down in the order, I try to drive in more runs. I feel like no matter where I am in the lineup, I am helping the team out.”Getting Defensive
As solid as Suzuki is with the stick, his defense is becoming an asset as well. Hayes sees his glove, intelligence, durability and ability to call a game as a major part of his ticket to Oakland.
Hayes also likes how well Suzuki limits basestealing opportunities for the opposition. With Suzuki behind the plate Hayes doesn’t have to call pitchouts, and he said he can’t remember calling a single pitchout in a steal situation this year.
Last year, Suzuki committed 15 errors and had 19 passed balls, both low marks for his career. He chalked those numbers up to high turnover on the Stockton pitching staff.
To his credit, Suzuki used his 2005 experience as motivation to improve his defense. In spring training, defense was his primary focus and he concentrated on improving his receiving, blocking and game-calling, extra work that he knows has already paid off.
“You’ve got to try and get the feel of what your pitchers’ strengths are and what the other teams’ weaknesses are and try to attack them,” Suzuki said. “It’s a little rough, especially when guys are getting hurt and moving up and down.”
Hayes agrees that while Suzuki’s ability to call a game needs work, it is only a matter of time before those skills become big league ready.
“I think the only thing holding him back at this point is his game-calling, learning hitters and the type of pitchers he’s working with,” he said. “Every year, if he goes up, he’s going to be working with a better staff that can do a few more things which affects the way he calls games. Once he learns that, he’s going to get better and better behind the plate.”Steve Hunt is a freelance writer based in Frisco.
• Orioles lefthander Garrett Olson was promoted to Bowie from high Class A Frederick and struggled in his debut for the Baysox. The Orioles’ supplemental-round pick last year out of Cal Poly allowed five earned runs on seven hits in a loss to New Britain. The 22-year-old scuffled with his command, as he walked four and struck out five. Scouts debate Olson’s long-term role, with some saying he is best-suited as a set-up man, and others thinking he projects as a back-of-the-rotation starter.
“I just don’t see it,” a scout from a National League organization said. “I just don’t see anything much to get excited about. He has decent life on all his pitches--except the changeup--but he’s just not being utilized in the right way in my opinion. But that life is best early, then it drops off. As a starter, he just doesn’t have enough oomph on his stuff to go through the lineup more than one time. Developing a changeup would help him in that type of role, but now, this guy goes through the lineup twice and guys have him figured out.”SOUTHERN ACCENTS
• The Devil Rays received good news when righthander Jeff Niemann returned to the mound at Montgomery, pitching in game action for the first time since last August. Niemann spent the first two and a half months of the year at the club’s extended spring training facility in St. Petersburg, Fla., rehabbing from minor surgery he had to shave the joint down between his collarbone and shoulder last October. Niemann threw 67 pitches in his debut at Montgomery, and his fastball was clocked consistently in the 90-91 mph range, touching 93.
“He was in control of the game and the best thing was he was fine after it,” Biscuits manager Charlie Montoyo told the Montgomery Advertiser. “He was outstanding. It was good to see him back. He looked like a first-rounder.”TEXAS LEAGUERS
• Springfield outfielder Terry Evans isn’t upset that he is a relative unknown. As a matter of fact, the Cardinals prospect prefers it that way. Evans was a 47th-round pick in 2001 and signed in May 2002 as a draft-and-follow, then spent two years in low Class A Peoria before reaching high Class A Palm Beach last season, when he hit .221 and whiffed 110 times in 385 at-bats.
Evans turned it all around this season, as he scorched Florida State League pitching--batting .311-15-45 in 238 at-bats--to earn a promotion to Double-A. It didn’t take him long to adjust to the higher level, and he had already hit six home runs in his first 13 games in Springfield. He was batting .348 so far in the Texas League, giving him .317-21-62 combined numbers on the season.
“Out of nowhere, I guess,” Evans said. “I really haven’t changed anything in my approach physically, it’s more about being calm and relaxed and my faith in God has really allowed me to do that. I know you get a lot of athletes saying similar things, but it was like turning a switch. There isn’t pressure anymore and that’s the best feeling in the world.”Compiled by Chris Kline