Braves catcher Kurt Suzuki was taking swings in the batting cage earlier this season, and his coaches noticed something in his swing.
“Honestly, I was working in the cage one day, and I used to go with one hand during batting practice,” Suzuki said. “I couldn’t do it in the game, and so I don’t know. Maybe it was true, maybe it wasn’t. But I started working on two-hand finishes and kept doing it, tried to keep loose as I was doing it. Then all the signs kind of just took off, and it’s something that Seitz (Braves hitting coach Kevin Seitzer) and (assistant hitting coach) Jose (Castro) mentioned to me.”
Braves players frequently praise Seitzer, but he’s arguably had the greatest effect on Suzuki. An 11-year veteran and one-time All-Star (2014), Suzuki has discovered unprecedented pop in his first season with the Braves.
“I used to do a one-handed finish in batting practice, and I wouldn’t do it in the game, and I’d tell myself mentally in the game to do it, to let go with one hand, and I couldn’t do it,” Suzuki said. “So (Seitzer) said, ‘Why don’t you just practice the way you hit in the game?’ So I went and hit and I probably hit about 150 balls that day. I just tried to be loose and finish with two hands until it became a habit. I can’t let go now, it’s hard for me to let go with one hand. So it’s instilled now.”
Already with 15 home runs, Suzuki’s next long ball will set a new career-high. Suzuki hit 15 homers in 2009, but did so in 379 more at-bats. Since May 17, Suzuki’s homered every 10.36 at-bats. The only major leaguers who have homered more frequently in that span are Giancarlo Stanton (8.50) and Joey Gallo (9.52).
He’s become more valuable than the Braves could’ve imagined when they scooped him up late last January on a one-year, $2.5 million deal.
"He's got some hand speed," Seitzer said. "He's got real good leverage and uses his legs — he stays closed and stays short and inside the ball, and I mean those hands just snap through. It's real impressive. I'm real happy for him. I don't know how many times he hit two homers in a game in his career before now."
Suzuki said Seitzer is the ideal hitting coach who can maximize his players.
“Always positive,” Suzuki said. “Keeps it real simple approach-wise. As a player, that’s what you want. He tries not to clutter your head too much and keeps everything simple. Just little fixes here and there, and you’re on your way.”
Suzuki has played in 59 games, splitting catching duties with Tyler Flowers, who's had a career-year himself. Braves manager Brian Snitker is pleased with the duo, and he sees a two-catcher system as wise in Atlanta's hot climate.
“If you don’t have a guy who’s a (Marlins catcher J.T.) Realmuto, somebody like that, especially here, and it hasn’t been that bad this summer, but overall just the wear and tear,” Snitker said. “You have a couple guys you can split it up with, and maybe get the most out of both of them. We’ve done that here. Both of them have contributed and had really solid years.”
Suzuki agrees with Snitker’s logic. He’s felt looser and more relaxed while splitting time.
“I think there’s a little validity to that,” he said. “It keeps us both fresh, and we do what it takes to stay ready. Snit’s been doing a good job of keeping us fresh. It’s been great.”
Suzuki has outperformed his contract, and given the barren catching landscape throughout the bigs, he’s not likely to be waiting deep into January to find a job again.
He may also be offered the opportunity to be a primary catcher elsewhere, whereas with the Braves he could still share duties with Flowers, who has a cheap club option that’s likely to be accepted.
“I don’t know (if being a primary catcher will influence decision),” Suzuki said. “I kind of just take it day-by-day. I try not to look too far. We’ve still got a month left. So we’ll see how I feel after that. But I feel good now, and we’ll see.”
Suzuki might just be a one-hit wonder in Atlanta. He’s enjoyed his time on and off the field with the Braves, but that may not be the deciding factor.
“Yeah, I don’t see why not,” Suzuki said about re-signing. “It’s a great place. I like all the guys here and stuff. But there’s a lot of factors: family, my kids starting school (in California), proximity to home (Hawaii). There’s a lot of things you can factor in, but you know, this is a place I’ve grown to love.”
Despite the individual success, Suzuki’s team has dwindled. The chance to win is something he’s relishing as the 33-year-old’s career winds down, but ultimately, he’ll settle for just enjoying the daily grind.
“Honestly coming into this year the No. 1 goal for me was winning,” he said. “You never know when your career is starting to get to an end. I got my 10 years this year and I’ve been doing it for a little bit now and haven’t real got to that pinnacle. The No. 1 thing was winning, but I just wanted to go and have fun, just play baseball again.
“If I’m going to end my career I’m going to end having fun. I’ve been having a blast here with the guys, and the coaching staff and guys that work here, the front office -- it’s been great.”
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