Baseball: Twins' new catcher aims to make pitchers feel comfortable
FORT MYERS, Fla. — It didn’t take Kurt Suzuki long to make an impression — and it wasn’t the two foul pops he let drop Monday during catching drills at Hammond Stadium. That can happen to anybody.
Instead, it was the engaging personality of the new Twins catcher that left longtime club employees shaking their heads.
“(Twins equipment manager) Rod McCormick just told me he might be the nicest guy on the team already,” assistant general manager Rob Antony said. “He said, ‘God, what a good dude he is.’ “
Look out, Joe Mauer.
Apparently, it isn’t enough that the new guy at the adjacent locker is favored to replace the six-time all-star behind the plate now that Mauer has made the big switch to first base. Suzuki, it seems, wants to make a run at Joe Nice’s crown as the King of Kind.
OK, that may be stretching things a bit, but when it comes to the upgraded pitching staff at his disposal, there’s no denying Suzuki hopes to spread good vibes.
“I want pitchers to feel comfortable throwing to me,” he said. “I want them to feel confident. That’s kind of my thing. That’s something I really take a lot of pride in.”
This will be the eighth big-league season for the former College World Series hero at Cal State Fullerton. Suzuki turned 30 in October and averaged 14 home runs a season from 2009-11, but the erstwhile Kurt Klutch has no delusions about his greatest asset.
Defense is the name of his game: framing pitches with a mitt so soft it could be stuffed with goose feathers; calling the perfect pitch at the perfect time with a mentalist’s precision; leaping to his feet to gun down unsuspecting base stealers.
“That’s kind of what my deal is: handling the pitching staff,” Suzuki said. “That’s first and foremost. Obviously, I’m more known for that.”
He did it so well in Oakland for so many years that the playoff-bound A’s actually re-acquired him from Washington for the stretch run last season.
That told the Twins plenty as they called around to learn more about Suzuki this winter.
Their reconnaissance actually started in late September, when the Twins were in Oakland for their final road series of a third straight lost season. Recognizing the possibility that Mauer’s concussion might keep him from ever catching again, Twins people began asking about Suzuki, a pending free agent.
Bench coach Terry Steinbach, a former A’s championship catcher, and pitching coach Rick Anderson led the initial charge.
A strong run at a reunion with A.J. Pierzynski fell just short in late November. Three weeks later, the Twins agreed on a one-year, $2.75 million deal with Suzuki.
As much as the Twins liked rookie catcher Josmil Pinto, they didn’t want to leave themselves exposed if Pinto’s balky shoulder acted up or if his defense regressed.
Twins general manager Terry Ryan kept telling his top lieutenants that he “would be comfortable” with Suzuki behind the plate.
“We talked to a lot of people, and everybody had nothing but good things to say about him,” Antony said. “This guy takes a lot of pride in his catching and what he does with pitchers and how a pitcher performs. He’s a hard worker and a great teammate.”
Now it’s Suzuki’s turn to compile a dossier of his own, this time on the improved arms with which he’s been entrusted. Suzuki said it helps that he has faced Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes for years; he’s a combined 4 for 21 against that duo.
“You want them to feel comfortable at all times,” he said. “You just want them to throw with conviction. I don’t care what they throw. If he shakes to a pitch, he wants to throw that pitch. And I’ll let them throw that pitch because that’s what they have confidence in.”
Closer Glen Perkins, who threw the only bullpen session Suzuki caught Monday, faced him a few times way back in 2004.
Back then, it was Suzuki’s Titans eliminating Perkins’ visiting Gophers from an NCAA Regional. During the regular season, Suzuki homered off Perkins at Fullerton’s Goodwin Field.
It says something more, perhaps, about Suzuki that the catcher didn’t even think to bring up that long-ago moment when he came face to face again with Perkins at TwinsFest last month.
There would be no gloating from Suzuki.
Kurt Nice wants nothing but good vibes for his pitchers.