Kurt Suzuki is not a superstar, and is far from it. Exactly zero times have I considered Suzuki to be a necessary addition to a contending team like other catchers are, and I can be pretty confident in writing that there’s a large group of baseball fans that have never even heard of him.
And yet, Suzuki agreed to a two-year deal worth a total of $10 million with the Washington Nationals on Monday. A 35-year-old catcher with a career 91 OPS+ and average-at-best defensive contributions received a multi-year contract from a team with no real inclination to rebuild, all because of how historically weak the free agent catcher market in Major League Baseball is today.
But just how bad is the catcher market in free agency?
As the backstop of the 2018 National League East Division champions, the Atlanta Braves, Suzuki performed exceptionally well in relation to his fellow catchers. In hitting .271/.332/.444 with 12 home runs, 50 runs batted in, and 36 extra base hits, Suzuki outperformed some of the most well-regarded catchers in the sport, like Yadier Molina, Willson Contreras, Salvador Perez, and Yasmani Grandal.In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. Kurt Suzuki is far from a star player, but earned a multi-year contract solely because of the poor free agency class of catchers.Click To Tweet
Among the catchers that became free agents at the end of the 2018 campaign, like Grandal, Wilson Ramos, and others, Suzuki had the third-highest FanGraphs WAR (fWAR) at 2.0. By the definition of fWAR, two wins means you’re sufficient enough to be starting for your team. That means only two catchers in baseball were more than just “okay,” and “good enough,” providing more than the average starter-quality player by the fWAR metrics.
In addition, literally all of the free agent catchers listed here are on the wrong side of 30, which ordinarily is a red flag for MLB general managers. If you’re in search of a catcher in free agency, you better be prepared to settle for a 33-year-old who cannot hit, is completely incapable of running the bases, and is losing it defensively.
Johnny Bench, Yogi Berra, and Thurman Munson are gone, but it wasn’t long ago that the catcher spot was a superstar position. Joe Mauer won American League Most Valuable Player in 2009, and Buster Posey did the same on the senior circuit two years later, while Molina and Jonathan Lucroy were casually posting seven-fWAR seasons.
Now, if you’re like Grandal, who has basically forgotten how to catch a baseball during the Los Angeles Dodgers’ last two NL pennant runs — subsequently getting bench for the offensively-horrific Austin Barnes — you’re a hot commodity, a prized-possession at a position that has never been worse.
Kurt Suzuki is actually returning to Washington for his second stint with the Nationals. The Nats acquired Suzuki from the Oakland Athletics at the trade deadline in 2012, where he, uh, truly blossomed, hitting .239 with an OPS of .641. He contributed just eight home runs in 122 games with the Nationals over two years before being sent back to the A’s a little over a year later.
And now, Washington is committing to an older version of Suzuki, after being disappointed in his previous tenure in the nation’s capitol, giving him more money than he’s ever made on a single contract before. All because, well, there isn’t a better option. They say “in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king,” and there really isn’t a better way to describe the catcher market in the major leagues.
If you’re a parent reading this, teach your kid to play catcher. Jeff Mathis proved last week that you can lock down a major-league roster spot even if you are measurably one of the worst offensive players ever, and Kurt Suzuki, much better at the plate but still not a star, reinforces it. And if you’re an MLB executive, draft a good, young catcher early in the draft, because you aren’t getting one unless you develop him.
I am in no spot to fault Suzuki; he’s a good player and a very likable one at that, and he played the poor catcher market to his advantage. But it’s an absolute shame that he was able to given how horrendous the catcher market is.