Here's a Thought: Is Kurt Suzuki Really Much Better Than Landon Powell?

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Here's a Thought: Is Kurt Suzuki Really Much Better Than Landon Powell?
(Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

Oakland catcher Kurt Suzuki gets a lot of love from A's fans, and I certainly appreciate his playing.

Suzuki is a competent hitter who rarely strikes out, and he's an excellent defensive catcher, blocking seemingly every ball an A's pitcher throws in the dirt—all while doing a good job controlling the running game.

However, I'm going to take a very unpopular stance here and say that backup Landon Powell should see a good amount of playing time at Suzuki's expense.

Why?

Let's compare the two players.

Suzuki is hitting .283/.319/.419; Powell .253/.327/.402. While Suzuki rarely walks (4.3 BB percent) or strikes out (8.7 percent), Powell will often do either (10.3 BB percent; 24.1 K percent). 

This means that Suzuki has better contact skills, but Powell is likely to post equal or higher OBPs despite the contact gap. The OBP figures of the two catchers reflect this.

Powell also hits for more power than Suzuki, with a .149 ISO to Suzuki's .136 mark.

Coming off the bench is also a difficult task for hitters, so it's very possible that Powell's numbers would improve from here with more consistent playing time. He showed excellent power in Triple-A last season (.187 ISO) and in Double-A in 2007 (.210), so he certainly has more power potential.

The other key with Powell and Suzuki is their splits against lefties and righties. Powell has hit righties at an excellent .286/.343/.429 clip, while wilting against lefties (.167/.286/.333). Suzuki, on the other hand, is at .292/.321/.419 against righties and .261/.315/.420 against lefties.

 

Yes, Suzuki and Powell both hit righties better than lefties, but compare the OPS splits.

            vs. LHP     vs. RHP
Powell    .617         .772
Suzuki    .735         .740

 

While Suzuki's batting average is 31 points higher against righties, he's got more walks and power against lefties, making his platoon split basically zero. Powell, on the other hand, is far superior to Suzuki against righties (especially when you factor in the difficulty of the bench role), but far worse against lefties.

Defensively, Suzuki is indeed excellent, but so is Powell. We don't have a whole lot of major league performance to go on, but every scouting report on Powell I've read gives him very high marks for defense and arm strength.

In 2007, in Double-A, Powell threw out a whopping 54 percent of basestealers—that's Ivan Rodriguez territory. Scouting reports praise his soft hands and receiving skills, and his wide, stocky body helps block pitches in the dirt.

So, while Suzuki is an excellent defender, Powell is a similar blocker and better thrower. Suzuki likely gets the edge in calling a game, but Powell's no slouch at that either.

So, why is Powell 27 years old and just a rookie backup catcher if he has all of these skills?

He's had two different ACL tears in his minor league career, delaying his progress through the system. When he's been healthy, he's always done well, but as a college draftee who entered pro ball at age 22, missed all of 2005, and missed a lot of 2007, the injuries and age severely hurt Powell's status.

The skills are there for him to be a top-flight catcher, offensively and defensively, if his body can hold up.

It's no slight to Suzuki that I'm saying I like Powell better. It's just that I think Powell is that good.

So what exactly am I advocating for here?

I think that Powell should usually be the starting catcher when the A's are facing a right-hander and Suzuki should start against lefties. Suzuki can also come in late in games to give Powell some rest or to face a lefty reliever. 

Having this arrangement would allow both catchers to stay healthy and also keep from being rusty as so many bench players seem to be. In any given week, each catcher would see action in at least three games, whether as the starting catcher, DH, defensive replacement, or pinch-hitter.

Taking playing time from Suzuki and giving it to Powell wouldn't be a popular decision, but I think it would be the right move.

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