Starting Susac in 2017

On July 31, 2016, the Brewers dealt reliever Will Smith for catcher Andrew Susac and pitcher Phil Bickford. While Bickford has been the focus of the trade for many, it’s Susac who is mostly likely to make the greatest impact in 2017. In December, The Brewers shipped away fellow catcher Martin Maldonado, in effect declaring Susac the starting catcher in 2017. While he’s never been handed the keys to a major league pitching staff, Susac now has the opportunity to stick as the main backstop in the Brewers’ rebuilding plan. Digging deeper into the player that Susac is, it isn’t hard to see why the Brewers are high on him. However, to understand who Susac might become, we have to understand his background.

Susac was a second-round draft pick back in 2011 out of Oregon State. The catcher was a steady performer in the Giants system, working his way from High-A ball in his first professional season and then spending all of 2013 at Double-A for his age-23 season. At Double-A, Susac started to show that he might have a place in a major league lineup after demonstrating above average power and a keen eye for the strike zone. In 2013, Susac smashed 12 home runs to go along with 17 doubles, good for a .458 slugging percentage in 310 plate appearances. His 21.9 percent strikeout rate was not particularly concerning given that he also walked 13.5 percent of his plate appearances.

In 2014, Susac showed more of the power and plate discipline that was putting him on the Giants’ radar for their major league roster. Over 253 plate appearances, Susac hit 10 home runs and nine doubles, amounting to a .451 slugging percentage. His strikeout rate dipped below 20 percent to 19.8 percent and he still walked at an impressive 13.4 percent clip.

By the end of 2014, Susac had been rewarded by the Giants with a call to the majors. Susac delivered a 0.5 WARP in 95 plate appearances, including three home runs and 8 doubles. He struggles a bit more with strikeouts, as he went down on strikes a near third of his plate appearances with 28 K’s in those 95 plate appearances.

Still, by the end of 2014 there was clearly a bright future for the soon to turn 25-year-old backstop. However, as Buster Posey continued to produce at an MVP level year after year with no real signs of slowing down, it was clear that the future for Susac was not in San Francisco.

Before the 2015 season, Baseball Prospectus ranked Susac the 97th best overall prospect. However, the season would not go as smoothly as he would have hoped. Susac struggled through a rough 2015 that included multiple disabled list trips. After being banged up in spring training and into the start of the season, Susac sprained his wrist on July 19 in Arizona and was sent to the 15-day DL. Upon his return, he was shut down for the season on September 6when the team discovered ligament damage in his right wrist. His 2015 injuries help explain his uninspiring slash line of .218/.297/.368.

2016 was a new year, and a new opportunity for Susac to regain his value as both an above-average performer and potential trade piece.  Back in Triple-A, he cut his strikeouts down to just 18.8 percent with his walk rate holding steady at 10.0 percent.  In 239 plate appearances, he was able to hit 8 home runs, 12 doubles, and even sprinkled in a triple. He Finished his time at Triple-A with a .273/.343/.455 slash line, staying consistent at all minor league levels.

Defensively, Susac has a relatively positive outlook. Over the 2013-14 seasons in the minors for Susac, he amounted to a total 20.6 framing runs saved through 8,322 pitches caught. In 2016 at Triple-A, Susac saved 10.3 runs in 4,,296 pitches caught. In his sporadic time the majors, he has not been able to replicate his pitch-framing prowess. Between his time with the Giants in 2015 and Brewers in 2016, Susac has only produced a -0.4 runs saved value in 2,387 pitches caught. Given that Susac has a considerably positive pitch framing record, it’s not unreasonable to think that the Brewers could see his runs saved totals rise in the majors with consistent playing time.

Based on the measure that the average starting catcher in the major leagues will receive about 8,000 pitches per full season, Susac could augment his WARP value by at least one full win, and possibly two, if he replicates his minor league framing measures in the majors. A main reason for the difference, of course, could be the quality of minor league umpires compared to major league umpires. While this could play a significant role, Susac’s consistence in the minors in regards to pitch framing paints a positive image moving forward.

Susac’s extensive time and success in the minors projects him to be able to stick as the everyday catcher in Milwaukee for 2017. Finally, it seems as though Susac is getting his chance to see consistent plate appearances.  Although working with a relatively inexperienced pitching staff will be a challenge, his pitch-framing prowess should help his pitchers over the course of the season.

Overall, there is a lot to like about the newest Milwaukee backstop. Given his ability to draw walks, hit for power, and play above average defense, it is not out of the realm of possibility that Susac would be a 2-to-3 WARP player in 2017. He isn’t an all-or-nothing player, as his consistent near 20 percent strikeout rate suggests. However, it is yet to be seen if Susac can duplicate his minor league numbers in the majors successfully. Maybe now with the peace of mind that comes with seeing your name penciled into the starting lineup every day, Susac can use his promotion to become the Brewers’ catcher of the future starting in 2017.

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