Last September John Suomi was playing in the most exciting baseball series of his life and he had every reason to feel on top of the world. The 23-year-old catcher had just completed a very solid season for the Modesto A’s of the California League, which had included a spot in the California League All-Star Game. The A’s were playing the Lancaster Jethawks in the California League Championship Series and the best of five series was knotted at one game apiece. Suomi had solidified his status as something more than organisational filler, and a ticket to Double-A looked to be in the cards for 2005. However, in the third game of the championship series came the play that may have irreparably changed Suomi’s career.
Born on October 5, 1980 in Etobicoke, Ontario, John Richard Suomi probably grew up with a pain many readers know all too well; being a baseball player in a country devoted to hockey. After finishing high school the 5’11, 180-pound catcher decided to attend College of the Cariboo in Kamloops, British Columbia. Whether this was because of a lack of American scholarships or a personal choice, I can’t answer. This detour on his baseball career didn’t last long, as he only spent a year at the college before he was drafted by the Oakland A’s in the 22nd round, with the 645th pick in the 2000 draft.
Suomi, the 22nd Torontonian to be drafted in MLB history, was the 15th Canadian drafted that year. The names ahead of him are an interesting contrast of successes and failures, which will be briefly reviewed. Scott Thorman, a 3B from Cambridge, ON, was drafted in the first round by the Atlanta Braves. Thorman hasn’t developed the way the Braves would have hoped. In his fourth year in the minors (he missed 2001 due to injuries) Thorman hit .299/.358/.461 to earn a quick promotion from Myrtle Beach to Greenville in Double-A. He spent most 2004 at Greenville, amassing a poor line of .252/.326/.406. Thorman is only 23 now, but he’s going to have to hit much better than that to reach the majors as a corner infielder.
The second Canadian drafted turned out better, as the Expos drafted a right-handed pitcher named Shawn Hill in the 6th round. Hill had a solid year in Double-A Harrisburg last year, with a suspect K rate, and looks like he could possibly make it as a back-of-the-rotation starter. He seems very likely to at least amass some time in the big leagues before everything is said and done.
The third Canadian drafted was 3B/OF Norm Siriveaw from Vancouver, by the Jays. He never panned out. Eight other Canadians drafted never amounted to anything, either. Cory Agar (14th round, Twins), Geoff Smart (15th, Angels), David Jablonski (17th, Cubs), Andrew Myette (17th, Rangers, and I assume Aaron’s brother), Shayne Ridley (19th, Orioles), Tanner Watson (19th, Mariners), Alex Blackburn (19th, Blue Jays) and Etienne Ratte-Delorme (20th, White Sox) all are no longer in professional baseball.
However, interspersed amongst these picks were James Rich Harden (17th, Athletics), Vince Perkins (18th, Blue Jays) and Jason Bay (22nd, Expos). Rich Harden is one of the best starters in the American League and will soon be the ace of the Oakland staff. Bay, of course, won the National League Rookie of the Year award. Perkins is still a prospect in the Jays system. He had a good year at A-ball in 2003 and struggled with injuries in 2004. Jordan Furlong’s Blue Jays Top 30 Prospect List had Perkins at #15, and included the phrase, “This time next year, this ranking could be ridiculously pessimistic.”
Back to Suomi, in 2004 he came to camp hoping to establish himself in the Oakland A’s organisation. After an unremarkable season with the Kane County Cougars in 2003 Suomi broke camp with the California League Modesto A’s in High-A ball. Suomi, however, was slated to backup catcher Jed Morris for the A’s, and playing as a backup in A-ball obviously makes it difficult to turn yourself into anything more than an organisational soldier. Plus, Suomi was slipping on the depth charts at catcher in the Oakland system, as he was behind John Baker, Jed Morris, David Castillo and Jeremy Brown. Suomi was facing an uphill battle that would not get any easier with the draft selections of Landon Powell and Kurt Suzuki in June.
Suomi began swinging a hot bat in the minor league camp and this carried over to when the season started. Soon, he began to get semi-regular work at DH, in addition to approximately one-quarter of the starts at catcher as Morris’ backup. Morris struggled and suffered nagging minor injuries, while Suomi continued to hit. A’s manager Von Hayes decided to take matters into his own hands, in an attempt to get Suomi into the lineup more regularly. He phoned Oakland management and asked if he could give Suomi regular playing time at catcher. The front office consented and Modesto never looked back.
Suomi began to appear behind the plate regularly and usually hit 6th in the Modesto lineup. The A’s had a fantastic lineup, with Brian Stavinsky hitting 3rd and Nelson Cruz in the 5 hole. Brant Colamarino hit 4th until he got called-up to Double-A, at which point Jason Perry was sent down to Modesto and replaced him in the order. It was a fantastic lineup; Modesto hit .303 as a team and set a California League record for hits and doubles.
Despite the lineup’s firepower Suomi was the only Modesto A to play in the California League All-Star Game. On June 29, 2004 the California League beat the Carolina League 5-2 with Suomi going 0-1 with a run scored. However, one of the highlights of his season for many Modesto fans was a game in July where Suomi literally fouled a ball off his eye. He dropped to one knee and then promptly got back up and stepped back in the batter’s box, attempting to continue his at-bat. The umpire had to stop the game and force Suomi to get medical attention because he was bleeding badly from his eye.
Later in the season Suomi won two consecutive games with hits in the ninth-inning. As reporters were interviewing him after the second game-winning hit they asked him how he was able to concentrate and bear down in those tense situations. Suomi replied, “It’s like trying to win a big puck drop.” Understandably he was teased mercilessly by his teammates for a while when they read those comments in the next day’s paper. As the only Canadian on the team Suomi had to deal with lots of jokes about his background and comments that inadvertently reinforced the stereotype didn’t help. It didn’t matter to the good-natured catcher, who took them in stride and joined in the jovial clubhouse atmosphere.
Suomi was a hit in the clubhouse as he was polite and friendly. Modesto Bee reporter Brian VanderBeek remembers, “He had a clubhouse naiveté that made him lots of fun to be around.” Perhaps due to his background and limited exposure to baseball Suomi didn’t speak in the language of baseball clichés. Everybody appreciate Suomi’s honesty and directness, although VanderBeek jokes, “He may need to see Bull Durham a few times before he gets to majors.” Suomi was a sharp contrast to many of his California-raised teammates, from his manner of speaking to his attitude, but his uniqueness didn’t isolate him and instead seemed to bring him closer to his fellow A’s.
Behind the plate Suomi wasn’t outstanding, but there are also no indications that his defensive abilities would force a position change or preclude him from catching at the major league level. He liked to get low behind the plate and, perhaps because of this, pitchers liked to work with him. He tended to develop a good repertoire with pitchers and they were usually on the same page when it came to pitch selection and how to attack opposing hitters. Suomi moved well behind the plate and, likely aided by his ability to get very low, was adept at blocking pitches. His arm isn’t strong, but he didn’t give up that many stolen bases during the season. However, that is certainly the weakest part of his defensive game.
A scrappy player, Suomi was also known for his refusal to give an inch to an opposing player. Several times during the year he fearlessly blocked home plate despite an opposing runner bearing down on him, a scenario which would play out horribly in the playoffs. He made twelve starts at third base during the season, which isn’t uncommon for catching prospects in A-ball to do. This allows teams to keep their bat in the lineup while giving the prospect a day off from the rigours of catching or looking at another player in the system. Alternatively, sometimes team aim to look at a particular prospect at another defensive position, especially if there are doubts he’ll be able to stick as a catcher in the bigs. There is no indication that the latter was the reasoning behind Suomi’s starts at third, where he displayed very good instincts. VanderBeek recalls, “They reminded me of a hockey goalie. His footwork and positioning may need some work, but I think he could handle the position in the future.”
Modesto made the playoffs and advanced to the California League Championship Series against Lancaster, an affiliate of the Arizona Diamondbacks. After splitting the first two games, the series was effectively a best-of-three. On September 20, in the bottom of the tenth inning of game 3, Modesto closer Jeff Coleman began the inning by allowing a double to toolsy hacker Reggie Abercrombie. Coleman worked the next hitter, Doc Brooks, into an 0-2 count. Then came the play that could Suomi’s career into a “what if…” scenario.
Brooks singled the Coleman offering into centerfield and Marcus McBeth took it on one hop and fired a strike home as Abercrombie sped around third, trying to win the game. Suomi got out in front of the plate, hoping to prevent the winning run from scoring, and he fielded the ball a split-second before Abercrombie came hurtling into him. The Modesto Bee likened the collision to a “car wreck.” Suomi held onto the ball but lay on the field in pain as the umpire called Abercrombie safe. Manager Von Hayes and shortstop Omar Quintanilla were just two of the many A’s protesting the call, but the more devastating news to Oakland was that Suomi had just suffered a major knee injury.
While precise medical information is not available, the knee basically buckled right underneath Suomi as he pivoted to tag the burly Abercrombie after taking the throw, which was slightly to the to the first-base side of home plate. Apparently, Abercrombie would likely have been undisputedly safe if he had slid, but seemed prepared for an inevitable collision and unable to adjust himself to the opportunity to slide. Suomi caught the ball and turned, and seemed to be forced unnaturally backwards by Abercrombie, as his planted foot didn’t move and his knee collapsed underneath him. The knee injury appears as if it will keep Suomi out for most of, if not the entire, 2005 season. Some question if he’ll ever be able to effectively play baseball again.
However, Suomi wanted to support his teammates and for games 4 and 5 he was sitting in a chair beside the dugout. As the A’s went to bat, they would all pass by Suomi, often exchanging words with the team’s newest cheerleader. The A’s won games 4 and 5 and Modesto was the 2004 California League Champions. Suomi joined the celebrations in the clubhouse and manager Von Hayes presented Suomi with the game ball from the deciding game, characterising him as undoubtedly the team’s leader. Everyone in the clubhouse cheered the announcement about the player who had become everyone’s little brother.
An update from spring training says that Suomi will report to Oakland’s training facility in mid-April for full-time rehab on the knee. VanderBeek reports, “Playing catcher this year is out of the question, but the A’s hope to get him to the point where he can DH or maybe play third by July or August.” Suomi might be assigned to Vancouver, Kane County or Stockton, which is now the A’s California League affiliate instead of Modesto.
A knee injury is obviously extremely detrimental to a catcher, and it’s unknown if Suomi will be able to withstand the daily grind of the position. If he can and he returns in 2006, he’ll still be in a problematic scenario as he’ll likely be playing at the same level as Powell or Suzuki, and thus will be forced into a backup role. If he is able to return, but not at catcher, a position switch to third base will be in order. This will not only entail him learning new defensive skills, but he’ll also have to hit better comparatively to make the major leagues.
A devastating injury to a Canadian prospect who had just begun to establish himself is obviously disheartening to read about. However, it raises the interesting question of if we can even roughly judge what sort of career Suomi might have had if the injury had not occurred. To begin, here are Suomi’s career minor league stats:
Team Level Age AB H HR BB K AVG OBP SLG Athletics Rk 19 87 23 0 14 10 .264 .366 .310 Athletics Rk 20 175 45 4 27 36 .257 .356 .429 Visalia A 21 70 15 1 7 13 .214 .295 .343 Vancouver A 21 142 36 5 11 36 .254 .310 .408 Kane County A 22 241 62 1 14 34 .257 .298 .357 Modesto A 23 545 161 12 41 72 .295 .345 .440
Here’s a look at how some of Suomi’s rate stats changed over the course of his minor league career.
Team $EBH*$BB** $K*** Athletics .035 .139 .115 Athletics .114 .134 .206 Visalia .099 .090 .183 Vancouver .083 .071 .250 Kane County .085 .054 .138 Modesto .092 .069 .130*EBH/[PA-(BB+HBP)] **BB/(PA-HBP) *** K/(PA – (BB+HBP)
After struggling following his callup from Visalia to Vancouver, Suomi settled down at Kane County and continued his improvement in 2004 at Modesto. However, Suomi’s stats in isolation tell us very little, so let’s engage in some comparative analysis.
In terms of prospect analysis, John Sickels is, at a minimum, one of the best in the game. Understandably, Suomi didn’t make Oakland’s Top 20 prospect list following his injury. In fact, only one everyday catcher in the California League did, Mike Napoli of the Rancho Cucamonga Quakes, an affiliate of the Angels, was given a C+ grade. Let’s examine how his California League stats compare to Suomi’s.
Player Age $EBH $BB $K Suomi 23 .092 .069 .130 Napoli (2003) 21 .089 .120 .190 Napoli (2004) 22 .126 .152 .338
Napoli is a year younger than Suomi, so that one must bear that in mind when looking at his stats, although he also is repeating the level. Suomi isn’t as adept at walking as Napoli is, but he makes much better contact than the Angels prospect. Napoli has more power and is likely the better prospect at this stage, although the difference between the two players isn’t large.
A further comparison is warranted between Suomi and the three catchers to recently have passed through Modesto on their way to MLB careers. Ramon Hernandez came up through Oakland’s system, but I can find no record of him having played for Modesto. However, A.J. Hinch, Cody McKay and Miguel Olivo all played in Modesto, the latter two spending the better parts of two seasons playing for the club.
Player Age $EBH $BB $K Suomi (2004) 23 .092 .069 .130 Hinch (1997) 23 .144 .126 .204 McKay (1997) 23 .071 .118 .177 McKay (1998) 24 .080 .100 .154 Olivo (1999) 21 .115 .086 .247 Olivo (2000) 22 .093 .070 .233
Suomi was not that old for a catcher in the California League last year, but he’ll quite possibly have to deal with going back to this level, or even being demoted, at the age of 24. Roughly speaking, Suomi has the worst eye of the group, makes the best contact and his power lies somewhere in the middle. Of all the individual seasons, Suomi’s best comparison is Olivo’s 2000 campaign, as their EBH and BB rates are almost identical. Suomi strikes out much less and isn’t repeating the level, but is a year older.
Olivo’s been able to establish himself as a reasonable option as a reserve catcher. He only has a career OPS of .685, but last year, splitting time between Chicago and Seattle after being part of the Freddy Garcia trade, he had an OPS of .725. That’s a fine level for a backup catcher, and Olivo looks to get a shot at regular duty this year in Seattle. He is likely nothing more than a backup when all is said and done, but there are many worse things to be than a backup catcher.
Neither Hinch, who was a beast in Modesto, nor McKay are as comparable to Suomi as Olivo was. They both strike out and walk more than Suomi does, and Suomi hit better than McKay, when they were both the same age. McKay will likely never get more than the cups of coffee here or there. On the other hand, Hinch hit much better than Suomi but could never establish himself in the majors either, and after a couple of years with both Oakland and Kansas City, he was the backup catcher for the 2003 Tigers. He spent most of 2004 in time in Triple-A. He hit .230/.310/.294 for Scranton Wilkes-Barre last year and is basically a Triple-A veteran and injury insurance at this point.
Based primarily on an analysis of Suomi’s stats, it appears evident that he could have developed into a major league catcher, if only a reserve. However, one must keep in mind that there are likely countless cases where players with similar stats never made the majors. His improvements at the plate bode well for a catcher, where any offensive contribution is welcome, especially from a backup. However, given the injury problems and a potential forced position move Suomi’s offence is going to become more central to his ability to make the majors, especially if defensively he’s limited to the corner infield positions.
Although he wasn’t excessively old for the California League, Suomi wasn’t young, either. This raises the question of whether catchers tend to develop more slowly than other position prospects. This has been something which I had always assumed was the case, and which is in fact true. It is a fact that catchers reach the majors later, on average, than prospects at any other position. The primary reason might be the fact that they likely have to spend more time on defensive work than other position prospects, and thus have less time to work on their hitting, which subsequently develops more slowly. There is no denying that things like lineup preparation and reviewing pitches with pitchers take up additional time which many other position prospects might spend in the batting cages.
Other causes likely include the fact that many of the best-hitting catching prospects are moved away from catcher to avoid potential injury and to get their bats into the big-league lineup more quickly, as they won’t have to spend the extra time on defensive preparation. There are many modern-day examples of this, most notably Daric Barton from this offseason who was moved to 1B by the Oakland A’s. Another prominent example is Joey Votto, a Canadian prospect from Etobicoke, who was moved to 1B by the Cincinnati Reds. The fact that many of the premium bats are moved away from catcher means that less-developed prospects tend to remain at the position, so not only do they have to spend extra defensive preparation time, but they also have to work on their hitting. These prospects are not the players with great batting skills who tend to reach the majors at 21 or 22, so it takes them longer to refine their skills and to reach a level where they can adequately hit major league pitching. Furthermore, the injury issue is likely a reason for the slow development of catcher prospects in itself, as many of the premium catching prospects likely have injuries, either major or nagging minor ones, to struggle through and this temporarily retards their development.
In the 1987 Abstract Bill James researched catcher careers and came to an interesting conclusion, which he detailed on page 62. “While the career expectation for a catcher who can hit is substantially less than for a comparable hitter at any other position, the career expectation for a poor hitter is substantially greater at catcher than any other position.” While it is premature to speculate as to whether or not Suomi would have made the majors if he never suffered the injury, this quote shows well the especially problematic nature of this injury. Suomi had a much better chance of being able to reach the majors if he remained at catcher, especially if his offensive development was for real, because of the abilities afforded to catchers who can’t hit particularly well, but who can suffice as a backup. If Suomi is forced to move to corner infield permanently, he’ll have moved to a premium offensive position and will be forced to hit his way to the majors, which becomes very difficult when you’re 24-years-old and potentially sent back to low-A ball. If Suomi cannot return to catcher, unfortunately he’ll be facing an enormous uphill battle to reach the majors.
An interesting question that the Suomi cases raises is whether or not Canadian prospects tend to develop slower than Americans. When trying to gauge if there was any way to determine if Suomi’s offensive improvements seemed more likely to be permanent or temporary, this question came to mind. When I’m talking about Canadian players here, I’m not talking about Cody McKay who went to high school and university in Arizona, but rather Canadians like Suomi or Votto who attended Canadian educational institutes until they went into professional baseball.
Because players like Suomi and Votto can’t play baseball the entire year, like kids growing up in the American south can, they are at a disadvantage. Additionally, playing in a Canadian baseball program at their local high school is not going to be as intense as one in the United States would be, and the level of instruction is likely to be noticeably different, as is the amount of money put into the program. I know that Canada has select baseball programs for top prospects where they’ll play for provincial teams and in other tournaments, but I don’t believe that this compares to equivalent programs set up in American states for their top prospects. I think over several years in one’s mid-to-late teens these extra months of playing time and the superior level of instruction could make a noticeable difference to development, and could put American prospects several steps ahead of their Canadian counterparts. I hypothesise a difference like this is often overlooked when examining Canadian prospects. I don’t know of any study that’s been done on this, but I think that is a factor that has to be considered when looking at Canadian baseball players.
Suomi’s road back from injury will be long, and might involve a position switch which would complicate matters. However, it does seem that Suomi had the potential to be a major league contributor down the road, if only in a backup capacity. The question is what potential he has following his injury. The most important question for his career will be if he can continue to be a viable catcher, because if he can then there is certainly some hope in the future. His great personality and leadership skills, which should not be entirely discounted, will only work in his favour. It will still be an uphill battle given the rehabilitation process; the potential to have to repeat the level; the fact Suomi wasn’t anything close to a premium prospect to begin with and the strength of the Oakland system at catcher.
However, it appears Suomi is one of the finer citizens in the game and is a great representative for Canadian baseball. Here’s hoping that Suomi’s rehabilitation goes well and that we get to see him on a baseball diamond soon. A terrible injury couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy. Suomi seems to be an ideal ballplayer in many capacities, from his clubhouse demeanour to his on-field attitude. I doubt I’m alone is hoping that one tragic play doesn’t end up costing him his baseball career and that at some point down the road his fans are given the opportunity to see him realise his goal of becoming a major league ballplayer.
The author would like to thank Robert Dudek for his assistance with the section on catcher development. The author would also like to thank Brian VanderBeek of the Modesto Bee for his help in painting what I hope was a very accurate picture of John Suomi. VanderBeek was extremely generous with his time and this article could not have been written without his assistance.