Shohei Ohtani and Kurt Suzuki becoming an effective duo for the Angels

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Los Angeles Angels starting pitcher Shohei Ohtani (17) and catcher Kurt Suzuki (24) walk to the dugout.
Angels starting pitcher Shohei Ohtani, left, and catcher Kurt Suzuki walk to the dugout before a game against the Texas Rangers on Monday. (Richard W. Rodriguez / Associated Press)

After the first inning of Shohei Ohtani’s most recent start Monday against the Texas Rangers, when the right-hander struggled with his command in a four-run opening frame, catcher Kurt Suzuki hatched a plan with his two-way battery mate.

Unlike past outings, when Ohtani would lean more on his secondary pitches while searching for his fastball command, he and Suzuki decided to stick with the upper-90 mph four-seamer. They emphasized the need to be aggressive early in the count. They tried to hit the reset button.

It worked. Over his final four innings, Ohtani didn’t give up another run.

When Ohtani makes his next start Monday against the Tampa Bay Rays, Suzuki is expected to be back behind the plate. The 15-year veteran might not be the best pitch-framer, nor a more potent offensive threat than fellow Angels catcher Max Stassi. But since joining the club this offseason, he and Ohtani have emerged as an effective duo.

“It just appears as if they’re getting somewhat on the same page,” manager Joe Maddon said, confirming he will try to keep the Ohtani-Suzuki combination intact for the time being. “That’s not to say I would hesitate to put Stass back there [with Ohtani]. Just as of right now, leave it alone. Suzuki, I’m telling you, the guy is totally committed to his pitcher. I love it.”

Suzuki had been Ohtani’s most common partner since the start of spring training, catching three of his four Cactus League starts and two of his first three outings in the regular season while Stassi was on the injured list. Now, their pairing will be more intentional. On Friday, before the Angels lost to the Seattle Mariners, Maddon offered several reasons why.

First and foremost, Maddon praised the behind-the-scenes work Suzuki puts into each pitcher’s start, a dedication he believes has helped the newly-acquired 37-year-old backstop earn instant credibility in the clubhouse — and with Ohtani especially.

“Shohei, he’s a special athlete, special pitcher,” Suzuki said. “He has an idea of what he really wants to do on the mound. You just try to get on the same page. You study him, you talk to him [about] strategy. And then in-game, he’s very intelligent. He’ll let you know which pitches he feels comfortable with, and then you just work from there.”

Maddon also cited Suzuki’s ability to block Ohtani’s wicked off-speed and breaking pitches, especially a splitter that often dives out of the zone and into the dirt.

That’s a skill Maddon and Suzuki believe can be particularly valuable with a pitcher like Ohtani, who throws fewer pitches in the strike zone than the average big leaguer and instead relies more on getting hitters to swing-and-miss while chasing.

“Catching Ohtani is no day at the beach,” Maddon said. “When it comes to metrics and framing and stuff, it’s not easy to frame Shohei Ohtani’s pitches. Sometimes it can just be self-defense in a game. And [Suzuki] has been acrobatic making some plays for Shohei.”

When asked about Suzuki’s pitch framing — a skill of which Suzuki has been ranked in the bottom half of MLB catchers five of the last six years, according to Baseball Savant’s framing ratings — Maddon acknowledged that “some people put more stock into that than maybe I do.”

“I just like guys that prep well, guys that are winners,” Maddon continued. “And this guy would do anything for his pitcher. That’s my own personal metric, why I love this guy so much.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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