Baseball’s Most Anonymous Great Player

A couple months ago, Kiley McDaniel posted his list of the players with the most trade value in baseball. It’s not quite the same as a list of the best players in baseball, since the former also considers contract status and salary, but, if anything, the former is more important than the latter. The Indians came out looking good — Jose Ramirez placed first, and Francisco Lindor placed second. But today I’m more interested in looking further down. Jose Altuve placed 36th. Blake Snell placed 35th. Rhys Hoskins placed 34th, and Mitch Haniger placed 33rd. Eugenio Suarez placed 32nd. He was one slot behind Gary Sanchez, and two slots behind Shohei Ohtani. Sanchez and Ohtani have only seen their stocks drop.

Within the baseball industry, it’s widely understood how good and valuable Suarez has become. That’s one of the jobs of front-office people — develop a proper understanding of player value, around the whole league. If Suarez were made available in a trade, teams would fall all over themselves to get in front of the line. But what baseball understands isn’t the same as what the average observer understands, and it’s incredibly easy to overlook what Suarez has done. He’s not a flashy player, he was never a hyped prospect, and he’s played for a non-competitive team. As such, my sense is that Suarez is greatly underappreciated. But, before the year, the Reds signed him to a long-term contract extension, in response to a breakout 2017. Suarez has since followed a breakout season with a breakout season.

Last year, Suarez got to 4 WAR for the first time. For that matter, he exceeded 2 WAR for the first time. He improved a little bit as a hitter, and he improved a little bit as a defender. Suarez has already gotten back to 4 WAR again, and that’s despite what’s been, statistically, a defensive step backward. It might be real, or it might be noise. Defensive metrics for infielders have a lot of room for improvement in this era of non-traditional alignments.

If Suarez has lost something in the field, though, he’s more than made up for it at the plate, where his wRC+ has soared to 141. Suarez had already developed into an above-average hitter, so it’s not like this is some kind of Max Muncy situation. The dangerous version of Suarez didn’t appear overnight. But still, there has been a recent surge, such that present Suarez finds himself among esteemed company. Even I’m surprised by the quality of Suarez’s contact.

We can begin very simply. Suarez has what’s easily a career-best wRC+. Why? I’ll pull from Baseball Savant. Here are the biggest year-to-year improvements in average exit velocity:

Changes in Exit Velocity
Player 2017 EV 2018 EV Change
Mallex Smith 77.2 84.4 7.2
Starling Marte 81.8 87.3 5.5
Wilson Ramos 86.0 91.3 5.3
Adam Engel 79.9 85.1 5.2
Eugenio Suarez 86.2 91.3 5.1
Nicky Delmonico 82.6 87.6 5.0
Aledmys Diaz 84.9 89.3 4.4
Manuel Margot 84.5 88.6 4.1
A.J. Ellis 84.4 88.5 4.1
Brock Holt 83.3 87.3 4.0
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

Suarez is there, close to the top. On average, he’s up more than five miles per hour. When something like this happens, one’s first inclination is to wonder about some manner of swing change. That’s not the case here. David Laurila talked to Suarez during the summer. A selected excerpt:

“I don’t think anything has really changed,” Suárez claimed when I asked him about his evolution as a hitter. “I just play baseball like I did before. I’ve always been able to hit, just not for power like last year and this year.”
“My swing is the same, but I’m not the same guy,” Suárez told me. “I was skinny when I was 17. My body has changed. I feel bigger now, and that gives me a little more power.”

According to Suarez, he basically has the same swing. Nothing of note has happened with regard to his launch angle. What’s been happening is just that Suarez has hit the ball…harder. As easy as that. During the Statcast era, 18 of Suarez’s top 25 exit velocities have been recorded in 2018. Eight of his top nine exit velocities have been recorded in 2018, including the top three. Previously, Suarez hadn’t hit a single ball 110 miles per hour. Now he’s broken 112. Here are the average exit velocities for the top 10% of Suarez’s batted balls:

  • 2015: 104.4 miles per hour
  • 2016: 104.9
  • 2017: 105.6
  • 2018: 107.7

The simplest explanation is just that Suarez has gotten increasingly strong. I’m sure that oversimplifies the reality, but that’s the easiest interpretation. As one way of looking at a consequence of that, here are Suarez’s year-to-year rates of batted balls hit at least 100 miles per hour:

That’s a surge. Suarez has been making more quality contact. He doesn’t make peak Aaron Judge contact, but as I think I’ve mentioned now several times, you don’t need to hit the ball 120 to be successful. Suarez has hit the ball harder, and, in the process, he’s worked to minimize his bad contact. For example, he hasn’t hit a pop-up since May 20. That’s about three and a half months ago. There’s a clear way of demonstrating this. Not so far back, I wrote about Matt Carpenter, and I discussed how he very rarely makes bad contact. I talked about the difference between Carpenter’s hard-hit rate and his soft-hit rate. Here are the current MLB leaders by that measure:

2018 Contact Quality
Player Soft% Hard% H-S%
Eugenio Suarez 7.9% 49.2% 41.3%
Matt Carpenter 9.1% 50.1% 41.0%
Tommy Pham 12.3% 49.1% 36.8%
Tyler Flowers 12.7% 48.4% 35.7%
Nicholas Castellanos 12.3% 48.0% 35.7%
Ronald Acuna 11.6% 47.2% 35.6%
Aaron Judge 13.0% 47.9% 34.9%
Khris Davis 11.1% 45.9% 34.8%
Wil Myers 12.2% 47.0% 34.8%
Eric Thames 12.2% 46.6% 34.4%
J.D. Martinez 10.6% 45.0% 34.4%

Only Carpenter has a higher hard-hit rate than Suarez does. No one has a lower soft-hit rate. In terms of the difference between those two rates, Suarez has shown easily the biggest year-to-year improvement since 2017:

When you think of the players who make the best contact in baseball, I’m guessing Suarez doesn’t immediately come to mind. He doesn’t hit the most impressive home runs or line drives in the league, but he hits the ball hard more often than almost anyone, and he minimizes his pop-ups and choppers. To put it another way, Suarez runs a very low rate of easy outs on contact. In part, this is a consequence of just plain hitting the ball harder. And, in part, this is a consequence of Suarez swinging a little more aggressively within the strike zone, and making a little less contact out of it. Suarez is targeting those hittable pitches, and he isn’t missing them very much.

Suarez’s expected wOBAs show just how much he’s grown. Here’s how he looks during the Statcast era, both overall, and just focusing on batted balls:

This year, by overall xwOBA, Suarez ranks in the 93rd percentile, around names like Alex Bregman, Manny Machado, Jose Ramirez, and Francisco Lindor. Meanwhile, by xwOBA on contact, Suarez ranks in the 94th percentile, around names like Christian Yelich, Giancarlo Stanton, Bryce Harper, and Jesus Aguilar. I’m not making this up — on contact, Suarez has an xwOBA of .485, and Stanton shows up at .478. Peak Stanton hits the ball harder than peak Suarez, but Suarez has eliminated the difference by hitting the ball more consistently well. That’s the actual point of the job.

Every player and every career is different, but given that Suarez is just 27 years old, he ought to be productive for a good long time. The Reds invested in his future because they wanted to build around him, but even at the time the contract was signed, I doubt anyone expected Suarez to improve so much more. Looking back, you can say the Reds wound up with a very team-friendly deal. You can say Suarez likely won’t be paid what he’s worth. Those points are true, just as you could say the same things about the Jose Ramirez contract. But there’s not much to be done about it now. Suarez, at least, knows he’s guaranteed tens of millions of dollars. And anyone who watches him on a regular basis knows he’s turned into one of the better players in baseball. Not bad for a kid from a mining town with no major-league history.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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4 years ago

Suarez has been a great story to follow for Reds fans both this year and last. I was glad to see him make this year’s trade-value list and also glad to see articles like this one recognizing his breakout.

Even more surprising than Suarez’s prowess has been Scooter Gennett. If Suarez is baseball’s “Most Anonymous Great Player” at 4.2 WAR, then what is Gennett at 4.7 WAR? His BABIP is admittedly elevated, but ZIPS still likes him for a 114 wRC+ the rest of the season–not bad for a middle infielder who has also shown defensive improvement this year.

Joe Joemember
4 years ago
Reply to  Roger21

It is hard to be anonymous with a name like Scooter.

4 years ago
Reply to  Roger21

The Reds low-key have been really good at developing position player talent. That just hasn’t carried over to pitchers

Jetsy Extrano
4 years ago
Reply to  Roger21

“Grand Slam” Gennett? “Four-Donger Scooter”? He can never be anonymous again, he’s a golden hero god.