Eugenio Suarez Can Hit Both Fastballs

Eugenio Suarez can hit the sinker. He’s been able to do it his whole life. And, generally speaking, that means he shouldn’t be able to hit the four-seamer. Or, at least not hit it as well, I mean. That’s typically how it goes, one or the other. It has to do with swing paths and approaches, mostly.

But Suarez has pulled off a rare feat this year. He’s been hitting the four-seamer, too. And he’s improved his success against that pitch by improving something other than his swing.

With an .878 lifetime OPS against sinkers, Suarez ranks in the top quartile among the more than 600 players who’ve seen 500-plus sinkers in the PITCHf/x era. His .797 OPS against four-seamers makes him only average against that pitch, though.

Again, that’s not uncommon. Peruse the top-40 hitters against both the four-seamer and the sinker, and only seven names appear on both lists. You might have heard of Kris Bryant, Miguel Cabrera, Matt Kemp, Paul Goldschmidt, Aaron Judge, Mike Trout, and Joey Votto. They’re pretty good.

An examination of the numbers reveals that OPS against a type of fastball isn’t very sticky. The year-to-year r-squared on OPS against the four-seamer is stronger than against the sinker — perhaps because more sinkers are put into play, where chaos reigns — and the four-seamer’s year to year was still weak in my four-year sample (.08576). That means this year’s production on the four-seamer only explains around 9% of the variance in next year’s production. That number’s not too surprising — a lot of noise on pitch-type information like this, due to smaller samples and the role of the ball in play.

Interestingly, though, the correlations for each pitch type were better within the pitch type. So if you try to predict next year’s four-seam production with this year’s numbers, or do the same with sinkers and sinkers (.0348 r-squared), you’ll do better than if you try to predict how well the batter will do on four-seamers next year based on what they’ve done on sinkers this year (.0190 r-squared).

To me, this suggests there’s a bit of a skill here. You’re likely, because of your mechanics or approach, to have more success against one than the other. Two-seamers and sinkers (those words are used interchangeably here) are generally thrown low in the zone; four-seamers, meanwhile, are better when thrown high in the zone. Trevor Story, our sample’s best sinker hitter, has a very different swing than Jung Ho Kang, our sample’s best four-seamer hitter.

But back to Suarez. How has he been so good at the two-seamer? By not trying to lift it. “You gotta get on top of those sinkers,” he told me before a game this past weekend. “More of a line-drive approach. If you try to muscle that pitch, you open up too early and you miss over the top of it or hit it into the ground.” He has to maintain that ability — “I work on keeping my hips closed longer,” he said — but he’s fairly established there.

Well, now there’s this wrinkle.

Suarez has maintained his ability to hit the two-seamer; over time, though, he’s gotten better at hitting the four-seamer. “Better and better every single day,” he said. If you look at hitters who have seen 600 four-seamers in 2016 and 2017, only a handful of them have improved more than he has against the pitch: Todd Frazier, Bryce Harper, Scooter Gennett, Paul Goldschmidt, Corey Seager, Steven Souza Jr., and Ryan Zimmerman.

If you feel likely you’ve spotted a few breakout players on that list, you’re not alone. It makes sense that being able to cover both the four- and two-seamers would lead to greater ability to cover the plate and, in the end, more success. That ability is part of what has made Matt Kemp, Brian Dozier, Jose Bautista, and Adam Dunn lethal hitters. They have nearly no split between their work against the two fastballs.

How has Suarez made the leap into this type of crew this year? Not through mechanics, but through plate discipline. “I worked hard this offseason on tracking the ball and seeing the ball longer,” said Suarez. “But when I see it high, I put a good swing on the ball.”

As you can see from his heat maps against the four-seamer for 2016 (left) and 2017 (right), he is indeed swinging at the four-seamer more often when it’s high, while simultaneously pulling off the trick of swinging at the pitch less overall (44% in 2016 to 41% in 2017).

Inevitably a player has to have multiple strengths to survive in baseball. If he’s good at one thing, opponents will inevitably attack him elsewhere — and he’ll have to prove he can adapt. Even if players have greater fortune with one fastball than the other, they still have to figure out some sort of approach when it comes to the other fastball.

In the case of Eugenio Suarez, it seems like he lets the ball travel and focuses on line drives with the sinker (32% line drives this year) at the cost of power (0.2% home runs). Against the four-seam, he attacks it and lifts the high pitches (1.4% home runs) at the cost of contact (8.3% whiffs on the four-seam versus 5.0% on the sinker).

In other words, he’s taking what’s being given to him, and he’s turned it into top-five production at his position in the National League.

With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.

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6 years ago

Eno is my favorite Reds beat writer.