This is Cat Garcia’s second post as part of her September residency. She is a freelance baseball writer whose work has appeared at The Athletic, MLB.com, the Chicago Sun-Times, La Vida Baseball, and Baseball Prospectus, among others. She is a Chicago native and previously worked at Wrigley Field before becoming a full-time freelancer. Follow her on Twitter at @TheBaseballGirl.
The Cincinnati Reds have been surprisingly interesting in 2018. Not interesting in the way your typical contending ball club might be, but interesting in some curious ways. They started off the season with an MLB-worst record of 3-15. They fired their manager, Bryan Price, after four seasons with the club. And in an unexpected move, they acquired struggling former-ace Matt Harvey from the Mets in early May.
In the middle of all of that, there has been a significant — and likely longer-lasting — bright spot. As FanGraphs’ own Jeff Sullivan recently wrote, third baseman Eugenio Suarez has continued to build upon his impressive 2017 breakout season. Suarez’s 133 wRC+ is currently tied for ninth-best in the National League. He’s already hit a career-high 32 home runs this season, and he currently has the 12th-highest ISO in the NL, just two points behind Travis Shaw.
And while his .322 BABIP is his highest since 2015, it isn’t so far off his career norms, and there is reason to believe his healthy batting line isn’t just the result of good batted-ball luck. As Sullivan pointed out in his piece, Suarez is making much harder contact than he has previously. His .373 wOBA is a career-best, while his xwOBA suggests it could even be a bit better.
Suarez told David Laurila earlier in the season that he hadn’t made any adjustments to his swing. But it seems there has been a new development on that front, one that has contributed to Suarez’s success.
“Last year, I was hitting with my hands up higher than I am right now,” Suarez told me. “Right now I’m just trying to relax my shoulders, my back, [keep my hands] right beside my shoulders. That’s the only thing I did. [I went] from up to down a little bit [with my shoulders], a little more relaxed.”
Take a look at Suarez’s stance from the end of the 2017 season. His arms and shoulders are, indeed, relatively high.
And now, take a look at his stance on the same center-field camera on September 1 of this year. As Suarez himself notes, his shoulders are down and relaxed, and his arms are closer to his back.
“I watched all my video last year, and my hands were up,” Suarez said. “My first move was go down and swing at the ball, and I thought ‘Why not keep my hands down?’ Because it doesn’t matter if I am up or down to swing, so I try to keep my hands down and hit from there, and that was a good adjustment I made with our hitting coach.”
Here’s an example of the full swing from 2017, with the hands held high.
In this matchup from 2018, though, you can see Suarez’s shoulders are lower and his arms closer to his chest, resulting in his bat dropping lower towards his shoulders, making his swing look cleaner overall.
It’s not all just been about the change in his stance and swing for Suarez, though. He attributes much of his success to his mental approach, to staying within himself at the plate.
“I think I learned a lot about how this game goes and how my game is going,” Suarez said. “I don’t try to pick one pitch [to hit] in the strike zone. I try to hit it hard and put the ball in play. That was my big goal for this year, [to] strike out less and just put the ball in play and use the whole field. I think that’s the key for me this year. That’s why I’m hitting well right now, and I just work hard on my approach and my mechanics and my mentality and everything like that, and I put it all together and not strike out a lot and hit good pitches in my strike zone.”
Suarez hasn’t lowered his strikeout rate, but he is putting the ball in play more. Batting average doesn’t tell us everything, but Suarez’s mark is up 20 points from last season — and about that same amount over his career figure. And as for using the whole field, it doesn’t seem as though Suarez has really struggled with that. Take a look at his spray charts from 2017 and 2018.
Per Statcast, Suarez has raised his exit velocity to 91 mph, up from 86.2 mph in 2017. His HR/FB rate has also gone up; he’s raised it by 4.8 points to 22.7% this year, also a career high.
Suarez noted that spending time in the big leagues led to his development as a wiser hitter in terms of understanding his approach.
“When you have a few years in the big leagues, you learn how the pitchers try to pitch to you, and that’s why I learned a lot how [other teams] use their pitches,” Suarez said. “I just see the ball in my strike zone. If it’s a breaking ball, it doesn’t matter. If it’s a fastball [it doesn’t matter]. Just be ready every time. That’s why I don’t go to the plate to just hit one pitch, I go to the plate to try and see a ball and put it in play… Sometimes the pitcher is more lucky than I am, because it’s more mentality.”
It hasn’t been all smooth sailing. Suarez has scuffled in September. But he says during that stretch, the Reds coaching staff helped keep him stay focused.
“They help a lot,” Suarez said of the staff. “Sometimes you’re not feeling good and they come to you and say, ‘Alright bro, to do this let’s watch this video.’ Now we have a lot of video, you can watch and see what you’re doing when you’re good and what you’re not doing when you’re not good.”
Suarez signed a seven-year, $66-million contract extension with the Reds this offseason, and if he continues to make offensive adjustments and improvements, that investment seems likely to pay dividends for this rebuilding Reds team well into the future.
Cat Garcia is a freelance baseball writer based in Chicago, Illinois. Follow her on Twitter — @TheBaseballGirl.