It’s Time to Talk About Eugenio Suarez

I would be remiss if I wrote an article about a young player showing ridiculous power in the first week of the season and failed to mention Trevor Story. Consider him mentioned! Hand him the MVP and Rookie of the Year already, stop pitching to him, all that. He’s been great. But here’s someone who’s also been great: a 24-year-old shortstop-turned-third baseman for the rebuilding Cincinnati Reds by the name of Eugenio Suarez. He’s quietly hit four home runs in the first six games of the season. That’s a pretty good return, even if we already knew Suarez had the ability to hit for some power based on last year’s 13 homers in 97 games. However, there are some other things that Suarez has done in the early going — and in some cases, not done — that warrant attention from us.

First, a little background. Let’s look at some examples. Suarez first came up for the Tigers in 2014, playing 85 games at shortstop while showing an average walk rate and bad strikeout rate. He hit for a .097 isolated-power mark, which was below his average minor-league ISO but not exactly outside the realm of belief for a guy just making the jump. After watching a lot of examples, this is about a fair approximation of his 2014 swing, from a game against the Royals in late September of 2014:

A bit of an open stance (he seemed to vacillate between a more open stance and an almost square stance during 2014), a short stride and toe tap, and a nice clean single to left field.

He was traded to the Reds during the 2014 offseason and opened the following year at Triple-A. After posting a solid 129 wRC+ with eight homers in 57 games, he got the call to the big leagues. Something fairly big had changed. Take a look at his swing again in mid-June of 2015, just after he joined the Reds:

Hello, leg kick! We’ve heard this story before. A guy adds a leg kick, and boom, power! How simple, right? It’s not that easy, of course, because we don’t hear a lot about the guys who add a leg kick and mess their timing up. Rather, we hear the success stories, like Jose Bautista and Josh Donaldson. We can’t really debate the merits of the leg kick when it works, however, as Suarez added a bunch of power in 2015. If we compare his 2014 and 2015 swing, we can see the 2015 kick helps him close his body off more before he launches the bat, allowing his body to “uncoil” through the ball. As a result, he added a lot of home runs, he continued to strike out at a worse than league average rate, and his walk rate was almost cut in half compared to 2014 (7.9% vs. 4.3%, respectively).

So what about this year? Let’s take a look:

We can already see the pre-swing stance is now wide open. The leg kick is still there, and from what I’ve seen, it hasn’t gotten much more pronounced. We’re not going to be able to perfectly represent a player’s swing with just three examples, but this gives us an idea of the two major adjustments he’s made over the past two years: the opening of the stance pre-swing, and the leg kick that helps him keep his body closed at contact/generate more power. The last pitch highlighted wasn’t random, either; we can see the plate coverage he has by closing his body off better, driving the ball to right center.

That last point brings us to yesterday, in the sixth inning of the Reds vs. Pirates. In a 2-2 count against Jeff Locke, Suarez did this:

If we divide a baseball field in half, drawing a line from home plate to the very center of the center field wall, Suarez has hit 18 of his 21 career home runs to the left of that dividing line. The three he’s hit to the right of that line were on the final day of August during last season, the second day of October, and yesterday. If we grant ourselves a day, it’s only during the last three months of meaningful baseball that we’ve seen Suarez exhibit this ability.

Let’s go one step further and look at exit velocities. Let’s stick with that dividing line we were just talking about. How about the number of batted balls hit at least 100 mph to the right of that line before August 31st, 2015 vs. afterward (courtesy of Baseball Savant):

Eugenio Suarez 100+ mph Batted Balls, >0°
PAs Number of Batted Balls
Before 8/30/2015 271 7
After 8/30/2015 153 8
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

We don’t have velocity data on batted balls for 2014, but we can see that Suarez has already hit more balls with authority to the opposite field since the end of last August in just over half the plate appearances when compared to the sample before that date. Three out of those eight batted balls have come in the first six games of this season. Suarez is taking the ball up the middle and to right field more, and he’s doing it with more regular authority than he used to. The swing changes we see above are a big reason why, as he’s extended his plate coverage and power by staying closed.

That brings us to the final piece in all of this: his plate discipline. It’s always been the knock on Suarez, as he’s had above-average strikeout rates in both of the past two seasons. We aren’t at stabilization with strikeouts this season — at the minimum, we’re a third of the way there, and we should remember that stabilization isn’t really a point — but he’s at least shown some indicators about which we should feel optimistic. The first: he’s only struck out once in 26 plate appearances this season. Suarez has always been better than league average at laying off pitches out of the strike zone, but he’s never had the contact rates to post above-average strikeout rates. However, so far this season, he’s been laying off even more pitches out of the zone (he’s currently at 20% O-Swing%, about 10 percentage points fewer than 2015’s MLB average), and his contact rates — especially out of the zone — have improved dramatically: his in-zone contact rate is up four points, and his out-of-zone contact rate is up 12 points from his 2015 marks.

Here’s a visual from Brooks Baseball, comparing his swing rate between 2015 and 2016:


All of this needs to be drowned in a more than hefty dose of skepticism, of course, because we’re six games in. What we see above could be meaningless in a month. But Suarez hasn’t been swinging at any of the pitches he had trouble with last season, especially the ones down and in and down and away. Take that for what it’s worth, but it hasn’t been nothing so far this season.

Trevor Story has been the headline-maker this past week (literally), and for good reason. But Suarez is a guy with a track record of small adjustments in the majors that seem to be pointing somewhere exciting. He’s still just 24, he’s part of a ball club that is going to give him playing time, and he’s showing indicators of an improvement in approach and discipline. If we’re truly watching his power take a step forward alongside a reduction in strikeouts (and hopefully a push toward his minor league walk rates), the Reds have the makings of a really solid everyday player, given the possibility that Suarez could be an average or better third baseman.

And hey, even if May or June comes and this proves to be the greatest week Suarez is likely to ever have, you can’t say he hasn’t enjoyed himself:

Owen Watson writes for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times. Follow him on Twitter @ohwatson.

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Hacksaw Frank
6 years ago

Sweet. Now I just need this guy to play some shortstop this year to maintain eligibility there.

6 years ago
Reply to  Hacksaw Frank

Cozart just got banged up again last night, so hopefully you get your wish!