The Other Story: Eugenio Suarez
Everywhere you look right now when discussing power hitting shortstops, all you see is Trevor Story, and it’s certainly understandable. But in Cincinnati, Eugenio Suarez is having himself quite a start in his own right, and it’s worth diving into a little bit. Suarez came into the season atop many middle infield sleeper lists, even landing himself on the Baseball Prospectus’ bold projections article, where Dan Strafford predicted he would be a top five shortstop, and JJ Jansons predicted Suarez would outperform top prospect Corey Seager.
The 24-year-old has done nothing to quell the hype, hitting .319 with four home runs through the first 12 games of the season. After the blazing start, Suarez owners definitely won’t be giving him up for a discount. But let’s take a look at how his approach has evolved and see if he’s worth the cost of acquisition anyway.
The Reds acquired Suarez from the Tigers in the Alfredo Simon deal after an unremarkable debut in which he hit .242/.316/.336 across 85 games. Strikeouts were the main drag on his offensive projections throughout his minor league career, and they carried over to the majors to the tune of a rate nearing a quarter of his plate appearances.
After coming over to the Reds Suarez started the 2015 season in Triple-A, and immediately showed better command of the plate. He also posted a solid ISO over the first third of the season, leading to his recall in June. During his second trip in the majors, Suarez again struggled with strikeouts over the final 97 games, and he also gave back nearly half his walk rate. Despite the poor strikeout-to-walk ratio, Suarez held his own in hitting .280 over roughly 400 plate appearances. He also showed a bit of pop his second go-round, finishing the season with 13 homeruns.
Overall in 2015, Suarez finished sixth in ISO among shortstops with at least 350 at-bats, also finishing among the top ten in hard-hit percentage. Despite the numbers and his clear path to playing time in Cincinnati, Suarez tumbled all of the way down to the 18th shortstop selected according to NFBC’s ADP.
One thing that’s contributed to Suarez’s start, is his increased ability to make contact early in 2016. Despite swinging at a similar amount of pitches outside of the zone this year, Suarez has raised his contact rate on those pitches over ten percent. The contact on worse pitches has predictably led to weaker contact. Suarez made some solid gains near the end of the last season, but so far in 2016, his exit velocity against all types of pitches hasn’t been maintained. The softer contact has managed to turn into hits early on in 2016, leading to an average above .300, but is unlikely to be sustainable if he continues the same batted ball profile.
Suarez’s altered approach is very evident in how he’s handled hard pitches. In 2016, he has held off against low fourseam fastballs, sinkers, and cutters out of the zone, while punishing pitchers who leave hard stuff in the lower-third of the strike zone. So far in 2016,when Suarez has swung at in-zone fastballs he hasn’t missed, with contact on 57 of 60. The gains have permeated to off-speed and breaking stuff as well, though he’s traded less whiffs on those pitches for more frequent, if poorer, contact.
The overall change in approach during this young season has also effected Suarez’s batted ball rate. The young righty has traded groundballs for a more line drives and a small bump in fly balls. He’s pulled the ball much more this year, hitting over half of his balls to the left side. Pulled grounders with the aforementioned weaker contact isn’t a habit Suarez wants to get in to. Thankfully for his fantasy owners, Suarez has been able to raise his line drive and flyball rate, which may be the reason for the increased pop early this season.
Small sample size caveats applying, Suarez has made significant changes to his approach through the first two-plus weeks of the season. He’s cut down on his strikeouts by making more contact on all pitches, most notably on those out of the zone. The new approach has led to less strikeouts, which is nice, but unfortunately, has also led to weaker contact. The positive change regarding his approach has been the way he’s handled hard pitches in the zone. He’s turned those pitches into more liners and flyballs, boosting his ISO and Slugging Percentage in the process. While the high average may not be sustainable with his current attributes, the changes he’s made in the slugging department may be a sign of things to come. With his current, and potentially future, dual eligibility, coupled with his seemingly rising power, the 24-year-old may be an infielder force for years to come in dynasty leagues. At the right price, fantasy owners looking to rebuild for the future should try to trade for Suarez before the price continues to rise.