Eight games into the 2016 season, the Cincinnati Reds actually bore a sneaking resemblance to the way the 2017 squad looks after 14 games. Their record, at 5-3, was better than what was expected of them. Zack Cozart was in the midst of a modest hitting streak to start his season. Joey Votto was scuffling a bit. And Eugenio Suarez was tearing the cover off the ball, to the tune of a .400/.471/.800 line in his first 34 plate appearances. He had more home runs (four) than strikeouts (three), and in the first couple weeks of April, became someone who moved you to the edge of your seat every time he stepped into the batter’s box.
The rest of his season, of course, did not quite live up to the lofty hype he created in those first eight games. He rediscovered how to strike out, hit a home run roughly once every 27 at bats instead of every 7.5, and finished with an OPS+ of 92 – not a disappointing year by any means for the then-24 year old infielder, but a predictable step back from the torrid pace he set out of the gate, to be sure.
Now it’s 2017, and we’re witnessing yet another blistering hitting pace out of the gate for the young third baseman. Entering Tuesday’s series-opener against Baltimore, Suarez has mashed enough baseballs to compile a .364/.440/.705 line in 50 plate appearances. He’s recorded at least one hit in nine of his 12 starts, and his line is even more impressive when accounting for the fact that he began the season 0-for-7 with a hit by pitch in his first two games. His 1.304 OPS since April 6th is fifth-best in the majors (just a tick ahead of his teammate, Cozart, who sits at 1.300 in that span).
For the second straight season, Suarez has begun the year hitting at a level that he just can’t keep up over the course of a full season. It is enough to pique curiosity into how he’s doing what he’s doing, however, and a closer look at his approach this season compared with his first two in a Reds uniform offers good reason to be optimistic that Suarez’s hot start might be more legitimate than one might initially suspect.
The first thing that jumps out about Suarez’s first 50 plate appearances of 2017 has been the way the ball is leaving his bat so far. His ground ball rate hasn’t shown a substantial change from his career average of just under 39%, but this year, he’s trading over a quarter of his fly balls in for line drives. According to Fangraphs, Suarez has a 27.8% fly ball rate – down significantly from his 38.6% career rate and his 37.9% rate in 2016 – and a 33.3% line drive rate, a giant bump from his career rate of 21.8% and his 2016 rate of 21.6%.
The second piece of information that catches the eye is where the ball goes once it leaves Suarez’s bat. The third baseman is spraying the ball all over the field right now, most notably sending 33.3% of the balls he puts in play to right field, another noticeable jump from his 25.2% career average. In a way, this is even more important of a figure to look at than his line drive numbers. When Suarez was on that hot streak to begin last season, he also had a 33.3% line drive rate, with an identical rate of ground and fly balls. In 2016, however, that hot streak came with a heavy reliance on pulling the ball, which he did at nearly a 52 percent rate, while he went opposite field less than 19 percent of the time. And by the way, four of Suarez’s eight extra base hits this year have gone to right field.
Finally, Suarez seems to be taking a more disciplined approach in general at the plate in these early weeks. While he’s swinging at about the same rate (43 percent) as his career average, he’s taking more of those cuts at pitches inside the strike zone, and fewer of them at pitches outside the zone. He’s upped his zone swing percentage to 64.1 to 70.1, and cut his outside swing percentage from 26.6 to 21.0. Now, this early in the season, these percentages come down to just a few swings going either way, but it’s still a detail to point out and a trend to keep an eye on for the season.
The same, honestly, can be said for all of this. With so few plate appearances to provide useful data, the sample size is far too small to be trusted as gospel for some kind of new hitter that Suarez is. What this information does manage to do, however, is shed some light on the way Suarez is attempting to develop and adapt his game. He’s still just 25 years old, and an ability to use the whole field, increase his walk rate, and level out his swing are exactly the types of adjustments one would hope to see out of someone with Suarez’s combination of youth, experience and potential.
There may well be a technical explanation for the start Suarez has had, something a few nights of film study could reveal that he’s fixed in his swing that would help even further predict how much of his current success is here to stay. But I’m not a scout – far from it. I’m just a guy with a laptop that will occasionally provide me with numbers when I ask for them. And no matter what numbers one looks for Eugenio Suarez, he looks pretty damn good right now.