When the decision was finally made late in spring training that Eugenio Suarez would re-become the shortstop for the Cincinnati Reds, you knew there would be a few bumps along the way. It had been some handful of years since he’d last done the job, in the meantime having slid over to 3B to become the Reds regular there. How mobile he’d still be, how much the footwork would still feel familiar, and how his weight-change to adapt to the position were all things we worried might become issues.
Glove issues, that is. We thought there might be some serious issues there defensively, and there were. Prior to a spate of infield injuries that threw the Reds entire alignment into flux, Suarez rated as the single worst defensive shortstop in all of baseball per outs above average, eventually taking 3B back as the Reds tried their patchwork fix of their original patchwork solution.
The poor defense has been immensely frustrating this year, but at least that part has been predictable. What hasn’t, at least I don’t think, has been the precipitous decline in his offense, something that currently has him rated as the fifth worst position player in all of baseball, per fWAR.
The thing is, has it really been predictable? Was there enough from last year’s frustrating sample that, if rolled into his 2021 foibles, would point out that there have been larger problems in that entire time?
Said 2020 campaign began with a preseason shoulder injury, after all, and a surgery that was set to have him on the shelf to begin the season had said season begun on time. When it did finally get going again mid-summer, Suarez looked as lost in those early games as he has for much of this year, though a familiar power surge down the stretch of last season ended up rescuing some of his overall numbers.
I think we chalked last year up to the odd circumstances in which all players were operating and the residual issues that shoulder surgeries cause, both in terms of physical pain and the disruption of a routine even if the surgery was fully successful. To date, though, we’ve now got over 100 games worth of data and some 14 months in the books since Suarez went under the knife, and his work in that time frame suggests something is still very much not right.
To the Fangraphs leaderboards we go...
Batting average is a mostly worthless stat because it treats singles the same as triples and dingers, but it catches the eye nonetheless. Since the start of the 2020 season, Suarez has hit just .177, far and away the single worst mark among the 139 qualified MLB hitters in that time. Joey Gallo is next worst at .194.
His walk rate has remained a respectable 10.7% in that time, but his average has pulled his on-base percentage in that time down to a brutal .274, the fifth worst among all qualified hitters. His 30.7% strikeout rate sits as the ninth worst.
The power, though, has still been there, part of why that batting average note was worth mentioning. The 24 homers he has bonked in that time is tied for 13th most among qualified hitters, tied with Vlad Guerrero, Jr. and just one fewer than the tallies of Mike Trout, Jesse Winker, and Freddie Freeman.
Tons of dingers, tons of strikeouts, and an overall level of production that has dipped furiously since his 2017-2019 breakout, a trio of seasons that saw him hit a combined .271/.364/.521 in an even 1900 PA.
Digging just a little bit deeper into Suarez’s numbers shows that he just might have evolved into much more of a three-true-outcomes type of hitter whether he meant to, or not. And there’s a decent chance it’s that evolution - and not his shoulder injury - that is behind his frustrating decline to date.
The last two seasons have seen him post just a .189 BABIP, easily the single worst mark in all of baseball. Carlos Santana, at .229, is second lowest on that list. That kind of jarringly low mark suggests there’s a ton of bad luck that could well be behind his dip in production, especially when he still boasts a middle of the pack hard-hit rate and ranks in the 86th percentile of Barrel % (per StatCast).
The thing about BABIP though is that a notable suppression in it isn’t always due to just luck. Batted-ball profiles do a lot to play into that, too, and the deeper into Suarez’s I get, the more the three-true-outcomes evolution stands out to me. Yes, that BABIP is probably lower than it should be, but if a player becomes increasingly predictable, how hard he hits into those predictable situations becomes less of a mitigating factor.
Suarez, since the start of the 2020 season, has become the most pull-happy player in all of Major League Baseball. A full 53.9% of his batted balls were pulled in that time, up tremendously from the 42.7% he posted during the 2017 and 2018 seasons. Those 2017 and 2018 seasons also saw his fly-ball rate sit at 37.1%, whereas it has spiked to 47.3% since the start of the 2020 season - the eighth highest rate among all qualified hitters in that time. In other words, he’s trying to elevate everything into the LF bleachers, and when that happens both defensive alignments and pitch progressions can begin to factor that in.
That latter part has begun to factor into this equation in 2021, too. Suarez has seen a slight uptick in his O-swing% - the percentage of pitches he swings at out of the zone - but more importantly has seen a drastic decrease in the amount of contact he makes when swinging at those pitches outside the zone. That O-contact rate has dipped from a peak of 60.1% in 2016 to 51.3% in 2019 all the way down to 43.4% in 2021, far and away a career low. Whether that’s an out and out loss of ability to recognize what’s coming his way, residual frustration from having his approach not work as well as it once did, or both, I do not know, but it sure seems as if pitchers are beginning to recognize that they can expand the zone against him as he tries to pull homers to LF, and they’re doing it with much more aplomb now than ever.
I don’t know how one fixes this, honestly. I certainly don’t know how one fixes it in the middle of a big league season. I don’t know if this is a mechanical change in his swing that was made on purpose to tap into more power, and I don’t know if this is some kind of adjustment that was born out of the shoulder injury last spring. I do know, though, that it sure doesn’t seem to be working much these days, and has become predictable enough to plan for almost perfectly.