Along with many other members of the community, I was excited when the Cincinnati Reds announced that Eugenio Suárez would be their full-time shortstop to start the 2021 season. Considering Suárez had been a fairly average defensive third baseman for his career, this seemed like an odd move from a real baseball perspective, but gaining that extra position of eligibility was huge for a few of my fantasy teams. Predictably, the transition was a disaster, as Suárez sits dead last among shortstops with -10 outs above average. If the Reds had not made a change, moving Suárez back to his natural position, he may have put up historically bad defensive numbers.
Meanwhile, Suárez has been just as much of a liability on offense. Slashing .158/.238/.336 with a 58 wRC+, it was hard to envision a worse scenario for a player who has traditionally been one of the better hitters in baseball. You might say, “it’s only the middle of May and there’s plenty of time for him to turn it around.” True, but there are developments to Suárez’s game that raise legitimate concerns for the future.
It’s not uncommon to have to deal with high strikeout numbers when dealing with a great power hitter. Suárez has always been a guy who swings and misses a lot, but you’ll live with that if he’s going to hit 40 home runs. However, 2021 has been a new extreme. Amazingly, Suaréz has been striking out 35 PERCENT OF THE TIME, which is a career-high by a considerable margin. If you are rostering Suárez in a points league that penalizes strikeouts (please tell me I’m not alone), you are understandably frustrated right now.
As you can see, Suárez’s in zone whiff rate is up on all three pitch groups, so there is not one small issue we can point this horrendous start to. For someone who has always struggled with making contact on pitches in the zone, it’s even more concerning to see this skill get worse. We have seen the damage Suárez can do when he makes contact; he posses a power trait very few hitters can match, but the more he whiffs, the fewer chances he has to produce. Hence, swinging and missing is the biggest driver of his early-season struggles.
Surprisingly, through this downfall, Suárez has continued to post respectable plate discipline numbers. He currently has a 23.2% chase rate throughout 2021, which is essentially in line with what it has been the rest of his career. The fact that Suárez has one of the highest strikeout rates in baseball despite maintaining well-above-average plate discipline tells you even more about his problem with whiffs. His walk rate has come down a few percentage points. However, walk rate takes a bit longer to stabilize than chase rate, so it’s safe to predict he will eventually climb back to his normal BB% of 10-12%.
Once again, the problem lies with whiffs. Suárez may be laying off a high percentage of pitches out of the zone, but when he does pull the trigger, he has trouble making contact. We may have reached a point where the strikeouts are no longer worth it, especially in a format that penalizes them. It’s a shame considering many members of the fantasy community, including myself, were considerably high on Suárez coming into the season.
Traditionally, Suárez has been known as a fastball killer. Of his 70 home runs since 2019, 49 of them have come against fastballs. He has been one of the top hitters in the league against both four-seamers and cutters over the previous two seasons. Additionally, most of his problems with whiffs have come against offspeed pitches and breaking balls.
Hitting fastballs is his bread and butter. Now, he is not even a league-average hitter against him. Suárez also holds a negative run value against the other two pitch groups as well, so it’s not like he is compensating. His hard-hit rate, and consequently his expected stats, are down from what they usually are against fastballs.
However, the most prominent development, as referenced above, is the whiffs on pitches in the strike zone. His in-zone swing-and-miss rate against fastballs is 25% in 2021. For reference, this ratio was at 21% and 17.5% in 2019 and 2020, respectively. If Suárez wants to get back to the level he was once at, or anywhere close to it, he needs to start hammering fastballs the way he used to.
Up until this point, the main talking points have been Suárez’s struggles with contact. But what about when he does put the bat on the ball? That has always been the best part of his game. This year, he is not seeing the same success, which is becoming a reoccurring theme now. His career average hard-hit rate is 36.7%. Since 2018, he’s carried a hard-hit rate of 43.4%. In 2021, it’s down to just 29.8%. When Suárez is not hitting the ball hard, there’s not much about his profile to be excited about.
Fortunately, Suárez has maintained a 14.3% barrel rate, which ranks in the 86th percentile among major league hitters. Barrels correlate better with good results than hard-hit balls since they also incorporate launch angle. However, because of that additional factor, barrel rate takes longer to stabilize than hard-hit balls. With a sample size of only 84 batted balls, it’s likely that the hard-hit rate is a better indicator of his contact ability this season. Suárez’s 90th percentile exit velocity is 101.2, which is very close to the league average this season.
As many analysts have been talking about, offense is down in Major League Baseball as a whole, relative to the previous few seasons. This could be part of the reason why Suárez’s batted ball metrics have gone down a bit. However, relative to his peers, he is not in the same spot he is used to. I think he will eventually return to his normal self from a batted balls standpoint, but it will be something to keep a close eye on for the next month or so.
Sliver of Hope
When looking for regression candidates, it is common to look at the difference between a player’s wOBA and xwOBA. Taking a quick glance at Suárez’s Baseball Savant page, you may notice that his expected statistics are not that far off from his results. Here lies the one flaw about using xwOBA for predictive analysis.
xwOBA is a great stat for what it tries to accomplish: determining what a player’s results *should have* looked like under a neutral luck environment. However, this is more of a descriptive measure than a predictive one. If a player has an xwOBA of .300, that doesn’t necessarily mean we should expect them to have a .300 wOBA moving forward. If you want to use xwOBA in a predictive way, you need to add some component of regression, especially over a small sample.
Suárez has hit a line drive on 19% of batted balls this season, which is well below league average and his career norms. Line drives rates take much longer to stabilize compared to fly balls and grounders. Therefore, this low line drive rate is likely more as a result of noise than a change in Suárez’s true ability. Because a line drive is the most likely of any batted ball type to produce a hit, it has a major impact on the variation of xwOBA and xBA. Hence, when Suárez’s line drive rate regresses to the mean, we can expect his xwOBA to normalize as well. Of all the concerning parts of Suárez’s profile so far, I wouldn’t worry about his poor expected statistics.
Where do we go from here?
We are past the point where noise becomes a trend. If you are a Cincinnati Reds fan or you have shares of Eugenio Suárez in fantasy, there are legitimate reasons for you to be worried about the future. Throughout all of 2021, he has struggled with his strengths and further enhanced his weaknesses. Some projection systems, such as Steamer, project Suárez to be a below-average hitter for the rest of the season. We are talking about a player who has not posted a wRC+ under 100 since 2016. Others, such as THE BAT and THE BAT X, consider him closer to his pre-2021 self.
If you believe Suárez will bounce back and return to what he once was, you could probably acquire him right now for pennies on the dollar. His value will likely never be lower. However, if you are relying on him as your starting shortstop or third baseman in virtually any format, it may be time to start searching for other options.
Photos from Icon Sportswire | Feature Image by Justin Redler (@reldernitsuj on Twitter)