Yesterday, the Mariners made a much-anticipated splash, jettisoning Justin Dunn, Jake Fraley, and starting pitching prospect Brandon Williamson to the Reds in exchange for Jesse Winker and Eugenio Suárez. Of the two players the Mariners acquired, Winker is certainly the more consistent hitter of the two — he’s fresh off of an All-Star appearance — but Suárez is no slouch himself. From 2018 to 2019, he posted a 132 wRC+, amassing 83 dingers and 8.2 fWAR.
Here he is, taking a fastball at 96 miles per hour the other way against one of the game’s best in Josh Hader:
This is what Suárez looks like at his best. Like most home runs, Hader misses his spot, but it’s worth considering how impressive this home run is. Of pitches thrown 95 miles per hour or harder, only 12 hitters hit an opposite field home run harder in 2021. That shows just how much raw power Suárez wields, but he’s not always able to get to it. At 30 years old, I find it unconvincing that he’s fallen off a cliff as a hitter, but it’s also hard to say with certainty that he can return to form.
Try to spot for yourself where things went awry. From FanGraphs, Suárez’s 30-game rolling hard percentage, from 2018 through 2021:
Clearly (clearly?), Suárez’s hard percentage took a nosedive after 2019, and it’s never quite fully recovered. Hard percentage, of course, is deeply flawed — even more so than Statcast’s hard-hit percentage — but this graph does a great job of capturing my point: Suárez hasn’t been right since 2019.
So what happened? He hurt himself swimming following the 2019 season:
Eugenio Suárez today had surgery to remove loose cartilage in his right shoulder, an injury suffered recently in a swimming pool. His physical activity will be limited at beginning of spring training. We anticipate him to be ready to play near the beginning of the regular season.— Cincinnati Reds (@Reds) January 28, 2020
The surgery ostensibly went well, with the Reds claiming that the surgery was a success, and Suárez was swinging a bat and partaking in fielding drills just two weeks after the surgery. Of course, he’s since gone on to struggle at the plate more than he has since the beginning of his career, so it’s appropriate to suggest that something’s not quite right.
The thing is, when you take a glance at his peripherals, everything seems eerily intact. His batted ball profile isn’t all that dissimilar from 2018 and 2019, and his plate discipline is similar too. There’s no smoking gun, no damning metric to show that Suárez has regressed in one particular way and needs to make a correction.
Except, if you look a little closer, there is! There always is! Here, an assortment of metrics that, while seemingly random, help demonstrate how Suárez has changed as a hitter:
Eugenio Suárez, Various Metrics
In looking over the table, the most significant change is that Suárez’s BABIP has dropped nearly 100 points. That’s not a coincidence! It’s easy to miss, but after 2019, Suárez started turning more line drives into fly balls, going from a league-average line drive rate to one that’s well below average, while also turning an extreme fly ball rate into an even more extreme fly ball rate. So much so that he ranked in the 94th percentile in fly ball percentage, hitting a higher percentage of fly balls than hitters like Joey Gallo. High fly balls oftentimes turn into outs, and, more than ever, Suárez hit an awful lot of high fly balls that ended up in fielders’ gloves.
It’s worthwhile to note that Suárez actually improved his dynamic hard-hit rate. That’s part of what may make this confusing for someone poring over his player page, but it’s a marginal increase that comes with significant degradations in other metrics. While his dynamic hard-hit percentage is up by a few ticks, his poor percentage (i.e., balls that are hit weakly, topped, or that he got under) increased by nearly ten percent. That’s a lot! A 64.5% poor percentage isn’t catastrophic, per se — he’s still been a fairly decent hitter — but it puts him in the 27th percentile in the league, lower than J.P. Crawford who...does not hit the ball hard.
Now, as to the reason why his BABIP plummeted: it’s the last metric in the table above. sd(LA), the standard deviation of launch angle, is often referred to as launch angle tightness. Put simply, it measures the variance of a hitter’s launch angles. A higher number means a wider distribution of launch angles, which, oftentimes, means more inconsistency in the hitter’s ability to hit the ball flush at optimal angles.
For Suárez, his launch angle tightness worsened. As Alex Chamberlain has noted, there’s a relationship between BABIP and launch angle tightness. That is, the tighter one’s distribution of launch angles, the higher their BABIP. As we saw, Suárez’s BABIP worsened quite significantly, which lends itself to Chamberlain’s observation that the two are related. It makes even more sense when you consider launch angle tightness as a byproduct of barrel control and bat path:
Eugenio Suárez, Bat Path
Suárez, for all of his consistent peripherals, has developed a significant flaw over the past two years that has yet to go away. Since his injury, he has started to get under the ball more, which coincides with a fly ball rate that has dramatically increased. It’s clear that, right now, Suárez is elevating the ball too much, which is to the detriment of his sweet spot percentage.
There are a few possibilities as to what’s behind all of this, one of which is that Suárez was making a conscious effort to lift the ball, but that doesn’t sound much anything like his mental approach. It is, perhaps, a matter of how pitchers have adjusted to him, but I find that an insufficient explantation as to the sole reason he’s struggled.
The actual reason, as I see it, is much more ambiguous. It’s either that Suárez is still hurt — which is what Ben Clemens of FanGraphs hypothesized— or there’s something that’s lingering mechanically as a holdover from his injury. Chamberlain thinks it’s a combination of the two. Either way, it seems that Suárez’s struggles have much more to do with his injury than they have to do with him. At least, that’s what I think.
Suárez makes for quite the convoluted case study, one that is probably too complex to explain in a palatable way within one article. There’s probably a mechanical analysis to make of Suárez, one that will almost surely come in the near future. Until then, one thing is clear: Suárez needs to adjust his bat path so he’s not getting under the ball so much.
Your feelings about Eugenio Suárez will be heavily dictated by your expectations of him. If you’re expecting the four-WAR version of him that was a mainstay in the Reds’ lineup from 2017 to 2019, you could very well come away disappointed. But if you calibrate your expectations to be a one-to-one replacement for Kyle Seager? You ought to be satisfied. And you might be pleasantly surprised if and when the Mariners tap into the version of Suárez that made him an All-Star.