With a tepid offense continuing to clip the Mariners’ wings well into May, there has been plenty of blame doled out by the fanbase. Much has understandably been spilled about the black holes of designated hitter and second base - even if the unexpected emergence of José Caballero has stabilized the latter for now - but seemingly no hitter has been completely safe from pitchforks. The Tommy La Stella era may have come and gone, but lineup mainstays such as Teoscar Hernández, Ty France, and even Julio Rodríguez have each found themselves on the wrong end of Mariner fans’ ire as the season approaches the 50-game checkpoint.
Eugenio Suárez has faced his share of concerns and criticism, too, and on the surface, it’s fairly easy to see why; his wRC+ sits at just 94 while his wOBA is at an even .300 - quite a slip from the 131 and .344 he turned in last year. His .116 ISO is nearly half his 2022 mark, and is currently both far and away the lowest of his career and the first time under .200 since 2016. After a miserable 2021, Suárez proved reports of his demise had been greatly exaggerated last year, and was a key piece on the team that ended Seattle’ playoff drought. When the guy who walloped 31 homers is on pace for just 17 coming up on Memorial Day weekend, though, it certainly wouldn’t be overly reactionary to feel a touch worried.
So the bat hasn’t been at its best so far. But that’s okay! Really! Being in the literal 100th percentile in Outs Above Average goes a long way in making up for that lost value. Defensive metrics are notoriously finicky, especially with about a third of a season’s worth of data, but the eye test and more traditional metrics (zero errors!) have more than backed that up. The cannon of an arm has stayed a constant, and this year he seems to have leveled up his range. Consider this marvelous play from yesterday, where Eugenio bailed out J.P. after an Austin Riley ground ball clanked off his glove:
Hark back to April 29th in Toronto, where he robbed George Springer of extra bases and kept Easton McGee’s no-hitter alive with a lovely diving grab:
If these two web gems haven’t convinced you, we have lovingly curated a reel of fabulous plays that radiate good vibes for you below:
As great as the glove has been, there are also signs of life in the bat despite Suárez’s slow start. Over this most recent road trip to Detroit, Boston, and Atlanta, he put up a 127 wRC+ with a walk rate right around 17%. On the year, his walk rate is firmly in double digits - in fact, his 11.4% mark is just a touch below his 2022 - and while strikeouts always have been and always will be part of his offensive package, he’s cut those down by a couple percentage points, sitting at 29.4% going into tonight’s game. While he hasn’t done a ton of damage on heart pitches so far, he’s been avoiding chasing too badly (his chase rate being in the 78th percentile was a very nice surprise to discover), and he’s held his own on the notoriously difficult shadow pitches he’s seen.
Even more encouraging than his plate discipline holding serve, however, is a mechanical change he started working on during the last road trip. Daniel Kramer over at MLB.com provided some insight on Friday into the changes Suárez is making to address his struggles, both mental and mechanical. On the mental side, the changes are a little more obvious and in line with a veteran of Suárez’s caliber. Speculating on whether a player’s struggles are due to pressing at the plate can be a nebulous venture at best, but sometimes the answer can really be that simple when the reason comes from the player themselves.
“When you’re not getting your results, you start thinking too much and that’s part of the problem,” Suárez said. “When I don’t get my result, I’d be in trouble every time because I’d be trying too much. When I wasn’t getting my results, almost everything I did, I was doing it harder.”
A cynical mind might suspect that while some fans love the Good Vibes Only side of Eugenio, they might also be ignoring some of the most valuable aspects he brings mentally as a player by focusing solely on that. It is true that he is strongly focused on the positive, but it is not without introspection and growth, even after several successful MLB seasons. Raw skills can help you succeed, but the ability to adapt when necessary will keep that success going for much longer. The mechanical changes he has made recently may be subtle, but they are noticeably there.
On the left of the image above is an at bat that resulted in a pop out by Suárez on April 23rd against the Cardinals, and on the right is last Saturday when he hit a two-run bomb against Atlanta. Just in how he sets up at the plate you can see his feet are more apart, his stance is a teense more open, and the entire upper body is less tense and pulled back.
When he loads up during the same at bats, you can see how much tighter he was pulling his body in, even angling the bottom of his cleats in his lead foot upward. The screen grab doesn’t show it, but in his home run swing his leg kick was also much less rigid and strained.
The pop out against the Cardinals was on a slider in, so the swing motion isn’t as good for comparison - Saturday’s home run came off of a 92.1 mph middle four seamer. A better comparison, and the left side of the image above, is a fly out he had against the Guardians on April 7th, located similarly and a 90 mph sinker. Where he’s at in his swing looks very similar at first glance, until you realize the camera angle of the Guardians game is much more to the right, and that Eugenio is much more turned around in his swing. At all points in his stance and swing with the more successful outcome, the more relaxed nature and better contact becomes clear. It reflects exactly what Suárez himself said that he is trying to do at the plate.
“I’m just relaxing my shoulders a little bit more and trusting myself and my body. I’m just trying to cover the entire strike zone, not swing at balls, see the ball longer and put my best swing on it. I think that’s been my key the past few games.”
Subtle changes like what Eugenio has made can immediately impact results, but it is also important to remember that it still can take some time for those results to normalize, and that they are still subject to the whims of luck that can make baseball so beautiful to behold.
Looking at his rolling wOBA chart, his recent trend has him improving to just around or just under league average, but one glance at his rolling xwOBA over that same period and he’s actually been overperforming the league drastically. If he maintains his expected numbers at that rate, it’s only natural to assume his actual numbers will start rising to better reflect them.
The narrative has changed drastically surrounding Eugenio since he first arrived in Seattle. Originally he was framed as a defensive-liability, salary dump from the Reds, and Winker was the prize. It’s only through the fortune of hindsight on his spectacular season in 2022, and the Mariners offense struggling as a collective unit, that the spotlight and pressure is shining so brightly on Suárez’s 2023 season. Easily lost in the narrative is just how valuable his defense has been, as well as his veteran presence in the clubhouse. More than that, though, he has earned patience and trust that he has the skills to turn things around with the bat. If his recent success after making some tweaks is any indicator, very soon he’ll be turning pitchforks into tridents.