Eugenio Suarez is confusing. While with the Tigers, Suarez flashed enough potential in the minor leagues to become Detroit’s everyday shortstop after Jose Iglesias sustained stress fractures in both legs. In 277 plate appearances, Suarez slashed .242/.316/.336 in 2014.

The aggregate numbers mask the amount of variation in Suarez’s 2014 campaign: in June he slashed .279/.364/.485 but in September that line collapsed to .200/.263/.200. In fact, his batting line deteriorated every month that he was with the Tigers. Despite his declining plate numbers, Suarez was still able to create positive value (0.8 fWAR) for the Tigers due to his defensive abilities.

In 2015, Suarez was once again pressed into service due to an injury, this time to Zack Cozart. To everyone’s surprised, Suarez has replaced almost all of the value Zack Cozart was adding to the everyday lineup. In 37 games, Suarez has already created 1.0 fWAR and would be on pace to create 3.5 fWAR over the course of 550 plate appearances. So, is this the Eugenio Suarez that the Tigers saw in the minor leagues? Or is another collapse around the corner?

The canaries in the coal mine

With so few observations (only 147 plate appearances in 2015), the behavior of quantitative batting data is not very stable. As I wrote about earlier this year, it takes a few hundred plate appearances for OBP to stabilize and many more before we can start to make inferences using batting average.

That necessary caveat aside, one number jumps off of Suarez’s fangraphs page right away: .388 BABIP (for reference, Joey Votto is at .347). This is about seventy points higher than Suarez’s xBABIP given his batted ball profile (.310). The xBABIP is much closer to what Suarez’s BABIP was last year with Detriot (.316) over 277 plate appearances.

Yet we know that not all types of line drives or fly balls are the same. New exit velocity data helps us further refine these categories by examining the velocity with which the ball leaves the bat. Suarez’s exit velocity data is not very encouraging: he is currently ranked 304th in average exit velocity at only 88.43 mph.

When you examine Suarez’s batted ball profile, it becomes clearer what is going on when he puts the ball in play: Suarez has traded both line dries (down 5% from last year) and fly balls (down 9%) for more ground balls (up 14%). Furthermore, Suarez pulls nearly half (46.7%) of his batted balls. The luck dragons are circling.

What about the future?

Suarez is only 23 years old and, given his talent and previous achievements, he very well may improve for the next few years. Here is an aging chart of short stops (from beyond the box score)

shortAge

As you can see from this chart, shortstops seem to develop up till the age of 25-26 and then slowly decline afterward. There is a survivor bias in these data, so decline due to age is probably less pronounced and later than it is for a normal player. The general trend, however, that players improve up till the age of 25-26 generally holds across position. Furthermore, given the defensive demands on shortstops, it might make sense that these players develop a little later than other positions.

For Suarez to prove himself as an everyday MLB shortstop he will need to improve his plate discipline. This year, Suarez’s numbers are all trending the wrong direction: his swinging strike rate is higher this year (10.1%) than last year (9.0%) and he is swinging at more pitches outside of the zone this year (27.2%) than last year (24.5%).

I want to reiterate here: Suarez has fewer than 450 plate appearances at the major league level (he only has 424), that’s less than a full season of experience. He has also played in two different leagues with fewer than 300 plate appearances in either. Almost every day Suarez is stepping into the batter’s box against a pitcher he ha1s never seen before.

His minor league numbers also indicate that he might have a better eye for the strike zone than we are seeing right now. His low BB% came in rookie ball, when he was only at 6%, but peaked in 2014 (AAA – Tigers) at 11.5%. This was another small sample size, but he did post a 9.5% walk rate in AA ball through 496 plate appearances.

Conclusion

Over the next few months, expect Suarez’s line to decline as fewer ground balls find holes in the defense. Despite this expected regression, Suarez will still provide quality defense in the field (0.4 DRS so far) and will probably provide the Reds with around 1.5-2.0 wins above replacement. The Reds have Suarez under contract through his age 30 season (2021) and he is not arbitration eligible until 2018 (when he will be 27). Given his current batting line it is not hard to see him as a 2.0 WAR player moving forward, with an upside around 3-3.5 wins if he is able to better control the strike zone.

15 Responses

  1. Steve Checkosky

    Thanks, Mike. Insightful, illuminating and well written. I can honestly say that I learned something over the last five minutes!

  2. Michael Smith

    Great read. I hope that things can continue to progress for him.

  3. doctor

    spring training battle between him and Cozart will be interesting next year, assuming Cozart has rehabbed by then as it timing will be close.

    • sultanofswaff

      That’s so not going to happen. Cozart was handed the job this spring coming off one of the worst offensive performances in the majors in 2014. Why would next spring be any different?

    • Redsfan48

      Realistically, I think they either trade Phillips this offseason (unlikely), move Suárez to LF like Price talked about (very unlikely), or non-tender Cozart (most likely in my opinion)

      • Matt WI

        I think the numbers and conclusions above show that he does not profile well at all for LF. Super-sub action would be fine, but not regular.

      • Lord Oracle (@LordOracle22)

        true but he did make an interesting statement yesterday that he loves the reds but he wants to be on a winning team. I never thought he would waive his 10 5 rights but now i think its a possibility for the right team. I think there is a chance the reds try to package him with bruce or chapman to get some of his money off the books well see what happens but just my opinion

  4. sultanofswaff

    Suarez provides some much needed middle infield depth. It’s a point we need to continually reinforce here—-that the Reds problems don’t stem from their position players (recent WAR comparisons to the other teams in the division), but rather the lack of depth on the bench and in the bullpen. That’s the area that Walt has continually failed this team.

  5. PDunc

    I think the best thing for Suarez and the Reds is to have Suarez get some time in the outfield. If Phillips is traded or Cozart doesn’t return to form after coming back from his injury then Suarez plays 2B or SS. If they both are on the roster in 2016 though, have Suarez back up both middle-infield positions as well as be the 4th or 5th outfielder. That should allow him enough at-bats to contribute offensively.

  6. Michael Smith

    If we use him as back up infielder the reds need to make sure he gets a lot of starts and abs

  7. lwblogger2

    Suarez is a nice little hitter. He isn’t going to hit like he’s been hitting though. Hopefully, he’ll stop expanding the zone as well and get his BB-rate back up and that will offset the coming drop in AVG and SLG. He has flashed a little more power than I thought he had.

    I am a bit surprised to see the DRS numbers. His defense hasn’t looked particularly good to me. Not wretched but not good. Inconsistent hands and footwork but strong at turning the DP and flashing above-average range. He doesn’t have a great arm but its certainly a SS arm so still good. I figured him as slightly below average right now with average to high-average being his upside.

    • Eric the Red

      I’m shocked at the defensive numbers. He’s had a lot of both throwing and catching errors in a short time, and I haven’t noticed exceptional range. Pretty much the only really good play I recall him making was the first out in the 9th in the last game against the Cardinals. That positive assessment of his play so far really doesn’t match up with what I’ve seen.

      • lwblogger2

        Made a nice play yesterday on a high throw by Votto (after votto made a really nice play to his right). He also made the nice barehanded catch of BP’s flip on the marvelous play he made a week or two ago. There have been a few real nice plays. He goes into the outfield well too, which is a strength, particularly with Byrd in LF.