As I write this, Cincinnati Reds third baseman Eugenio Suarez has surpassed his PECOTA win projection by half a win. It is currently April 26.
You may not have noticed it considering who he plays for, how early we are in the year, and the fact that Eric Thames exists, but Suarez is off to an incredible start to 2017. You surely gathered that from my opening sentence, but he’s not just beating the (relatively low) expectations the projections had for him; he’s hitting like a legitimate star, with a triple slash of .333/.412/.640.
But every year random guys like Suarez have great Aprils and inspire rabid articles from the baseball blogosphere before crashing back to Earth over the proceeding months. So why is Suarez different? Well, he might not be, of course, but there are some encouraging signs to believe that he has made himself into a much better ballplayer.
He can’t keep this up, obviously. Currently, Suarez is running a 177 wRC+, which is just above Mike Trout’s career line. He has a .357 BABIP at the moment, well above his own and the league’s average, and he’s probably getting at least somewhat lucky early on.
However, coming into the season he had already shown that he has major league power — 34 home runs in 1025 plate appearances over the past two seasons — but an adjustment he has made to his swing is allowing him to tap into that power on a regular basis to begin 2017.
See if you can spot the difference between last year and this year.
And here is 2017:
You’ve probably already spotted it, but here’s what stands out most to me. Look at the difference in where Suarez starts his hands:
Suarez is not the first player to make such an alteration — I’ve written about similar changes for both Jean Segura and Brandon Belt — but it doesn’t matter that Suarez is hopping on the bandwagon. What matters is that he’s producing in a way he never has before.
Like both Segura and Belt, the lowering of Suarez’s hands allows him to take a much more direct path to the ball. In both videos, you can see that at the point of contact Suarez’s hands are in essentially in the same spot. But in 2017, he’s bought himself an extra split second before deciding whether or not to start that swing. When the difference between hard contact and a swing-and-a-miss is literally milliseconds, a small adjustment like that can have enormous consequences.
That extra split second Suarez has earned for himself is showing in his numbers thus far this season. He’s continued to show the type of power he’s displayed in recent years, but his walk rate is current up about three percent, while he’s cut his strikeouts down by nearly nine percent.
In addition, while Suarez’s overall Swing% is in line with his career numbers, he has begun 2017 by swinging at a noticeably lower amount of pitches outside the zone, and a similarly measurable amount of pitches in the zone. In short, Suarez is doing a much better job of swinging at pitches he can drive, and spitting at the types of pitches that would be more likely to lead to whiffs or weak contact. If you’re still doubting the importance of those extra milliseconds Suarez has bought himself, I’m not sure what else you need.
And because Suarez is swinging at more hittable pitches, the quality of his contact has drastically improved. Here in the early going, his average exit velocity is up over three miles-per-hour. Maybe 89.7 MPH isn’t going to make Giancarlo Stanton or Aaron Judge quake in their cleats, but Kris Bryant’s average exit velocity was 0.4 MPH slower than that in 2016 and he was okay.
However, as we said before, it’s almost impossible to see Suarez continuing to mash at this level. While his exit velocity is up, so is his ground ball rate. He’s just not going to maintain a one-in-four home run per fly ball ratio. Sorry, Reds fans.
But for those of you who saw Suarez as merely a stopgap for the Reds until 2016 No. 2 overall pick Nick Senzel was ready to take over the hot corner — and I know this was a hot topic for many of you — it might be time to reevaluate your opinions. Suarez won’t continue to produce like he has in April, but this isn’t all BABIP luck and a homer for every four fly balls he puts in the air.
There are legitimate adjustments being made here, and considering the power he’d already shown coming into the season and the fact that he’s still only 25, why can’t Eugenio Suarez be a quality major league third baseman? He might not be the Reds’ long-term answer, but it’s too early to worry about that just yet.
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Joe Clarkin is a featured writer for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @Joe_Clarkin.