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Is Eugenio Suarez for Real?

The other young breakout NL shortstop (for fantasy purposes), Eugenio Suarez, is off to a fantastic start. Is his performance so far legit? Can he be a reliable top-10 SS option the rest of the way? Answers to these and other questions within.

Eugenio Suarez apparently loves kids. He also loves crushing baseballs this year. Can he continue to do this?
Eugenio Suarez apparently loves kids. He also loves crushing baseballs this year. Can he continue to do this?
David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports

If you squint real hard and look around the giant Trevor Story breakout bandwagon, you will see a much smaller bandwagon for another NL shortstop in the midst of a crazy start to the season. Technically, he's more of a 3B this season, but Yahoo, CBS, and ESPN all still see him as a SS-eligible player and that's all we really care about.

This guy has 4 homers, which ties him with George Springer, Yoenis Cespedes, Carlos Gonzalez, Matt Kemp, and others. His wRC+ is 40th best in all of baseball at 148. Oh, and he's slugging 0.569 with three steals already. Who is this? Corey Seager. Nah, just messin' with you, it's Eugenio Suarez of the Cincy Reds. You know, like it says in the title of the article, so big surprise.

So, his current pace is mostly unsustainable (especially the batting average of 0.314 and the slugging) but what can we realistically expect for the rest of the season. Is this a real breakout and someone that can stay in the top 10 or higher among SS-eligible players?

As is my way, I will look into some deeper underlying stats to answer that question. Has he really changed?

2014 Tigers 277 4 33 23 3 7.90% 24.20% 0.094 0.316 0.242 0.316 0.336
2015 Reds (AAA) 238 8 30 25 3 10.90% 16.80% 0.182 0.282 0.256 0.348 0.438
2015 Reds 398 13 42 48 4 4.30% 23.60% 0.167 0.341 0.280 0.315 0.446
2016 Reds 55 4 11 10 3 7.30% 14.50% 0.255 0.308 0.314 0.364 0.569

First up, this fun table of his basic stats since 2014. I left off his minor league stuff from 2014, since it seems distant enough to no longer be relevant. First, it appears that a little power is no fluke. Ever since 2014, he has had slugging percentages in the mid-4s, which isn't bad for a middle infielder. His BABIP has bounced around quite a bit and his average with it. Looking at these numbers, he looks like a 0.260 hitter that should be good for 18 HR in a full season. Oh, and 8-10 steals seems reasonable too.

His 2016 numbers obviously stand out. He has cut his strikeout rate to a career low, well below last year's mark. That change alone has boosted his average into elite territory. Not only is he making more contact, but he is crushing when he does. His walk rate is a little below average, but better than last year. His steals pace seems unreasonable and unlikely to continue, but as I mentioned above, 10 or maybe even 15 isn't out of the question.

Ok, time for a new table.

Season Team LD% GB% FB% HR/FB Pull% Cent% Oppo% Soft% Med% Hard%
2014 Tigers 21.60% 35.20% 43.20% 5.30% 48.90% 29.70% 21.40% 18.70% 53.80% 27.50%
2015 Reds 20.80% 40.90% 38.40% 12.10% 40.50% 33.10% 26.40% 10.90% 60.20% 28.90%
2016 Reds 27.90% 30.20% 41.90% 22.20% 51.20% 20.90% 27.90% 18.60% 46.50% 34.90%

This one here shows his batted ball outcome data. His line drives are way up to an unsustainable level, which is another huge reason his average is up. Strangely, his BABIP isn't much above average despite all the hard liners he is hitting. I don't know why that would be. He has continued to hit lots of fly balls, which is great for his power. His home run rate is way up due to an unusually high HR/FB ratio. I expect that to settle into the 10-15% range.

He is pulling the ball more than ever, which further legitimizes his power burst. Also, his hard hit % is way up there with the best in the game so far. That will probably come down a bit, but it's not a bad sign either.

Let's look at his plate discipline. Any changes there?

Season Team O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing% O-Contact% Z-Contact% Contact% Zone% SwStr%
2014 Tigers 24.70% 54.10% 40.50% 54.80% 86.70% 77.70% 53.70% 9.00%
2015 Reds 26.60% 63.00% 45.40% 58.80% 84.40% 77.10% 51.50% 10.40%
2016 Reds 28.50% 65.90% 44.90% 69.70% 86.70% 80.70% 44.00% 8.70%

There isn't much to work with here. His contact is up overall (duh, his average is way up) and his swinging strike rate is down, which supports his lower strikeout rate. He is making much better contact on pitches out of the zone than he used to, which is a good thing when he is making such hard contact.

I noticed in that little "Zone" column that pitchers are starting to worry about him more. He is getting a measly 44% of pitches in the strike zone. Pitchers aren't giving him much to hit. Pitchers have access to better data than we do and are certainly more experienced, so their collective move to keep pitches away from Suarez should be a big sign to us that he has improved as a hitter. Despite all those out-of-zone pitches, he isn't chasing with that low whiff rate. That O-Contact% improvement is good with all those pitches outside the zone.

How about some pretty charts with lots of color gradients? I've got you covered.

suarez heat map 1
suarez heat map 2

Look at how much better plate coverage he is getting in 2016. There is a lot more pink in the second chart. It covers the entire width of the zone, whereas in 2015 it was concentrated high and inside. He still clearly loves the ball high and inside (100% contact in a lot of squares up there), but now he can make contact on pitches low-middle and away. That means pitchers can't just avoid high and inside against him. All of this improves his ability to continue to hit and succeed, even as pitchers adjust.

Finally, to wrap all this up, one last table. This is a table of three different rest-of-season projections for Suarez.

2016 ZiPS (R) 558 18 65 62 9 6.60% 23.30% 0.167 0.310 0.257 0.314 0.425
2016 Steamer (R) 489 15 52 54 8 7.00% 21.20% 0.159 0.301 0.257 0.315 0.416
2016 Depth Charts (R) 524 17 59 58 8 6.80% 22.20% 0.163 0.306 0.257 0.314 0.420

The three systems show nearly identical projections across the board. This is an unusual amount of agreement. After taking all that we just covered into account, I think ZiPS is closest. I think the batting average is right on, and the OBP is about right too. I would put the slugging at 0.450, though. I think 12 steals and 18 more homers are good expectations.

After looking at all his sabermetric stats, most of Suarez' 2016 looks legit. He is pulling the ball more, hitting it harder, making more contact, covering more of the zone, whiffing less, and doing it all without the benefit of an unreasonable BABIP. Put all of this together using my projections and you have a top-10 shortstop without question and probably a top-5 option. A shortstop that could end the season with 22 HR and 12 SB? That is rare territory. I even think the OBP might rise as pitchers start to walk him more (that low Zone% will eventually lead to lots of walks).

With guys like Tulo struggling and looking broken down, Addison Russell off to another slow start, and others disappointing at the SS position, Suarez is the one with upside that you want to grab if you still can. He and Story might compete all year for the best NL SS-eligible player (with Seager and Kang, too). Tschus!