They say chicks dig the longball. If that’s truly the case, then Eugenio Suarez and Jorge Soler are pretty popular with the ladies right now.
“Polar Bear” Pete Alonso led baseball with 53 dingers last season. Who was behind Alonso? Suarez with 49 and Soler with 48. Who’d have guessed it?
When did Suarez and Soler get so good? What changed? How are they suddenly elite power hitters? Let’s dive into the numbers and answer these questions.
The Rise of Eugenio Suarez
The Reds stole – I mean, acquired – Eugenio Suarez from the Detroit Tigers in 2014. I won’t even bother writing who the Tigers got in return. You’ve never heard of them.
As a Tigers’ fan, I remember watching the young Suarez play some third base for us. I don’t recall him doing anything spectacular in his one season in Detroit, and Fangraphs confirms. In 2014, Suarez played in 85 games, hit .242, and managed to launch 4 homeruns.
The Reds played Suarez quite a bit in 2015 – 97 games – and Eugenio held his own. Splitting time between short and third, Suarez hit .280 with 13 homers. The biggest red flag in his offensive approach was a dreadfully low walk rate (4.3%) and a high strikeout rate (23.6%).
Suarez began playing every day in 2016. Although he still strikes out a lot, he has developed some patience and has now posted a double-digit walk rate in 3 straight seasons.
Quietly, Suarez began to build impressive seasons. Some wrote off his increase in power as a byproduct of the modern juiced baseballs. Lots of players can hit 34 homeruns – like Suarez did in 2018. Very few have hit 49.
Hidden in a Reds’ lineup that does not get much press or national TV time, Suarez has been building toward this breakout season since he first landed in Cincinnati.
Many hitters must sacrifice hitting for average to increase their power numbers, but Suarez is actually hitting for a higher average than when he first broke into the bigs. His walk rate is up, too!
This next chart will give us some valuable insight into how Suarez has managed to become one of the game’s best power hitters.
Some may call these advanced stats, but there is nothing complicated about them.
HR/FB% is the percentage of fly balls Suarez hits that turn into home runs. Obviously hitters want this number to be as high as possible.
Hard% is the percentage of balls off Suarez’s bat that are deemed hard hits. The 3 classifications from Fangraphs are soft, medium, and hard contact – obviously, hitters want to be making hard contact as often as possible.
Pull% is the percentage of balls off Suarez’s bat that are hit to the pull field – left field in Suarez’s case. There is no optimal hit placement distribution. Each hitter has a unique approach and many different styles can be successful. Drastic changes in this rate indicate a conscious change in approach at the plate.
Let’s talk about that awesome HR/FB rate first. The best homerun hitters in the league are typically between 15-20%. Any number higher than this is extremely difficult to sustain and is nearly certain to regress back to the mean.
Suarez has been increasing this rate steadily each season in Cincinnati. In 2019, 29.5% of his fly balls turned into homeruns – the 5th-highest mark in the major leagues.
A giant spike in HR/FB rate would make me very skeptical. Variance plays a big role in this number, as factors like ballpark size and weather are huge.
Look how straight that blue line is, though. This is far from random fluctuation – Suarez is obviously working to hit more homeruns.
How can a hitter increase his HR/FB rate? One, he can get stronger. Two, he can optimize launch angle and backspin. Suarez did both.
That red line – Suarez’s hard-hit ball rate – is also trending upward since 2016. This is exactly what we would expect to see from somebody who is hitting more home runs each season.
Suarez is stronger than when he first entered the league, and his increased plate discipline allows him to hammer only the best pitches and lay off the ones he can’t drive.
Fangraphs has no data for the amount of backspin off a player’s bat. Basic baseball knowledge tells us that Suarez must be generating a lot of it.
Why? Because his pull rate is up. Check out the green line. Suarez pulled more balls in 2019 than ever before.
Hitters know that backspin is a must when trying to hit a homerun to the pull field. I would occasionally tag one to left field in my playing days. It would feel so good off the bat, but instead of rising, the ball would sink. Why? Because my ball had topspin rather than backspin. You can slice a homerun the other way if you’re strong. You need backspin to pull one.
Piece together the evidence, and it makes sense. Suarez has increased his walk rate and cut down on chasing pitches. He is swinging only at the best offerings which enables him to make hard contact often.
Suarez is stronger now which allows him to get a little something extra behind the ball. He has developed a great swing that produces tons of home runs to the pull field, and used it to become the second-best home run hitter in the MLB.
The Emergence of Jorge Soler
Suarez’s story is one of consistent improvement. Soler’s is different. Check out his stats. This dude had done absolutely nothing in the MLB prior to 2019. He never even managed to survive a full season in the bigs.
I remember playing my MLB 15 The Show game back in the day and seeing Jorge Soler listed as a top Cubs prospect. Soler never panned out, fell off my radar, and I totally forgot about him … until last year.
2015 was a rough year for the young outfielder – he struck out a lot! Soler’s 2016 was plagued with injuries and never got off the ground. After Soler was dealt to KC, he spent the majority of the 2017 season in AAA Omaha.
Breaking camp with the Royals in 2018, it appeared Soler’s game had finally arrived. He was hitting for some power, his plate discipline numbers were much improved, and he seemed more comfortable at the dish.
Then another injury knocked him out of the lineup. The guy couldn’t catch a break. The MLB is a business, not a charity. Soler knew he wasn’t going to receive unlimited chances to prove himself.
The Royals could have easily dumped Soler after 2018, but in a stroke of brilliance decided to stick with the former hot prospect.
The dude began raking and didn’t stop. Soler hit more home runs in 2019 than the rest of his career combined. Soler’s 117 RBIs were tied for 7th in the MLB. His .265 average was right at his career mark.
Injuries? Not even a thought. Soler played in all 162 regular season games, shattering his previous high of 101.
So what changed? Let’s look under the hood.
I’m displaying Soler’s HR/FB%, Hard%, and K% below. They tell the story.
Strikeouts were a big problem for Soler early in his career, but he has made strides in that area – reducing his strikeout rate in each of the last two seasons.
Can’t hit a dinger when you strike out. Not only do fewer Ks improve Soler’s numbers, but the better at-bats do wonders for his confidence.
What else has increased for Soler each of the last two years? Hard-hit ball rate. Check out that pink line. Jorge was tattooing the baseball in 2019.
It is a very good sign to see Soler increasing his Hard% while decreasing his K%. This inverse relationship tells me Soler has a good swing. He has now learned to identify which pitches he can do damage on – and chooses to only go after those, leaving the others alone.
This shift in approach is also boosting Soler’s HR/FB%. Touted as a power hitter since he was a prospect, Soler has always tried to hit homeruns. This swing from your heels approach did not mesh well with his swing at everything mentality. He was striking out in over 30% of his plate appearances.
With a more selective approach at the dish, Soler is now focusing on only the best pitches – hence the increased Hard%. When Soler does try to lift and separate, he now has better success driving the ball out of the park – hence the increase HR/FB%.
Much like Alex Bregman and a host of other star hitters, Jorge Soler has discovered that patience is key when hitting. Free swinging hitters are easy to game plan against and are very prone to long slumps.
Patient hitters put the pressure on the pitcher to make perfect pitches.
I’m looking forward to seeing both of these fellas in action later this month! See you on top!