How Ranger Suárez is off to historic start

May 26th, 2024

There has been no shortage of players responsible for the Phillies' MLB-best 38-15 record, but might be their most valuable one so far.

Suárez was an integral No. 3 starter on recent Phillies playoff teams behind Zack Wheeler and Aaron Nola, posting a 3.41 ERA and 3.72 FIP across his first 454 big-league innings. However, what Suárez has done this year has catapulted him into the discussion of best pitchers in the Majors, at least so far this season.

Suárez is running a 1.36 ERA and 2.55 FIP in 10 starts this season and is tied for second among starting pitchers in both Baseball Reference’s version of Wins Above Replacement (2.9) and FanGraphs’ metric (2.1). His most recent outing was one of his best yet, when he allowed one run in seven innings and tied a career-high with 10 strikeouts against the Rangers.

His 1.36 ERA is the third-lowest through 10 starts by a Phillies starter since earned runs were officially tracked in the National League in 1912. Perhaps more impressively, Suárez is just the fourth starter since 1913 (when earned runs were officially tracked in both leagues) to go 9-0 with a sub-1.50 ERA in his first 10 starts of the season.

Here’s how Suárez has gotten off to a historic start and how he’s doing it so differently than modern pitchers.

The following numbers are entering Saturday's games.

Elite command

Any conversation about Suárez’s improvements this season will inevitably start with his subpar velocity. In today’s day and age of extreme velocity and big breaking balls, Suárez is dominating with an average 91.4 mph fastball.

How is he doing it? By commanding the baseball better than pretty much any pitcher in the sport right now.

Suárez has pulled off the double-whammy of significantly reducing his walks and boosting his strikeout rate. Suárez has shaved his walk rate by 4 percent this year while upping his strikeout rate by 5.6 percent. Whereas Suárez’s 13.1 percent strikeout-minus-walk rate was below league average last year, his 22.8 percent rate trails only 10 qualifying starters this year.

Part of this can be explained by Suárez’s career-best 33.2 percent chase rate and throwing first-pitch strikes at a career-high 65 percent clip. Beyond that, there isn’t any one number that explains how Suárez has had this drastic a change with his ability to miss bats and limit free passes. Luckily, his pitch heat maps can tell a lot of the story.

If you’re looking for a visual to explain Suárez’s outlandish season, this might be your best bet. Just look at where he’s commanding each pitch in different quadrants of the zone. It’s no wonder that opposing hitters have a collective .485 OPS against Suárez, the best mark among qualified starters.

Suárez’s command looks even more impressive when you break it down by batter handedness.

Against lefties, it’s a surprisingly simple approach for Suárez, who is throwing his sinker and changeup 80.8 percent of the time and commanding each pitch at will. By pounding sinkers in the zone against lefties and spotting changeups just below the zone, Suárez has allowed just seven hits in 54 plate appearances against same-sided hitters.

Against righties, Suárez is going for a more balanced approach, using five pitches at least 12 percent of the time. This is where Suárez’s ability to cover all quadrants of the zone is especially noticeable. The lefty is spotting his sinker and changeup away from righties, jamming them inside with four-seamers and cutters and dropping curveballs at the bottom of the zone.

While Suárez has been unhittable against lefties (.377 OPS against), right-handed hitters aren't exactly tearing it up either with a .512 OPS. With this specific game planning and execution against left and right-handed hitters, Suárez has made life extremely difficult for the opposition.

“We have our hitters’ meetings and we cover everything -- his pitches, what to look for in certain areas, things like that," Rangers manager Bruce Bochy said after Tuesday's outing. "I mean, you cover all that so they're prepared, but he's just one of the best left-handers in the game right now with the way he's throwing the ball.”

Baseball’s toughest pitcher to square up

By expected ERA -- which looks at the quantity and quality of contact against a pitcher -- Suárez’s 2.30 mark only trails Garrett Crochet (2.17) among qualifying starters. Suárez is excelling in both areas this season but he’s been downright dominant in limiting quality contact.

Among the 136 pitchers who’ve allowed at least 100 batted balls, Suárez is a top starter by practically every important measure for calculating contact quality.

A lot of this is undoubtedly tied to his exceptional command that was explained before. When your control is simply that good, hitters will struggle to make good contact.

It goes beyond just the great command, though. While Suárez is actually throwing the slowest fastball (91.4 mph) of his career (outside of four innings in 2020), he’s generating a ton of extra movement on some of his most important pitches that’s helping create weak contact.

Suárez’s sinker is down nearly two ticks from last season but the left-hander is generating an additional 2.4 inches of vertical drop on the pitch. Suárez’s sinker is dropping 28.2 inches, which is 4.2 more inches of drop than similar sinkers at his velocity. Among starters who've thrown 100 sinkers, only Tanner Houck, Logan Webb, Joe Musgrove, Zach Eflin and José Soriano are getting more drop on their sinkers at their respective velocities.

With extra movement and improved command, hitters have a .186 batting average against Suárez’s sinker and are putting 67.2 percent of batted balls against the pitch on the ground.

It’s a similar story for Suárez’s changeup, which is getting an extra 4.5 inches of drop compared to last year. Much like his sinker, Suárez’s changeup is getting 3.9 more inches of drop compared to similar changeups, which is bested by only 11 pitchers who've thrown at least 100 changeups -- including teammate Cristopher Sánchez.

Unlike his sinker -- which is intended to produce weak contact on the ground -- Suárez’s changeup is his bread-and-butter pitch to miss bats. He’s produced whiffs on 40.7 percent of swings against the pitch and hitters have slugged just .119 against the pitch.

Suárez has also transformed his curveball, a pitch he wasn’t even consistently throwing in the Majors until 2022. Two years ago, Suárez’s curveball averaged 76.6 mph, dropped 55.7 inches and had 9.7 inches of horizontal break. This season, Suárez’s curveball is down to 74.8 mph but he’s getting 60.2 inches of drop and 12.4 inches of break.

Suárez’s curveball won’t wow you by any specific characteristics but with the improved movement and command of the pitch, hitters have seven hits in 42 at-bats against the curve and have whiffed on 32.3 percent of swings.

When you combine all of these elements for Suárez -- the impeccable command, improved stuff and an overall understanding of how to pitch -- you have a starting pitcher in the midst of one of most dominant stretches of his career.

While it's unrealistic to expect Suárez to run a sub-1.50 ERA for the season, there's ample evidence so far to suggest this is a much better version of the left-hander than we've seen in years past. If this is truly a breakout season for Suárez, the Phillies could find themselves making a deep playoff run for the third straight year -- and possibly winning their first title since 2008.