With two outs in the bottom of the third inning last Friday night, your Redlegs were down 2–1 to the Chicago Cubs. Joey Votto came to the plate with a runner aboard and launched a massive home run into the moon deck in right field at Great American Ball Park. It was the 300th home run of his illustrious career, making Votto only the third Red ever to accomplish that feat (and the first two, Johnny Bench and Frank Robinson, are in the Hall of Fame). The blast gave the Reds the lead for good as they grabbed the series opener.
The home run was projected to have been hit with a 113 mph exit velocity and traveled approximately 429 feet. The baseball had barely landed in the seats before Reds shortstop Eugenio Suárez rushed to the plate, eager to greet Votto. The scene that followed brought goosebumps, as Votto’s teammates congratulated him and fans stood and applauded until he emerged from the dugout for a curtain call. But throughout that heartwarming moment in an early season game, it seemed as if no one was more excited about Votto’s feat than Suárez.
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about a trio of young Reds stars who will have a huge impact on how far this team can go. But Votto and Suárez, members of the club’s Old Guard, will have just as much to say about the ultimate fate of the 2021 Cincinnati Reds, and maybe more.
A couple of days after that historic home run, Votto spoke to the media about his relationship with Suárez. He referred back to earlier comments, upon Jay Bruce’s retirement, wherein Votto called Bruce his favorite teammate ever. “I went up to Eugenio the very next day,” Votto said, “and the first thing I told him was, ‘Hey man, I just wanted you to know I played with [Bruce] for nine years, plus the minor leagues. I love you, man. I had a hard time saying he was my favorite teammate, because I think you might pass him, bro.’ ”
“He’s such a great teammate,” Votto continued, speaking about Suárez. “He’s so steady. He’s played not at anywhere near the level that we know he’s going to play. [He] brings good energy every day…makes no excuses. He’s such a pleasure…and he also happens to be fantastically talented and we’re going to see that by the very end of the season. I’m very lucky to play with him.”
Votto and Suárez are two of the three longest-tenured Reds; Votto is in his 15th season with the club, while Suárez is in his seventh. (Tucker Barnhart is enjoying his eighth season in Cincinnati, and he’s due for a column of his own soon.) They are also the three oldest Reds in the regular lineup, and while Barnhart has been exceptionally good thus far in the season, Suárez and Votto’s performances just might be the barometer for this team.
Early returns are mixed. Votto, at age 37, entered the season proclaiming he wanted “to get back to being dangerous” at the plate. He’s stance is more upright, and he’s swinging at more pitches than ever before. The goal is to hit the ball harder, even if that means that he’ll strike out more often.
By and large, he’s achieving that goal. Votto is swinging at more pitches (both inside and outside the zone) than he has since his MVP season of 2010. His average exit velocity of 92.8 mph is the best of his career (his best since Statcast started measuring exit velocity in 2015 anyway) and ranks within the top 10 percent of the entire league. And we’re only one month into the season, but Votto’s hardest hit ball so far (113.6 mph) not only had the highest measured exit velocity of his career, but it’s within the top 8 percent of all batted balls in MLB. And though we’re still talking about a small sample, Votto is hitting “barrels”—a batted ball with the perfect combination of exit velocity and launch angle—at a higher percentage than he has since such nonsense began being measured.
On the other hand, at the moment Votto is only hitting .235/.310/.441, for a rather pedestrian 94 OPS+. I can cite more advanced analytics to show you he’s been incredibly unlucky*, but until hitting the ball hard actually translates into better production on the field many will be skeptical. But if Votto continues to hit the ball this hard and if his numbers trend toward the expected stats of someone with that batted ball profile, Votto could be on the way to his best season since 2017 (when he finished second in MVP voting).
*Votto’s BABIP is .257, the lowest of his career (other than last year’s abbreviated season). His expected batting average (xBA measures the likelihood that a batted ball will become a hit, based on the Statcast data) is .293; Votto’s expected slugging percentage is .597. The guy has just been hitting the ball right at defenders too often this year.
Suárez is a different story, however. While Votto is 37 years old and nearing the end of his career, Geno is just 29 and should have some good years ahead of him. After hitting 49 homers in 2019, however, he’s posted a slash line of .184/.287/.425 in 83 games. That includes a line of .149/.237/.337 in 2021, and he has often appeared to be lost at the plate. He’s swinging and missing more than almost any hitter in all of baseball. (Here are the Statcast numbers. View them at your own peril, but remember that I warned you: They’re not pretty.)
Last Sunday, however, Suárez showed signs of life. In a 13–12 win over those same Cubbies, he collected three hits, including his fifth home run of the season. That swing in particular—very compact and reminiscent of the Suárez of old—seemed to represent a turning point. We will only know in retrospect, but Suárez was encouraged.
“When you are struggling, nothing is the same,” he said. “But I tried to be the same Geno Suárez that everybody knows. I do my best and everybody knows that, too. I got all of the support from my family and my teammates, even when I go 0–4 with 4 strikeouts, I feel the support. I just focus on my work. I know that hard work pays off and today was an example of that.
“Personally I felt very good after I had a three-hit game. It was a really good day for me today. Just concentrating and putting the ball in play more than I have been doing and today I got three hits and a big homer, so of course I feel happy. I hope it keeps going like that.”
There is no question that Suárez has looked like a completely different player this season than the one we’ve enjoyed watching for the last seven years. Players who have performed like he has over the course of his career don’t just fall off the face of the earth like this. Surely, by the end of the season, we can expect his stat line to resemble what the back of his baseball card says, right?
I think so, and the Reds need desperately for that to happen. Anyway, I’m not sure this is a data point in the search of Suárez optimism, but I present it anyway: After 30 games last season, Suárez was hitting .167/.286/.363. For the rest of the season, he hit .240/.339/.583. We’re 27 games into the 2021 season. Perhaps Sunday’s game will actually be the turning point for him and we’ll have classic Geno for the remainder of the campaign.
As we’ve been saying all season, this Reds team needs the offense clicking on all cylinders if they want to make noise in the National League Central division. For that to happen, they need the kids and they need the new(ish) guys like Nick Castellanos and Mike Moustakas to perform well. But they also need Votto and Suárez, two future Reds Hall of Famers, to produce at the plate. I’m guessing both of them have plenty left in the tank.
Chad Dotson authors Reds coverage at Cincinnati Magazine and hosts a long-running Reds podcast, Redleg Nation Radio. His first book, The Big 50: The Men and Moments That Made the Cincinnati Reds, is available in bookstores and online.