One month into this season, I told you that Joey Votto and Eugenio Suárez, members of Cincinnati’s Old Guard, would have just as much to say about the ultimate fate of the 2021 Cincinnati Reds as the Young Guns, and maybe more. With nearly two-thirds of the season completed, some things have become very clear.
The young guys have certainly held up their end of the bargain. Second baseman Jonathan India (.277/.404/.419) has the fourth-best on-base percentage in the entire league, and catcher Tyler Stephenson isn’t far behind, hitting .288/.378/.419. Both are legitimate contenders for Rookie of the Year honors.
We discussed Joey Votto a few weeks ago, and Cincinnati’s 37-year-old first baseman hasn’t skipped a beat in the interim. For the season, he’s hitting .267/.363/.490 with 14 homers and 48 RBI. I continue to be amazed at how Votto completely reversed the decline phase of his career to become a dangerous hitter once again.
As for Suárez … well, back in May, I was hopeful that Geno would similarly return to form:
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?
There are still a couple of months of the season remaining, but Suárez continues to look like a shell of the player who followed up an All-Star season in 2018 with that brilliant 49-homer campaign one year later. This season, he’s hitting .171/.256/.360 in 95 games. Sure, he has 18 home runs and 53 runs batted in, but he has been the worst player on the Reds this year by a mile. Baseball-Reference pegs Suárez’s Wins Above Replacement total as -2.2 (yes, that’s a negative number), far below the team’s second-worst WAR number, Shogo Akiyama’s -0.6.
And it’s not just Suárez’s bat that is a problem; that WAR total factors in defense, including his disastrous 31 games at shortstop, where he never looked comfortable. It pains me to say this, as Geno just might be the most likable Cincinnati athlete of my lifetime, but he has simply killed the team with both his bat and his glove, and it’s time for serious questions to be asked about his spot in the daily lineup. Permit me to ask them, if you will.
For much of this season, it was easy to wave away concerns about Suárez by pointing to the small sample size. After all, as I noted, 29-year-olds with his track record don’t just lose their ability all of a sudden, and literally no hitter in the major leagues has more home runs than Suárez’s 116 since 2018. Well, the sample size is getting big enough that we can’t ignore it.
Since the beginning of the 2020 season, Suárez has played in 152 games and made 625 plate appearances. That’s essentially a full season of baseball. During that span, he’s hitting just .182/.277/.400 with an OPS+ of 71, meaning that Suárez has been roughly 29 percent worse than the average big league hitter. He has 33 home runs and 91 RBI, sure, but his numbers are almost uniformly horrendous and he’s showing few signs of returning to form.
The culprit is easy to identify: Suárez is swinging and missing more than almost any player in the league. I won’t dive too deeply into the analytics here, but you can see the numbers for yourself. His strikeout rate is a whopping 30.2 percent, among the very worst in baseball and the highest of his career. But even when he’s making contact, his average exit velocity is lower than more than 80 percent of his fellow big leaguers; his expected batting average (a Statcast metric that measures the likelihood that a batted ball becomes a hit) is just .204.
To compound the problems, Suárez is swinging at pitches outside the strike zone at the highest rate of his career. You may remember that Votto is doing the same thing. Unlike Votto, Suárez isn’t making more hard contact. Consequently, his walk rate (8.9 percent) has cratered.
There seem to be two primary questions that need to be answered. First, what caused this steep decline in Suárez’s production (and can he be fixed)? The second question is much more urgent for the 2021 Reds: How should manager David Bell handle Suárez’s spot in the everyday lineup?
As for the first question, there are plenty of theories and little concrete fact. What we know for certain is that Suárez tore cartilage in his right shoulder in a swimming pool mishap before the 2020 season. He had surgery in late January, but he recovered well enough by the delayed start to the season to play in 57 of Cincinnati’s 60 games. He heated up somewhat near the end of the season, but he never looked quite right.
Is the shoulder still bothering him? There’s been no indication that it is, and the Reds said he was 100 percent even before last July’s Opening Day. Before this season, Suárez claimed to have lost 15 pounds—by cutting out beer, sugar, sauces, and salsa—and pledged to hit 50 home runs. Instead, it’s been more of the same lackluster production.
The shoulder surgery marked the beginning of Suárez’s troubles, but there’s no way for us to know definitively whether that’s the culprit. Some suggest that swing changes made in an effort to hit more home runs, a result of the 49-homer season that set a Reds record for third basemen, is causing all the swings and misses. Perhaps it’s a combination of the two.
More interesting than the cause, however, is where Suárez and the Reds go from here. Famously, Votto responded to a benching last August by reevaluating everything from his stance to his approach at the plate. In late June, Bell sat Suárez for a couple of days and, upon his return, Suárez said he intended to try to keep his hands more relaxed at the plate but wasn’t making Votto-style adjustments. The results since that mini-“benching” have not been noticeably different: In 19 games, he has posted a paltry slash line of .167/.257/.318 with two home runs.
Over this past weekend, Bell again sat Suárez during a key game against St. Louis. Cincinnati’s manager had this to say: “Geno is continuing to try to just settle in. He has made adjustments, which I give him a lot of credit for. … Today is just an off day.” Left unsaid was the precise nature of those “adjustments.”
With the Reds in second place and clinging to playoff hopes, they can’t afford to ignore the elephant in the room any longer. Until Suárez figures things out, he is a liability on the field. But who can replace him in the lineup? Does anyone really want to hand the third base duties over to future Obscure Former Red Mike Freeman? Injuries and owner Bob Castellini’s refusal to permit management to field a complete roster have meant that Bell really hasn’t had a better option for much of the season than to suffer through Suárez’s lack of production and hope for the best.
Very soon, however, Bell may have more arrows in his quiver. Mike Moustakas and Nick Senzel are hoping to return to the field within the next month, and both have plenty of third base experience. Moustakas, in particular, will need a place to play on the infield, and he’s not taking India’s spot at 2B. Senzel can be used in both the infield and the outfield and has been working out at shortstop as he rehabs. The obvious move would be to send Kyle Farmer, whose glove has been passable, to the bench and live with Suárez’s defensive shortcomings at shortstop.
The problem with that scenario is this: As much as it pains me to say it, Farmer has been better than Geno, both offensively and defensively. This despite the fact that Farmer has been one of the worst hitting shortstops in the entire league. But I’ll give you one guess as to which SS ranks dead last in production. Yep, Geno.
The reason I keep talking about how difficult it is to tell these truths about Suárez is that he’s a genuinely good guy according to everyone who knows him. As he always says, good vibes only, right? Well, I’ve always tried to tell you the truth as I see it here in the magazine’s digital pages. And here’s an undeniable truth I type with a single tear running down my cheek: Once a better option is healthy, the Reds have to bench Eugenio Suárez, at least until he figures things out.
He will eventually figure things out, right?
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.