2017 Reds

Eugenio Suarez’s Much Improved Defense

For Reds fans, it’s relatively easy to answer the question: “Who is the best defensive player on the team?” Most would say Billy Hamilton, Zack Cozart, or even Joey Votto (he is the only Gold Glove winner on the team, after all). But there’s one player who has been playing some very underrated defense this season, and he plays one of the more difficult positions in baseball.

Eugenio Suarez was brought up as a shortstop in the Detroit Tigers organization, and because he played 841.1 innings at short for the Reds in 2015 after Zack Cozart’s knee injury, many fans thought it would be a tough transition for him to move to third base. But in fact, after a rocky start, the complete opposite has happened. Suarez’s defense has improved significantly since moving to third. When looking at some of the advanced statistics, it’s quite astounding to see how much better Suarez has been defensively in 2017.

To understand how good Suarez has been, it would be helpful to know how these statistics are calculated. When most fans look at defensive stats to evaluate players, they look at fielding percentage. While not completely useless, these statistics also don’t tell the whole story. Fielding percentage relies more heavily on errors, and determining errors can be very subjective. This is why the advanced statistics have become a better gauge to determine a fielder’s defensive value.

Enter Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) and Defensive Runs Saved (DRS). Both measure defense on difficulty of play and run value of the batted ball. UZR is more complicated, as it measures the number of runs above average over the combination of range runs, outfield arm runs, double play runs, and error runs. Zero is league average for UZR.

DRS, on the other hand, measures the number of runs a player as saved or cost his team relative to an average player. A positive number is above average, and the best fielders are in the 15-20 DRS range for a season.  Plays such as this would be a positive for DRS.

Another defensive metric used to go deeper into a player’s defensive ability is a set of stats tracked by Inside Edge. These stats are used to measure how often a player makes a difficult play. It’s broken down into six categories: Impossible, Remote, Unlikely, About Even, Likely, and Almost Certain/Certain. Each ball hit to the player is assigned a category. If the player had four unlikely balls hit to him, and he made three of the four plays, that player has a 75% success rate in that category. Inside Edge statistics show what kind of plays a player may struggle with. If a defender misses a number of Almost Certain plays, one of two things could be true: he could be a bad defender or just unlucky. It should be noted that Inside Edge stats can have small sample sizes, rendering an incomplete picture.

The difference between Inside Edge and UZR/DRS is that UZR and DRS assign run values. For example, a defensive play made with the bases loaded and one out will carry more weight than a play made with a runner on and two outs. While UZR and DRS are both helpful in digging deeper into how well a player defends, the Inside Edge data is more straightfoward. 

In his short career, 2017 has been the turning point for Suarez’s defense. Looking at the standard stats, in 2014 with the Tigers, he had 10 errors in 81 games. In 2015 at AAA-Louisville, 11 errors in 55 games. Both of these years, Suarez played shortstop. Then he got promoted to the Reds and, in 96 games at short, committed 19 errors. It didn’t get better for him in 2016, as he committed 23 errors in 151 games in his first foray as a third baseman.

However, Suarez’s defense in 2016 wasn’t as bad as the number of errors suggest. His UZR was 0.7, meaning he was average for the league. Contrast that with his -12.9 UZR at shortstop in 2015 and he actually played better his first year at third than his natural position of shortstop. Of course, UZR factors in run values, so Suarez could’ve been making those miscues in 2015 in high leverage situations, and he just didn’t have as many of those plays at third in 2016.

This season, Suarez has committed just four errors. His biggest improvement? The DRS category. When he played shortstop for the Tigers, his DRS was -5. In 2015, it was -12. It improved last season when he finished with a positive number of 1, but thus far in 2017, it stands at 9.

So now we know how Suarez has compared this season to his previous seasons. But how does he compare to other third basemen in baseball? Suarez trails only Manny Machado, Nolan Arenado, and Anthony Rendon of the Washington Nationals in defensive efficiency and UZR. He is behind only Arenado in defensive runs saved.

Arenado sets the defensive standard for all third baseman in MLB. In 2017, Arenado already has 15 defensive runs saved and a UZR of 7.1, with no errors in nearly 600 innings. Machado is a good example of why fielding errors are a bad way to judge a player defensively. He has seven errors, good only for a .959 fielding percentage. However, his defensive runs saved and UZR are well above average for a fielder.

Suarez doesn’t make as many flashy plays as Arenado or Machado, but when it comes to the routine plays that Inside Edge categorizes as such, Suarez is right up there with both of them, making plays on over 95% of the “routine” balls and 75% of the “likely” balls.

Remember, many thought the Reds were making a terrible mistake in moving him to third base. As it turns out, Eugenio is among the very best defensive 3Bs in all of baseball. Suarez is proving that it just might be the right position for him after all. And now maybe the question should be whether to move top prospect Nick Senzel from third, instead of Suarez.

All statistics are courtesy of Fangraphs.

26 thoughts on “Eugenio Suarez’s Much Improved Defense

  1. This confirms what most of us “eye test” fans have seen. He’s got great range and a very strong arm. His reflexes look vastly improved.

    I don’t think you move him away from 3B in our organization. SS or 2B don’t seem like they would fit (1B might, but we know who is camped out there). LF is an option, but as I understand it that’s really the only OF spot Winker can play with any effectiveness.

    Senzel appears to be the real deal. So somebody has to move – either position or out of the Reds organization. I keep telling my Yankee fan friends we’ve got your next third baseman coming. I wonder if that might just be the case.

    • I think Winker has enough arm for RF and he’s playing there quite a bit in L’ville. Yeah, I kind of agree that I don’t think Suarez is the one that should have to change positions once/if Senzel becomes ready. Maybe Senzel ends up at 2B? Maybe he ends up in the OF? He is an athletic guy and can probably do it. Maybe Suarez is traded as you suggest. We’ll just have to see. If I’m the Reds, I don’t sweat it too much until Senzel is knocking down the door.

    • Has any thought been put in to how much he would improve if he plays SS? I thought the issues were booting routine ground balls in 2015 and given how drastically he improved from last season would solve a lot of problems. Someone stated Peraza is the better SS, just curious if this is debatable.

      • I suppose it is debatable. I just don’t know if I want to move a guy who has turned himself into a GG candidate as a defender at 3B, back to a place where he had footwork issues and issues with his hands (at SS). Maybe he could turn himself into a plus defender at SS like he did at 3B but I think it would take time.

        • This happened with BP…discussion of moving to SS…I think it worked well at 2b.. don’t fix it if ain’t broken.

      • I still think he’s got more value at 3B. But that’s just me, personally. Plus we seem to have a number of SS candidates in the organization.

    • Suarez looked bad at short, but he also looked bad when he first moved to third. I’m not so sure that he wouldn’t become a good shortstop, and he certainly hits enough for the position.

  2. Has anyone ever been to a game with concert afterwards? Just curious where they put the stage. Thanks

    • Votto has done this before. He was bad in 2009 and then great in 2010. I agree that he can work himself into being a decent fielder. But he has lapses.

  3. I don’t have advanced stats for a Senzel but he has a bunch of errors. Is he even a good defender much less better than Suarez?

    • Senzel’s defense, even in college, was open to question. His bat will find him a position to play. How about getting him some reps and opportunities in CF while he has plenty of time to adjust in the minors. Senzel has the speed to play CF, just no experience. Seems to me I recall a SS in the Reds minor league organization that made a pretty successful transition to CF. Now’s the time to start finding that position for Senzel to play at the major league level.

      • I like the 2b option. Putting a franchise player at 2b with Suarez at third and Votto at first with a strong outfield then allows you some flexibility for a weaker bat with elite defense somewhere else. That gives you some flexibility to focus on GG caliber defense at SS and catcher. Perhaps the A+ shortstop could hit 8th and Stephenson hits 7th in 2020.

        Another thought. If Lorenzen transitioned to a starter and now Hunter Greene….could the Reds in 2021 be the first franchise to have pitchers hitting 6th in the lineup? You effectively become an AL team playing in the NL

        • Right now, the Reds have multiple options for 2B approaching major league readiness: Herrera (AAA), Blandino (AA, pending promottion to AAA & Long (A+, pending promotion to AA). I’m not sure any of those 3 IF can play SS regualarly at the major league level. That leaves Peraza as the near-term option at SS. Hamilton has 2 seasons until he reaches FA and I have no confidence his bat will play any better than it does now. The Reds have no CF in the organization nearing major league rediness.

          Hamilton does have value as an elite defensive CF, but his speed would play even better defensively in a more expansive stadium. I have no idea how much value Hamilton would have in a trade, but I believe he would have some value with 2 seasons of control remaining, elite CF defense and speed on the basepaths. If a good return in trade can be achieved for Hamilton, I would be comfortable with Schebler in CF as a temporary option, allowing Duvall and Winker to play the corner OF positions until the next wave of position players is ready in late 2018 or early 2019.

          • It’s often said that BH’s defense would be more valuable in a large outfield, but all outfields are the same width, and he makes plenty of plays in GABP that nobody else would make. His speed reduces the effective size of the power alleys, and with shorter fences (as in Cincy) he can play a shallow center without much fear of balls coming down uncaught behind him. I wish he hit better (he was, for awhile) but I think we and the Reds’ pitching staff would miss him more than we realize.

    • I can’t find any advanced stats for Senzel, but I know right now he’s much more offensively-minded. Suarez is definitely the better defender. I think most casual fans think that Suarez will naturally be the one to move positions, since Senzel is the top prospect. I don’t think that is a done deal.

  4. Nolan Arenado for Colorado is the best defensive 3rd baseman is baseball.
    Note, When he was in the minors, he was below average at best.
    Now he may be one of the best in history.
    I doubt he ever gets that good, but with work, he can be very good.

  5. Hey, Ashley! Could you point me towards where you found this information?

    “For example, a defensive play made with the bases loaded and one out will carry more weight than a play made with a runner on and two outs”

    It was my understanding that using run values meant context/leverage-neutral run values from the RE24 framework, rather than leverage-specific values from the WPA framework.

    Thanks!

    • I believe I got it from the Fangraphs defensive primer they have on their site. I could have misunderstood it, too? I thought maybe I had understood what they were saying, but I’m also still trying to understand advanced statistics to an extent myself. I just may not have realized there are two different frameworks for run values. If you have any insight into this, I’d love to hear it!

  6. Eugenio has made great defensive progress at the hot corner. Not too many years ago he was considered a good hitter, poor defense similar to EE.

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