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.