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Andrew Suárez shows a lot of promise

Did you see this performance coming?

San Francisco Giants v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

STAT LINE 7-13, 140 IP, 4.49 ERA / 4.30 FIP, 130 K, 45 BB, 23 HR, 1.0 fWAR

My subconscious probably had a lot to do with why I saved Andrew Suarez’s season recap for last. For some reason, he wound up being my favorite player of 2018. You don’t care about that. You have your own favorite(s), and chances are, the rookie lefty wasn’t yours.

Dereck Rodríguez got all the acclaim, and rightfully so, but in a lot of ways, his easy season feels more deceptive — Suarez’s struggles feel more real and, therefore, more suggestive of what’s to come. I saw a good young pitcher figuring things out, and I think once he does, the Giants will have their very own version of Dallas Keuchel. Can I make that case?

Keuchel made his debut at 24 years old, Suarez at 25. Keuchel had 16 starts and 85.1 innings pitched in that debut season. Let’s shamelessly jump to his first full season and compare his age-25 year to Suarez’s:

A few things to note here:

  • I set this search at a minimum of 150 innings pitched. In 2018, there were 78 qualifiers. In 2013 (Keuchel’s age-25 season), there were 96 qualifiers. So, going off of K/9, although their marks are very similar, Keuchel’s was 39th percentile whereas Suarez was 22nd percentile. The league average K/9 for starting pitchers in 2018 was 8.32 and just 7.19 in 2013.
  • SIERA is FanGraphs’ Skill-Interactive ERA which attempts to take into account all balls in play. It’s different from FIP and xFIP in that it attempts to build in ground ball and fly ball rates to get a more predictive forecast for a pitcher’s actual ability. An “average” SIERA is 3.90. 3.91-4.20 is “below average”, 3.75-3.90 is “above average”, and 3.25-3.75 is “great”.
  • I didn’t list their fWARs together. Keuchel’s 1.1 was 87th out of 98, Suarez’s 1.0 was 69th out of 78th. Just wanted to note that.

Suarez’s K/9 (he had 130 in his 160.1 IP) was 56th-best in MLB, just behind Jon Lester’s 7.38 and ahead of the BrewersChase Anderson and Jhoulys Chacin, Tanner Roark and Kyle Hendricks, and 12 spots ahead of Keuchel himself (6.73). But this was Keuchel’s age-30 season and a walk year. His K/9 peaked at 8.4 in his age-27 season, when he won the AL Cy Young Award.

Why do I keep bringing up K/9? Because strikeouts are the coin of the realm and the best sign of a pitcher’s success going forward. That Suarez was able to match Keuchel’s in his first full season is a promising sign. Does that mean I think he’ll wind up the NL Cy Young two years from now? I don’t know! Probably not! But... still... maybe?

The key will be keeping his walk rate down and limiting hard contact. His 2018 batting average on balls in play (.302) was average in terms of luck, but also 10 points higher than the NL average (.292). His four pitches (fastball, changeup, curveball, slider) are all thrown with a much higher average velocity than any of Keuchel’s five pitches (those plus a cutter) — when you’re working with lower velocity, it’s all about command, control, and movement. When you’re working with average to above average velocity, command and control are just as important, but you get a slightly greater margin for error. It’s in that space where I think Suarez can find the room to continue his steady improvement.

So, yeah, I’m bullish on Suarez in 2019 and beyond. I think he showed a lot of guts all year long, constantly adjusting when teams adjusted to him, figuring out how to get batters out when he didn’t have his fastball — and he seemed to lose his fastball command at least one inning per game — and basically Matt Duffying it out there in terms of effort. For a team that had seen a dearth of quality arms come out of the farm system for a long time, his emergence alongside Dereck Rodriguez this past season were positive takeaways.

Role on the 2018 team

The Giants needed warm bodies to eat innings after Madison Bumgarner and Jeff Samardzija went down at the end of Spring Training, and later when Johnny Cueto’s elbow finally died and Chris Stratton’s April turned to May, and Andrew Suarez proved himself to be more than up to the task.

He and Derek Holland were the only two pitchers to throw more than 150 innings for the team, his 11 quality starts (out of 29 total) were tied with Holland (who started 30), and three shy of Madison Bumgarner’s 14 (in 21 starts). He led the starting rotation in walk rate (6.8%) and was third in K rate (19.6%) behind Bumgarner (19.8%) and Holland (23.3%).

This was his first season at the Major League level, and he never really showed that he didn’t belong. Maybe it was the team finally being too bad that did him and Bumgarner in towards the end or maybe it was the workload — not the innings, as he had pitched 155.2 in 2017 and 143 in 2016, but the quality of at bat pitch-to-pitch — that finally got to him, but it was really only towards the end where he looked bad (34 earned runs in 11 starts across 59.2 innings from August-September with 10 home runs allowed), but not to the point where you think he doesn’t have it in him to turn things around and make some more adjustments.

Role on the 2019 team

Suarez is the perfect back-end of the rotation piece a team like the Giants desperately needs: young, cost-controlled, and at least league average going forward (at least, that’s what I predict, anyway). He won’t be arbitration eligible until 2021, and at worst, he could be included in a trade (with Belt?) to help net the Giants a big return. I’m hoping he stays with the team, though, and becomes the quiet assassin we all forget about for a little bit while Madison Bumgarner, Dereck Rodriguez, and, I don’t know, Trevor Cahill soak up all the attention in the starting rotation. And then, when the Giants are still hanging around in late July or August, he’ll be there giving them quality start after quality start.

Final Grade: B

A second-round draft pick doesn’t have the same expectations as a first-rounder does, but as the guy selected after Phil Bickford and Chris Shaw, his steady, quiet ascent was a joy to behold and he availed himself of the opportunity quiet nicely. The Giants got more out of him than probably even they expected, and he showed enough for the organization and the fans to get a little greedy about what they’d like to see from him in his sophomore year.