Why Padres’ Robert Suarez is spamming fastballs — and why hitters still can’t hit them

SAN DIEGO — Kyle Higashioka spent seven seasons crouching behind home plate for Aroldis Chapman, Gerrit Cole and other pitchers with rare arms and uncommon velocity, but in his first season with the Padres, the veteran catcher has found himself marveling at what feels like a true anomaly.

Robert Suarez, San Diego’s soft-spoken, hard-throwing closer, is spamming high heat like no other pitcher in the majors. His combined fastball usage has jumped almost 30 percentage points from last season. He has gone to his four-seamer, which averages 98.5 mph, just over 80 percent of the time. He has mixed in his sinker (97.9 mph average) on close to 11 percent of his pitches. And in one remarkable eight-game span last month, Suarez reached back for 79 fastballs in a row.

“People don’t even do that in high school,” said Higashioka, who played prep ball against Cole more than a decade before the two Southern California natives became batterymates on the New York Yankees. “It’s pretty crazy.”

It would be even more peculiar if Suarez, 33, were having limited success with such an approach. But the Venezuelan right-hander is neither stubborn nor unimaginative. Suarez owns a 0.52 ERA across 16 appearances. In an otherwise shaky Padres bullpen, he is tied for the major-league lead in games finished (16), saves (12) and saves of more than three outs (three). Opponents are hitting .250 (1-for-4) against his plus changeup and just .093 (4-for-43) against a four-seamer that has warranted the heavy usage.

“It’s got the ride, the characteristics, and he’s pitching at the top of the zone,” said Los Angeles Dodgers manager Dave Roberts. “You know what’s coming, but a lot of the swings, (batters) just can’t catch up to it. I don’t like when he comes into the game.”

Why has a frequently seen fastball been so unhittable?

“I’ve been helped a lot by (Padres pitching coach) Ruben Niebla in using all sorts of analytics towards my pitches, primarily the spin rate,” Suarez said recently through team interpreter Pedro Gutiérrez. “That’s allowed me to execute a little bit more.”

Saturday, hours after Suarez threw 11 four-seamers, two sinkers and nothing else in a perfect inning against the Dodgers, Niebla explained in more detail.

Suarez has acquired a practical understanding of spin efficiency, Niebla said, since San Diego signed him out of Japan’s top professional league after the 2021 season. While there is no proven way to significantly boost raw spin rate without the aid of banned foreign substances, Suarez has increased the active spin — a Statcast metric that measures spin that contributes to movement — on his four-seamer from 93.7 percent in 2022 to 95.9 percent this season. Since the end of 2023, the pitch has gained almost an inch of average vertical movement, the “ride” Roberts mentioned.

“If he starts working inside the ball a little bit too much, his four-seamer starts running and we’re going to lose spin efficiency,” Niebla said. “If it cuts a little bit, we’re going to lose spin efficiency. Right now, he seems to be clicking. Like, metrically, he’s behind the ball and really getting that pure backspin.”

More than 90 percent of Robert Suarez’s pitches this season have been fastballs. (Tim Nwachukwu / Getty Images)

Calibrating Suarez’s delivery has been key. Early in spring training, Niebla noticed that the pitcher was moving well down the mound with his lower half but also that his torso was “a little bit behind.” Suarez struggled in his first few Cactus League appearances, even as he and Niebla worked to address the root cause. It wasn’t until Suarez’s final spring outing in Arizona that Niebla felt the reliever had fully synced up his timing.

“Even when he went to Korea (for the season opener against the Dodgers) … I was still a little bit nervous, and then it was good,” Niebla said Saturday at Petco Park. “Then he came out here. And then you just track — I’m just tracking. But right now, I feel it’s pretty simple where I don’t even have to talk to him. It’s just like, ‘You’re in rhythm.’ I don’t even tell him that he is in rhythm.”

Higashioka played six seasons with Chapman, who still holds the Guinness World Record for fastest major-league pitch, a 105.8 mph ball thrown to Tony Gwynn Jr. at Petco Park in 2010. “He’s pretty high-effort,” Higashioka said. “You could tell he was using every ounce of his strength to get everything behind it.” Suarez, meanwhile, possesses what approaches the textbook definition of “easy gas.”

“Sometimes,” said Padres starting catcher Luis Campusano, “it almost teleports into my glove.”

Those who have spent time around Suarez point out something else.

“He’s got really good command,” Roberts said.

“The first bullpen I caught, I was amazed at the command,” Higashioka said. “It was just, like, almost pinpoint. And for a guy to be throwing 100 with above-average command, I mean, that’s pretty special.”

“There’s a combination of being able to hit 100 but being able to hit 100 when this guy’s putting it to the top of the zone and then goes to the outer half of the zone, and all of a sudden there’s a two-seamer that he can lock you up on,” Niebla said. “It’s like, ‘Oh, s—, was that it or was that the other one?’”

During his run of 79 consecutive fastballs, Suarez threw 74 four-seamers and five sinkers. He allowed no runs, two singles and two walks. (The only run off Suarez this season came March 28 when Michael Conforto struck a changeup for a solo homer.) He recorded only five strikeouts, but he induced consistent weak contact and kept hitters off balance by varying the speed of his delivery.

Sometime around the 40th or 50th fastball in a row, a number of Suarez’s teammates began talking among themselves: Something different was happening.

“I think we were all just kind of monitoring,” Higashioka said. “We noticed that he wasn’t really throwing anything else but he was still dominating. It was pretty cool.”

“I know that fastball usage is high, but it’s been his best weapon. It is his best weapon,” Campusano, Suarez’s primary batterymate, said April 22 before a game at Coors Field. “So, kind of just mixing up the whole times to the plate, it makes it really that much more effective. I feel very confident just using it until someone can prove they’re gonna put a good swing on it.

“You know 100’s coming. You just don’t know where it’s coming.”

A prudent competitor, of course, never reveals too much. Several hours after Campusano spoke, the catcher called for a 1-2 changeup instead of what would have been Suarez’s 80th straight fastball. Sean Bouchard fouled it off. Then, against the next pitch, the Colorado Rockies outfielder doubled.

It was the lone extra-base hit Suarez had surrendered this season with his fastball. Now, three weeks later, it still is. And Suarez has only increased his usage of that pitch. So far in May, he is throwing the four-seamer nearly 90 percent of the time. Hitters this month are 0-for-14 against it.

“It’s like, this is my strength,” said Niebla, who maintains that Suarez continues to work between games on his changeup and cutter/slider, a pitch he has yet to throw in a game this year. “As a reliever, you got to use it.”

Since the pitch-tracking era began in 2008, only a dozen pitchers have thrown a four-seamer, a sinker or a cutter with at least 90 percent of their pitches (minimum 500 total pitches). Mariano Rivera, widely recognized as the greatest closer of all time, leads the way at 98.5 percent; his famous cutter comprised 87.6 percent of his pitches during that span.

Across the past 16 seasons, no one threw a four-seamer or sinker more than 86.7 percent of the time. In 2024, Suarez (68.3 percent over his big-league career) is at 91.3 percent. The only pitcher throwing non-cutter fastballs more often this season is former Padres reliever Tim Hill, and the left-hander’s average four-seamer is 8 mph slower than that of Suarez, who has logged 13 pitches of at least 100 mph.

There may come a time when opponents’ adjustments or other factors prompt Suarez to dial back the extreme fastball reliance. For now, who knows when his next off-speed pitch will come: One of baseball’s more automatic closers entered Sunday having thrown 32 consecutive fastballs.

(Top photo of Robert Suarez: Michael Reaves / Getty Images)

Source link

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top