Sunday Notes: Eugenio Suárez Added Power and Sterling Sharp is a Pitching Ninja

Eugenio Suárez played in the All-Star Game earlier this month, so in some respects he’s not under the radar. But in many ways, he really is. The Cincinnati Reds third baseman is slashing .301/.387/.581, and he leads the National League in both wRC+ and RBIs. Were he playing in a bigger market, those numbers would make him… well, a star. Which he is… in relative anonymity.

Opposing pitchers certainly know who he is, and that’s been especially true this past week. Going into last night, Suárez had homered in five consecutive games, raising his season total to 24. That’s two fewer than last year’s career high, which came in his third season in Cincinnati. Count the Tigers’ former brain trust among those who didn’t see this coming. In December 2014, Detroit traded the then-23-year-old to the Reds for (gulp), Alfredo Simon.

“I don’t think anything has really changed,” Suárez claimed when I asked him about his evolution as a hitter. “I just play baseball like I did before. I’ve always been able to hit, just not for power like last year and this year.”

He attributes the power surge to maturity and hard work in the offseason. Asked to compare his current self to the 17-year-old kid who signed out of Venezuela in 2008, Suárez said the biggest difference is physicality.

“My swing is the same, but I’m not the same guy,” Suárez told me. “I was skinny when I was 17. My body has changed. I feel bigger now, and that gives me a little more power.”

The shortstop-turned-third-sacker waxed philosophic, if not poetic, when explaining that he doesn’t go up to the plate looking to bash balls over fences.

“When you’re hitting homers, when you’re hitting for power, you have to touch the ball,” mused Suárez. “You hit a ball, and the ball goes wherever the ball is going. I don’t really think that if I hit a ball in the air, every time it’s going to be a homer. I just try to put a good swing on it. The homers come and go.”

Right now they’re coming in bunches. Anonymity be damned.

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Sterling Sharp is making a name for himself in the Washington Nationals system, and his sinker is a big reason why. It’s a plus pitch, and how he learned it is a tale of our times. The 23-year-old Detroit-area product found his grip on the internet.

“I saw a video of Blake Treinen,” explained Sharp, who has a 3.50 ERA in 20 starts between high-A Potomac and Double-A Harrisburg. “It was him showing the grip of his sinker. I went out and threw with his grip — this was in spring training of last year — and the ball was moving how it’s supposed to move. I’ve been working on perfecting it, and now it’s my M.O. If I throw 50 fastballs in a game, probably 45 of them are sinkers.”

Treinen’s isn’t the only grip he explored. Experimenting with finger placement on the ball, he also tried out the ones utilized by, among others, Zach Britton, Corey Kluber, Marcus Stroman, and Lance McCullers. While sinker grips are similar, they not the same.

“Britton and Treinen are both along the one seam, but not in exactly the same way,” observed Sharp. “Britton is on the solid one seam, while Treinen kind of splits the two seams, like the railroad tracks, and rotates it counterclockwise so that he’s along the one seam.“

He borrowed from McCullers, as well. Not so much in terms of grip, but rather in approach. That came via conversation, and not of the old-fashioned face-to-face variety. It came via social media.

“That actually happened through Twitter, through Pitching Ninja, the famous account that shows pitching grips,” said Sharp. “I’m always on Pitching Ninja, or looking at Youtube videos of guys.”

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Dylan Cease was nearly un-hittable on Wednesday. Pitching for Double-A Birmingham, the 22-year-old Chicago White Sox prospect threw seven scoreless frames, allowing just one single, and one free pass, while fanning a dozen. He’s been stellar all season. In 18 starts between two levels, he has a 2.87 ERA and 124 strikeouts in 100-and-a-third innings. If won-loss records float your boat, he’s a crisp-and-tidy 11-2.

Cease credits improved command of his off-speed pitches for much of his success, and there was a Zen-like quality to his recent explanation to why that is.

“It’s body awareness and putting your hand and arm in the right spot to execute consistently,” Cease said on the eve of the Futures game. “It’s a feel thing. It’s almost like my body has an intelligence to it, where it knows what it needs me to do to. I’m just here to make adjustments within the game, while letting my body do all the work.”

A new grip has also played a role. The one-time Cubs prospect — the South Siders acquired Cease in last summer’s Jose Quintana swap — now spikes his curveball.

“I was talking to guys who have good curveballs, and they all seem to throw theirs that way,” explained Cease. “Brandon Bielak, who’s with the Astros, told me that he’d been throwing 76-mph curveballs, then he switched to a spike and now he’s 82-83. That’s what really convinced me. Then I talked to guys like Dane Dunning, and other guys who throw one, and they helped me out with it. I’m getting more depth now. I’m not sure about the spin, but TrackMan shows that the depth has been better since I went to the spiked grip.”

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Trevor Williams has been on a good run for the Pirates. Over this last three starts, the 26-year-old righty has thrown 17 scoreless innings, lowering his ERA to 3.99 and raising his record to 9-7. For a player who was once traded for a pitching instructor, that’s petty good work.

When I asked Williams about the secret to his success, he gave a profound answer while denying profundity.

“It’s basically just knowing what works and what doesn’t work,” related Williams. “If it doesn’t work, scrap it and go with what does. Nothing profound. If a guy can’t hit a curveball, why throw him anything but a curveball? At the same time, it has to start with yourself. If my curveball sucks, even if he can’t hit a curveball, he’s going to hit a curveball that sucks. You balance the two.”

As for his current status as a productive member of the Pittsburgh rotation, let’s just say he’s not taking anything for granted.

“There’s no league above the major leagues, and while it’s hard to get to the big leagues, it’s harder stay,” the Arizona State product told me. “And I’ve seen that. As soon as you let up on the gas a little bit, you get your ass kicked. The highs are high and the lows are low, and if you stay in those lows for too long, you end up out of the big leagues.

“This is my livelihood, and if you’re not good at your job, they’re going to find somebody who is. That’s the case whether you’re in baseball or in business. If my financial advisor doesn’t make me a lot of money, I’m going to find somebody who can make me a lot of money. You have to perform to keep your job, especially in the major leagues.”

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RANDOM HITTER-PITCHER MATCHUPS

Chipper Jones went 13 for 36 against Randy Johnson

Vladimir Guerrero went 18 for 40 against Kevin Brown.

Jim Thome went 22 for 59 against Roger Clemens.

Alan Trammell went 24 for 66 against Roger Clemens.

Carlton Fisk went 9 for 64 against Jack Morris.

Gary Sheffield went 3 for 20 against Trevor Hoffman.

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The batting title doesn’t mean nearly as much as it used to, but there is still a certain amount of cachet attached to — cue up the old-school vernacular — “leading the league in hitting,” The record books are the record books, and who wouldn’t want his name listed alongside the likes of Rod Carew, Tony Gwynn, and Wade Boggs? Batting average may be passé, but historically speaking, it’s still a thing.

Perusing the leader board in the sports section of yesterday’s print edition of The Boston Globe (yes, I still read actual newspapers), it caught my attention that the top six in the National League were bunched between .314 and .318. Once upon a time, that would have qualified as a hotly-contested batting race and attracted a fair amount of attention. Those days are gone, of course.

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NEWSY STUFF

Tony Cloninger, who pitched for the Braves, Reds, and Cardinals from 1961-1972, died earlier this week at age 77. Best known for hitting two grand slams in a complete-game win against the Mets in 1966, Cloninger had a career record of 113-97. He later served as a pitching coach.

The 2018 Women’s Baseball World Cup will be held at the USSSA Space Coast Complex in Viera, Florida from August 22-31. The roster for the US team was announced this week.

The Myrtle Beach Pelicans, the high-A affiliate of the Chicago Cubs, have announced that their August 19 game will be Deaf Awareness Night. The players will wear custom American Sign Language (ASL) jerseys, and former big-league outfielder Curtis Pride, who is deaf, will be among those in attendance.

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The Oakland A’s announced on Tuesday that Kendall Graveman will be undergoing Tommy John surgery. That’s bad news for the AL West overachievers, despite the righty’s lack of contributions. On the shelf since late May, Graveman began the season 1-5, with a 7.60 ERA in seven starts, and was in Triple-A working out the kinks when his elbow started barking.

On the day of his demotion, Oakland pitching coach Scott Emerson shared with me the fact that Graveman had been making strides in certain areas. One was an increased the spin rate on his curveball.

“He’s been throwing it more, and he’s throwing it harder,” said Emerson. “Once you get a feel for the pitch, you can let it rip a little bit more. That’s what he’s been doing — he’s throwing it harder, which has increased the spin rate. One of the networks called it a slider, at 2,700, but it’s a curveball at 2,700 (rpm), which is up about 300 from last year. It’s not a slider. It’s got more top-to-bottom action.”

A mechanical change had been in the works. Graveman had stopped going over his head in his delivery, and was instead doing more of a step and turn.

“That keeps him on line a little better,” explained Emerson .”When he was going over his head his timing was a little off. He was leaking a little bit more, and his arm was late, so he was creating more run than sink. When you’re going side-to-side, it’s harder to work up and down.”

Unfortunately for Graveman, his arm gave out before he could right the ship and pitch his way back into the Oakland rotation.

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Broadcasters see a lot of baseball, and for much that reason they’re good judges of talent. With that in mind, I asked Terry Byrom, the radio play-by-play voice of the Harrisburg Senators, who has stood out for him this year in the Eastern League. After citing a few high-profile names — Vladimir Guerrero, Jr., Juan Soto, and Peter Alonso — he moved on to a Blue Jays prospect who gets far less hype.

“Another guy for New Hampshire is Cavan Biggio,” Byrom told me. “He leads the league in home runs, but he’s still a little under the radar because of Bo Bichette and Guerrero Jr.. I think another reason he doesn’t get the ink is because he’s 23 and those other guys are 19 and 20. But he has good power, a good swing, and good lineage.”

The power is what stood out most for the veteran broadcaster.

“Right field in New Hampshire is short, but Biggio had a big series in our ballpark, which is not small, especially for a left-handed batter,” Byrom explained. Where he hit the home runs at our place, it’s a 16-foot fence between about 375 and 405 into right-center field. It was good power. Really good power. It was three home runs in four games of in-game power.”

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NON-MLB NOTABLES

Brandon Phillips, whom the Red Sox signed on June 27, has played 13 games between short-season Lowell and Triple-A Pawtucket and 12 hits in 51 at bats. The 37-year-old infielder returned to action on Friday after missing a week due to a pectoral strain.

Zac Houston, a 23-year-old right-hander in the Detroit Tigers system, has 63 strikeouts, and has allowed just 20 hits, in 38-and-two-thirds innings between Double-A Erie and Triple-A Toledo. Last season he fanned 91 and allowed 27 hits in 58 innings between low-A West Michigan and high-A Lakeland.

Eloy Jimenez, a 21-year-old outfielder in the Chicago White Sox system, is 22 for his last 51 at Triple-A Charlotte. The AL team’s top position-player prospect has slashed .367/.412/.656 since being promoted from Double-A in mid June.

On Thursday, Tampa Bay Rays prospect Brendan McKay threw three scoreless innings for high-A Charlotte. On Friday, McKay homered twice as the Stone Crabs’ designated hitter.

Kansas City Royals outfield prospect Seuly Matias continues to have more home runs (30) than singles (25). As rare as that is, it’s not unprecedented. In 2006, Mike Hessman had 24 home runs and 22 singles for the Triple-A Toledo Mud Hens.

Mike Bolsinger has a record of 12-1 and a 2.07 ERA for the Chiba Lotte Marines. He leads NPB pitchers in wins.

Shun Yamaguchi, a 31-year-old right-hander for the Yomiuri Giants, threw a no-hitter against the Chunichi Dragons on Friday. It was the 90th single-pitcher no-hitter in NPB history, and the first since 2014.

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It is often said that hitting is all about timing, and pitching is all about disrupting timing. With that in mind, I asked Logan Morrison which pitchers stand out in that regard, particularly in terms of funky deliveries, and/or varied deliveries. Not surprisingly, LoMo’s answer was entertaining.

Chris Sale is one, and he doesn’t have to do any trick to do it,” the Twins slugger said of the pitcher he’d be facing in a few hours. “He’s got good separation on his fastball and his slider. But as far as the timing stuff with (deliveries), a bunch of guys do it. Pedro Strop comes to mind. He’s got like six different… I don’t think he does one thing the same. And Oliver Perez. He’ll turn his back. He’ll slide step. He’ll quick pitch. He skit pitches. By skit I mean like a comedy sketch. It’s like he’s not serious out there. He’s carnival throwing.”

———

Kyle Gibson is having a good season — his ERA is a crisp 3.42 — and the Twins righty is doing good things off the field as well. Along with three of his teammates, he’s helping to build a school in Haiti.

“We partnered with a group called Help One Now,” explained Gibson. “Brian Dozier’s wife and my wife went down there in 2015, and we’ve worked with them since then. It started with, ‘Hey, what can we do to have an impact?’ One of the things is building the school. (Dozier) and I talked to Zach Duke and LoMo and decided to donate money for each homer we hit, or strikeout we get. We’re also getting fans involved. Big League Impact, Adam Wainwright’s charity in St. Louis, has really helped us out with getting our pledging campaign going. Fans can come in and donate for a Twins win, a Kyle Gibson or Zach Duke strikeout, or a Dozier or LoMo homer. We’re partnering together to build a school in Haiti for kids who really don’t have a place to go to school after seventh grade.”

Gibson and his wife have gone on missions to the Dominican Republic multiple times, as well as to Haiti. Improving access to clean water and education are their primary initiatives, and getting involved with the school project is something he felt was a no-brainer.

“Every year, 700-800 kids are going to have a chance to go through high school,” said Gibson. “That’s going to be life changing for them. One of the best ways to empower people is to give them an education, and it may be the first time of member of these families has gone to high school. I think we can help improve a lot of lives this way.”

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LINKS YOU’LL LIKE

Kirk Gibson has some crazy Alan Trammell and Jack Morris stories, and he shared some of them with Anthony Fenech at The Detroit Free Press.

Also at The Detroit Free Press, George Sipple wrote about how Alan Trammell is hopeful that Lou Whitaker will one day join him the Hall of Fame.

Dan Epstein gave the keynote address at the Shrine of the Eternals, and the transcript can be found here at The Baseball Reliquary.

Billy Butler is dominating his local softball league in Idaho, and Rustin Dodd wrote about it at The Athletic.

In the opinion of Sports Net Canada’s Shi Davidi, the Blue Jays’ next challenge is to build around Vladimir Guerrero, Jr.

RANDOM FACTS AND STATS

Since the beginning of last season, Anthony Rizzo has come to the plate 1,111 times and has reached base via a HBP 38 times. Eric Hosmer has come to the plate 1,112 times and hasn’t reached base via a HBP.

As of yesterday, 21 teams had combined to to use 44 position players as pitchers this season. The previous record for position players on the mound in a full season had been 32. (Per Jayson Stark.)

On Thursday, 19-year-old Washington Nationals outfielder Juan Soto became the first teenager to be intentionally walked twice in a game since Robin Yount in 1975.

On this date in 1928, the Cleveland Indians scored eight runs in the first inning and nine more in the second on their way to a 24-6 win over the visiting New York Yankees. Johnny Hodapp and Luke Sewell had five hits each for the winners, while Babe Ruth went 4 for 4 for the losing side.

On this date in 1993, Ken Griffey Jr. failed to homer for the first time in nine games. Dale Long (1956) and Don Mattingly (1987) are the only other players with as many as eight straight home run games.

Bartolo Colon and CC Sabathia lead all active pitchers in complete games with 38 apiece. They rank 997th on the all-time list for most complete games.

Jim Kaat started 625 games, which ranks him 17th on the all-time list. He also made 273 relief appearances.

From 1944-1946, Detroit Tigers southpaw Hal Newhouser went 80-27 with a 1.99 ERA. Over that three-year stretch he had 83 compete games, 20 shutouts… and five saves.

Going into Wednesday — the Giants have since gone winless — Bruce Bochy’s record as a big-league manager was 1,905-1,905.

Going into last night, the Red Sox and Twins had played each other 622 times and had a head-to-head record of 311-311.

We hoped you liked reading Sunday Notes: Eugenio Suárez Added Power and Sterling Sharp is a Pitching Ninja by David Laurila!

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David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from February 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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Newsflash: Unnamed 19-year-old Washington Nationals outfielder becomes first teenager to be intentionally walked twice in a game since Robin Yount