What’s the ceiling for Ranger Suarez?
It was the tightest moment in the Phillies’ season up to that point – the tightest moment, in fact, in over a decade.
Twenty minutes earlier, Bryce Harper had done the unthinkable, homering in the bottom of the eighth inning of game five of the NLCS to send a rain soaked Citizens Bank Park into a state of bedlam and potentially the Phillies to the World Series. All they needed was three more outs against the shell-shocked Padres.
Only, David Robertson couldn’t find the plate in the ninth, issuing back-to-back walks to put the go-ahead run on base. No one wanted to go back to San Diego for game six. No one wanted to turn momentum over to the Padres. No one wanted to waste the biggest swing of Bryce Harper’s remarkable career. But with Rob Thomson’s two biggest arms in the bullpen — Seranthony Dominguez and Jose Alvardo — having already pitched an inning each, the manager had few options.
One unconventional option he did have, however, was Ranger Suárez, the reliever-turned-starter who had earned the win in game three of the series and was now being asked to not only relieve again, but save his first game of the year on the biggest stage of his life.
No big deal, right?
Apparently not for Suárez, who teammates describe as having ice in his veins.
“I just think no moment’s too big for him,” J.T. Realmuto told reporters after Suárez had a similarly gutsy performance in game one of the World Series. “Every time he gets the ball he’s just pitching. He’s playing baseball, he’s having fun. It doesn’t matter what role he’s in. He’s been successful for us wherever we’ve thrown him. He’s a guy that when he’s coming into the game the whole team has confidence that that moment’s not going to be too big for him.”
We all know how it turned out. Needing two outs, he got the first on one pitch, a fastball over the plate that Trent Grisham, seemingly unaware that Suárez is one of the best fielding pitchers in the sport today, attempted to bunt for a base hit. Suárez quickly pounced on the ball, picked it cleanly, and spun and fired a strike to first base in one smooth motion. His next pitch was a nasty curve. Austin Nola got caught out in front of it, and popped it lazily to right field. Two pitches. Two outs. Onto the World Series.
Ranger Suarez NLCS
No big deal, indeed.
That Suárez was trusted in that situation is a testament to how important he has become to this Phillies team. Over the last two seasons, the 27 year old native of Pies de Cuesta, Venezuela, has established himself at one point or another as a dependable long inning guy, the bullpen’s most effective closer, and a starter worthy of the title “third ace” given to him by Sports Illustrated’s Ben Silver. He also happens to play such good defense that he was named the 2022 Fielding Bible Award winner (he likely would have won the Gold Glove award too, had he not fallen eleven innings short of the threshold to qualify).
It’s been a remarkable ascent for a pitcher who was signed as a 16 year old for a measly $25,000 bonus. His career stumbled before it ever really got started, when, just three games in, he was suspended for taking Stanozolol, a synthetic steroid derived from testosterone. It wasn’t until his third season in the Venezuelan Summer League that he would show signs of what he could become, going 5 – 4 with a 1.56 ERA, 0.843 WHIP, a league leading 78 strikeouts, and, astonishingly, just one walk in 80⅔ innings pitched. One! In nine complete games’ worth of innings.
For perspective, the average major league pitcher gives up nearly three walks every nine innings. This was an eighteen year old kid with such pinpoint control that he only gave up one walk in 14 games.
Let’s put those numbers in even more perspective. Aaron Nola led all of baseball last year with 7.7 strikeouts for every walk he allowed. In 2014, Ranger Suárez had a 78:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio. That is simply unheard of at any level.
Suárez’s stock climbed from there as he progressed through the Phillies’ farm system. In 2016 he tossed a complete game no-hitter for the Class A Crosscutters. In 2017 he was named the Phillies’ Minor League Pitcher of the Month in April. From 2015 – 2017, he never finished a season with an ERA above 2.81.
Even so, heading into the 2018 season, he continued to fly under the radar. His stocky frame and somewhat cherubic face didn’t exactly foreshadow greatness. Most scouts had him rated behind blue chip pitching prospects within the franchise such as Sixto Sanchez, Adonis Medina, and Seranthony Dominguez. In a day and age that glorifies big, powerful arms with 100 mph heaters, it became hard for Suárez, whose fastball sits at 93.2 MPH, to stand out.
When the Phillies needed a spot starter for a four-game series in Cincinnati in July of 2018, however, Suárez was called up to make his major league debut. “He’s shown the ability to get swings and misses in and out of the strike zone,” then manager Gabe Kapler said at the time. “Got a good sinker. Incredible demeanor, we saw it in Spring Training. He’s got — there’s some courage there. I don’t think situations get too big for him.”
Though he would win his debut, he would bounce back and forth between Triple A and the majors for the next two seasons, and he would miss most of the pandemic-shortened 2020 season after catching Covid just as the team was heading north.
Finally, Suárez broke out in 2021, when he produced yet more eye popping numbers. An ERA of 1.36. A WHIP of 1.000. Just 0.3 home runs allowed per nine innings, which would have led the league if he had enough innings to qualify. That year he ranked among the top two percent of the league in barrel percentage, the top three percent in expected slugging percentage, and the top seven percent in hard hit percentage. He was, in a word, unhittable.
Unfortunately, he then got off to a slow start in 2022, when it was clear right away that something was off. Maybe it was the visa issues that delayed his appearance at Spring Training. Maybe his arm was tired from having pitched a career high 106 innings the year before. Maybe it was the ill effects of back troubles that would eventually land him on the DL at the end of June. Or maybe it was just a regression to the mean for where Suárez’s numbers should ultimately be.
Whatever the reason, when he came back from the DL after the All Star break, he was a different pitcher. Rather, he was the same pitcher he had been in 2021. He surrendered zero earned runs in 16 innings during the month of July. His ERA dropped from 4.74 in late May to 3.42 by the end of August. If not for a six-run start on the day after the Phils clinched a playoff spot, when he and the rest of the team looked, uh, drained from the celebration the night before, his final ERA would’ve been 3.37 instead of 3.65.
Lifetime, he now sits at 25-15 with an ERA of 3.12, with 8.2 Wins Above Replacement.
It’s not just the numbers he puts up, but the way he goes about his business that has Phillies fans truly fawning (phawning?). To say that he is calm, cool and collected is an understatement. He pitches with the confidence of a man who knows he is supremely talented and is eager to pit his best against anyone else’s—a level of confidence not seen around this town since the days of one Clifton Phifer Lee. (In fact, Suárez would have his very own Cliff Lee moment in game three of the World Series.)
“Yeah, you don’t see those guys too often,” his manager, Rob Thomson, said of Suárez’s performance in the playoffs. “He just, it’s like he’s playing in his backyard. He’s playing wiffle ball. And he’s just having fun out there. The situation, the role, doesn’t matter to him, he’s just going to go out and do his thing and pitch.”
Suárez doesn’t overpower hitters, like most of the top pitchers in today’s game do, although he’s been known to hit 96 on the radar gun when he needs to. He thrives by keeping batters off balance, with the ability to locate any of his six pitches—a sinker, cutter, four seam fastball, change up, curve, and slider—on the edge of the zone.
His sinker is particularly effective. Used on 40% of his pitches, it is delivered from the same spot and at about the same speed as his fastball (92.5 MPH, topping out at 95.4 MPH), except that it moves 16 inches away from right handed batters and drops 25 inches towards the plate, inducing a lot of weak contact and ground balls. In 2022, opponent’s batting average on his sinker was just .220, with a .314 slugging percentage and put away rate of 20.5%.
Now, after three partial and two full seasons in the majors, it’s time to wonder just how great Ranger Suárez could be. His lifetime ERA places him above perennial All Stars such as Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg. Heck, it places him above 34 of the 88 pitchers in the Hall of Fame, including Phillie greats Steve Carlton, Jim Bunning and Roy Halladay.
No one is predicting that Suárez will be a Hall of Famer at the end of his career. His 2023 is already off to a slow start, thanks to a forearm injury that made the Phillies recall him from the World Baseball Classic. But then again, the whole time he was coming up through the minor leagues, no one would’ve predicted that some day he’d be asked to get the final outs in a tight spot to send the Phillies to the World Series.
If Suárez can consistently pitch like he did in 2021 and the second half of 2022? Who knows where his ceiling is.