The plate umpire met Ranger Suárez last week by the third-base line, stopping the pitcher before he reached the dugout.
He had to inspect Suárez for foreign substances as MLB tasked umpires this season with checking each pitcher to see if they’re using “sticky stuff” to doctor the baseball. But this check would be brief.
Pitchers have manipulated the baseball with pine tar, Spider Tack, Vaseline, sunscreen, and other ointments to spike the spin rate on their pitches and increase the speed of their fastballs.
But Suárez? Less spin the better. So the umpire glanced at his glove and didn’t even ask him to remove his cap. Nothing to see here. The inspection was finished in seconds. Suárez laughed and walked to the Phillies’ dugout.
Suárez, a left-handed starter in the minors, has found success this season in the bullpen in an unconventional way. His fastball in the low-90s, he has one of the lowest spin rates in baseball and relies more on ground balls than strikeouts.
In a summer that features baseball confronting rising spin rates and trying to tackle its latest cheating scandal, Suárez is closing games in what pitching coach Caleb Cotham said is an “old-school way.”
“I would say how he is doing it is probably not the blueprint in the game today,” Cotham said. “But at the end of the day, he throws it where he wants. He can be unpredictable. He can throw any pitch in any count, and that’s a recipe to get hitters out. The ball doesn’t lie. The hitter doesn’t lie, and the hitters don’t like facing him. He’s doing it differently than a lot of guys.”
Suárez has allowed just five earned runs this season in 26 relief appearances and has converted three of his first four save chances after elevating this month to the closer’s role. The average spin rate on his fastball (1,875 rpm) is the 14th lowest among all pitchers. Only one other pitcher has a save this season and a lower spin rate than Suárez.
His primary fastball is a two-seam sinker, not a pitch that relies heavily on spin. Yet Suárez’s sinker spins 13.5% less than the average sinker. And it works. His ground ball rate (63.8%) is the seventh highest among all relievers. Suárez is not a typical closer, but he’s finding success in an unconventional way.
“I just think there’s so many different ways that you can have success in this game,” Phillies manager Joe Girardi said. “I think sometimes when people see something work, you kind of want to cookie-cutter it and follow it. Sinkerballs usually aren’t going to have high spin rates because they do it differently. And I think there’s a lot of ways to have success. You don’t have to be one of those elite velocity guys to be successful. There’s still a lot of ways to get people out.”
Suárez learned the sinker from former big-leaguer Lester Straker shortly after signing with the Phillies in 2012 as a 17-year-old Venezuelan. Straker, a Venezuelan who won a World Series with the Twins in 1987, was then a pitching coach at the Phils’ academy in Venezuela.
Suárez didn’t throw hard and said his four-seam fastball moved as straight as a pitch from a pitching machine. Let alone the majors, Suárez said he didn’t think he had enough to survive the minors.
“I needed something. So I talked to Lester,” Suárez said. “Lester said ‘Yeah. Start throwing a two-seamer, a sinker type of pitch. That will help you induce ground balls.’ ”
Of Suárez’s sinkers this season that have been put in play, 73% have been grounders. He throws the sinker for nearly half his pitches, and batters are hitting just .115 against it.
Suárez pounds his sinker low and inside to left-handed batters and low and away from right-handers. But he also can throw the pitch at the top of the zone when needed. It’s his command, not his spin rate, that sets his sinker apart.
“I feel like it moves enough to get the job done,” Suárez said. “Any time I need a grounder, I feel like I can count on my sinker. When I see it, it moves. Maybe it doesn’t move as much as other pitchers’, but it moves enough for me.”
Suárez had been a starting pitcher ever since reaching Class A ball, but he moved two years ago to the bullpen. He pitched well in 2019 (a 3.14 ERA in 37 appearances), but he wasn’t being dropped in the type of situations he’s facing this season.
Earlier this month, Girardi asked him to record the final seven outs of a 5-4 win. Last week, he inherited the potential winning run on third base with one out in the ninth inning at Yankee Stadium before extending the game to extra innings. Sunday, he came in to get the final out of a crucial one-run game.
Suárez has thrown 63% of his pitches for strikes and walked just 13 batters in 39⅓ innings. He’s not afraid of tough situations, and he throws strikes. Suárez might not pitch like a conventional closer, but he has the makeup to pitch in the ninth. And that has proven to be worth more than spin rate.
“He personifies that guy that nothing rattles him,” Cotham said. “Nothing. His heartbeat is incredibly low. No moment is bigger than him. That’s what you want out of your closer, to be able to get those outs because they are just three outs. We can make them as tough as we want or just as easy as any other out. His demeanor, his mindset is suited for that role.”