How the Phillies’ Ranger Suárez has improved his command to dominate this season

Philadelphia Phillies

There are times when Ranger Suárez gets angry on the mound. The Phillies starter, who is known for his stoicism, never shows it — but he feels it.

It happened in Miami on Friday night. In the sixth inning, the Marlins’ Bryan De La Cruz walked up to the plate. There were two outs and no runners on. Suárez threw only one pitch in the strike zone — a curveball — and four pitches outside. They were not close misses.

As De La Cruz jogged to first base, Suárez tried to calm himself down. He tried to focus on the next hitter. But that didn’t make his previous at-bat any less frustrating.

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“I don’t like to allow walks,” he said. “When I allow a walk it makes me angry. I don’t like walks.”

Suárez talks about walks like a student talks about detention. It is an inconvenience, a waste of time, and above all, a waste of pitches. He prides himself on giving his team seven or eight innings. Walks make that harder.

“I know it’s part of the game,” he said, “but it makes me mad, because I need to pitch.”

It’s hard to blame him, but there is an irony to Suárez belaboring this point. He has walked only eight batters through 54 innings this season. That amounts to a 4.1% walk rate, which ranks among the lowest among qualified pitchers in MLB. Suárez’s strikeout-to-walk rate — 24% — ranks 10th highest in that same category.

This didn’t happen by accident. Suárez looked at his walk totals in 2022 and 2023 and felt they were way too high. So, he spent this offseason working toward a specific goal: Staying in the zone and improving command of his secondary pitches. He said it was the focus of every bullpen he threw at his home in Carora, a city in the northwestern region of Venezuela.

He paid special attention to his curveball and changeup. Suárez began throwing his curveball in 2022 and wanted a better feel for it. He worked on all of his pitches, but he worked on his curveball the most. He made sure his timing was right, that he was getting over his front side, and that he was getting more direct with his arm action.

In 2022 and 2023, he had less of an idea where the curveball was going when he released it. That isn’t the case anymore, and hitters have had to account for that improvement.

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“I’ve always thrown the curveball in the dirt,” Suárez said. “It had a big effect on the batters, because they knew it wouldn’t be a strike. Now, I’m in the strike zone. If I want to throw it in the dirt, I’m able to do that, but if I want to throw it for a strike, I can do that, too.

“Last year, I would throw it down and wouldn’t know if it would be a strike or not. I have more confidence in it now.”

The changeup was another pitch he had trouble locating in previous years. He’d miss too low and hitters wouldn’t swing. Now, they’re swinging because Suárez is locating his changeup either in the zone or just below it. Hitters are chasing it a rate of 44.8%, compared to 31% in 2023.

Pitching coach Caleb Cotham said Suárez made a change to the grip that he uses on that pitch.

“It was a big focus,” Cotham said. “We started doing some stuff end of last year, because it wasn’t dropping how it probably should. It was a more run-dominant changeup; it didn’t have a ton of sink. So, we started playing around with grips, and finger pressure, and it’s been a really good pitch this year.

“We focused on it big time in spring training. We’re still focusing on it. But he’s gotten more drop, he’s killed spin on it. It’s getting more chase. Getting swings on it, strike rate is high. That’s been a thing for him in the past — the strike rate being low — but they’re chasing it now because it’s dropping from more middle of the plate, and getting it into good spots.”

Suárez said his overall command — his ability to put pitches in precise locations — and control — his ability to stay in the zone — has improved because of the work he’s done on those two pitches. The numbers back that up.

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Suárez isn’t just allowing fewer walks; he’s also hitting the corners at an above-average rate (44.8%). He has never been a big strikeout pitcher, but his strikeout rate now ranks in the 80th percentile in MLB (28.1%) and his chase rate ranks in the 83rd percentile (32.7%).

Cotham has preached the benefits of thinking middle-middle, and letting his pitchers’ stuff do the rest. He calls it “command mode” vs. “strike mode,” and Suárez has proven to be elite at both. When he is in a favorable count, he can take some risks — like hitting a corner. When he’s behind in the count, he stays more in the zone.

Luckily for Suárez, he is usually ahead in the count.

“It could be 0-1,” Cotham said. “Now, I can double up my sinker, and go more in. Or I can go more in with the cutter, or I can change pitches. So, it’s just using the count. It’s harder to do that 1-0 than it is 0-1.

“You get 0-1? Then you can start pressuring the hitter. And if you get to two strikes, the hitter hasn’t seen the really tough location yet. So the first time they see it is when they are in an 0-2 count.”

It’s all about keeping hitters off-balance. Some pitchers spend their careers chasing command. Not this one.

“Now, I know exactly where it’s going to go,” said Suárez, who leads the Phillies with seven wins and a 1.50 ERA. “How to throw it, so it’s in the strike zone, and how to throw it for a chase. This is the best command I’ve had in my career.”

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