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Consistently inconsistent Wander Suero still an enigma for the Washington Nationals

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The Washington Nationals are still confused by Wander Suero, who can dominate hitters on any given day, yet on another can be completely overwhelmed...

MLB: Washington Nationals at Pittsburgh Pirates Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The curious case of Wander Suero continues to befuddle the Washington Nationals on a daily basis. The latest edition of the saga came during last night’s loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates.

On Tuesday, he was called upon to protect a one-run lead in the eighth after Stephen Strasburg had cruised through seven scoreless innings on just 94 pitches at PNC Park.

“Bottom of the order, left-handed guys coming up,” manager Dave Martinez explained of his decision to go with Suero in that spot. “We had him penciled in for the lefties.”

Suero then proceeded to allow a single to catcher Jacob Stallings, walked Melky Cabrera, before getting a little unlucky on a bunt single by Adam Frazier that loaded the bases.

“He was super-fresh. He just couldn’t find the strike zone,” Martinez said. “He threw one ball right down the middle, base hit for Stallings, then just couldn’t find the strike zone after that.”

“Then the bunt, the bunt I thought if we catch that ball it’s a double play. But he’s been good for us lately, and like I said, he’s our left-handed guy.”

After Frazier reached, Martinez brought in Daniel Hudson in the hopes of him clearing up Suero’s mess. Unfortunately, the man dubbed Fireman Dan allowed a sac fly and then a home run to Starling Marte, leaving three earned runs charged to Suero.

Every time the right-hander comes in, it feels like the baseball gods shake a Magic 8-Ball to decide which version of Suero will take the mound on any given night.

Yesterday, the Magic 8-Ball said: “Don’t count on it.”

It’s got to be frustrating for management and fans alike as they keep watching someone who frequently teases his tantalizing potential fall apart, without much rhyme or reason.

Roughly half the time, he’s dominant. In Suero’s 58 team-leading appearances, he’s had 16 perfect outings and a further 18 outings in which he’s allowed either only one hit or only one walk while not being charged with any runs.

But in the other half, it can get ugly. Tuesday’s loss was his seventh this year, tied for the second-most in baseball among relievers, behind only Raisel Iglesias.

In his seven losses and two other blown saves, he’s allowed 19 earned runs in just six innings, with his hard-hit percentage rate skyrocketing in those appearances.

You can see the tale of his inconsistencies in his expected weight on-base average.

Wander Suero’s xwOBA by Game
Baseball Savant

xwOBA, in this instance, shows what a Suero’s on-base average should have been based on what typically happens on balls in play with similar exit velocities and launch angles, while also factoring in other ways that hitters get on base.

For perspective, league-average xwOBA in 2019 is .320. With that in mind, you can see that Suero usually fluctuates between extremes.

According to Baseball Savant, entering Tuesday’s blowup, he had 18 outings this season with an xwOBA under .200, yet also had 17 outings with an xwOBA above .400, causing all of the peaks and troughs in the graph.

At first, it seemed like it might be something to do with the number of days rest he had.

However, that theory seems to have been disproved. The right-hander now actually has a lower ERA on no days rest than he does on one, two, or three days rest, as well as lower batting average and on-base percentages with no rest.

In reality, it seems to be that he loses the feel for his cutter, just as he did last night.

“I felt real good today. But I think it wasn’t so much that,” the reliever said on Tuesday via interpreter Octavio Martinez, as quoted by MASN’s Mark Zuckerman. “It was the fact that I felt my cutter was moving differently today than it usually moves.”

His cutter is his bread and butter. When it’s on, he gets swings and misses on it up in the zone with hitters’ eyes lighting up before they then just can’t adjust to the movement.

For example, when we look at his worst outing of the year against the San Diego Padres on April 27th, you can see how he only got a few cutters up in the zone, with the rest outside or over the heart of the plate.

Wander Suero Cutter Location vs San Diego Padres
Baseball Savant

Now, compare that to one of his best outings of the season when he struck out the side...

Wander Suero Cutter Location vs Miami Marlins
Baseball Savant

He was living up in the zone the whole time, causing fits for the opposition hitters while also helping his changeup and curveball play up a bit in this outing.

That’s his recipe for success and now it’s time to see if he can find it consistently.

Before Tuesday, Suero had actually looked like he was putting things together since the All-Star break.

In those 17 games, he had an impressive 2.65 ERA, only allowing runs in two of those outings while striking out 18 and walking four.

Based on that, he had at least earned the chance to be in the late-inning mix with Sean Doolittle out, even if he’s not at the very top of the queue. However, with another clunker, the questions about his consistency come back to fore.

Suero has the potential to be a great high-leverage reliever at some point in his career. He has the demeanor and the swing-and-miss stuff that other relievers lack, but he needs to find his consistency to truly take the next step toward that goal.