Coming into the 2021 season, many people in the Angels fanbase (myself included, admittedly) had started to lose faith in José Suárez panning out in Anaheim.
Once a borderline top 100 prospect and one of the cornerstones of an improving Halos’ farm system, Suárez got off to about as poor of a start to a big-league career as one can have. The young lefty had an ERA over seven and gave up a whopping 23 home runs in just 81 innings during his rookie year in 2019, and he followed that up by allowing 10 earned runs in just two innings pitched in 2020. He struggled with pitch tipping issues during this time and just generally looked lost out on the mound during his brief stints in the majors, and the future plans for him were unclear because of this.
After not making the team out of Spring Training back in March, the Angels decided to start the 23-year-old Suárez at the alternate training site and then assigned him to AAA Salt Lake once the minor league season kicked off. He made two brief but effective starts with the Bees in May that were sandwiched between a pair of solid relief cameos with the big league team, and on May 28, he was recalled to replace the struggling Aaron Slegers in the Halos’ bullpen.
This promotion would prove to be permanent for Suárez, as over the next month, he impressed mightily as a multi-inning swingman type that Joe Maddon came to rely on in some important spots. Six of his seven outings from his first appearance since being called back up on May 30 through the end of June lasted at least two innings, and in every single one of them, he allowed no more than one earned run. This excellent stretch culminated in a fantastic outing in the Bronx against the Yankees where he spun 5.1 innings of two-hit, one-run ball in relief of a sick Dylan Bundy that helped the Angels take home a 3-1 victory.
It was at this point that the club decided that Suárez’s excellent work should be rewarded, and they did this by giving him another crack as a starter in lieu of the struggling Bundy. His first turn as a member of the rotation came on July 5 against the Red Sox, where he gave up a pair of earned runs in three innings of work. He bounced back with five innings of one-run ball in his next start against the Mariners, but a bit of an adjustment period followed this, as he gave up a combined 15 earned runs over his next four starts. Despite the high ERA, though, this version of Suárez looked different from the one from his first two years in the majors, as he oftentimes managed to settle in for extended stretches after one bad inning made his line look unsightly. He didn’t get much help from his bullpen, either, with five of those 15 runs coming around to score as inherited runners after he had already left the game.
Suárez’s performance as a starter to this point when compared to how well he was pitching as a reliever left a bit to be desired, but the month of September was where he really started to find his footing as a member of the rotation. “El Demente” kicked things off in the season’s final weeks with a one-run complete game with eight strikeouts on September 4 against the Rangers—the only complete game of the whole season by the Angels’ pitching staff—and followed that up with a one-run, seven strikeout performance over 5.2 innings against the Astros a week later. To cap his year off, he took the ball in a playoff-like atmosphere on the road against the Mariners on October 1 and proceeded to deal a huge blow to Seattle’s Wild Card chances after giving up just a lone run in five innings. By the time the dust settled on that outing, he had lowered his ERA over the season’s last month to 2.97, and his mark on the entire season settled at a very respectable 3.75.
As is probably evident when comparing those figures to the less than ideal ones from his first two seasons, Suárez finally found his key to success against major league hitters, which turned out to be relying on his two excellent offspeed pitches. Starting with the crown jewel of his arsenal, Suárez managed to dominate hitters all season long with his signature changeup, a pitch that ranked near the top of the league in a lot of different categories.
José Suárez Changeup Performance
|OPS||Run Value||Swinging Strike%||K%|
|OPS||Run Value||Swinging Strike%||K%|
A big problem that Suárez had in his rookie year was an inability to put hitters away when it came time to do so, but the emergence of his changeup in 2021 helped to alleviate this issue, as that pitch was one of the best at getting swings and misses in the entire league. Pair that with his other main offspeed pitch, his big looping curveball that proved to be one of the better pitches in the league at getting called strikes, and Suárez suddenly had a very effective plan of attack to work with: steal strikes early in counts with his curveball and fastball, and then use the advantageous counts that he earned to either induce weak contact—he ranked in the 80th percentile in average exit velocity on the year—or finish hitters off with the changeup. This was the blueprint to his success in 2021, and for the first time in his career, it allowed him to finally put things together at the major league level.
23 Appearances (14 Starts) / 8-8 Record / 3.75 ERA / 4.12 FIP / 1.23 WHIP / 98.1 IP / 85 H / 41 ER / 36 BB / 85 K / 11 HR / .230/.304/.382 slashline against / 28.5% called strike + whiff rate with the Angels
1.50 ERA in six innings across two starts with AAA Salt Lake
Best Performance of the Year
In what is one of the easier calls of this entire series, Suárez’s best performance of 2021 obviously goes to his one-run complete game on September 4. The five hits and zero walks that he allowed in that one illustrate just how much control he had over the Rangers hitters, and given that it was the only complete game the Angels managed to throw all year, it has a pretty strong argument as the best outing by any Halo pitcher in 2021.
Outlook for 2022
There isn’t much guesswork to do regarding Suárez’s role with the Angels next season, as both Joe Maddon and Perry Minasian have said that the young lefty has locked in a spot in next year’s rotation.
Joe Maddon. "Jose Suarez is part of the rotation (in 2022). It's his to lose."— Jeff Fletcher (@JeffFletcherOCR) October 2, 2021
Suárez figures to slot in behind the trio of Shohei Ohtani, Noah Syndergaard and Patrick Sandoval in 2022, and if he can repeat or improve upon his performance from 2021 across a full season’s worth of outings, he could potentially become the stable presence that the Angels have lacked at the back end of their rotation for a long time now. This possibility seemed like a pipe dream not even eight months ago, but given the strides that Suárez has taken already, it wouldn’t be a huge shocker to see him do exactly that.