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The decision to sit Seiya Suzuki wasn’t one Cubs manager David Ross ever wanted to make. And at the end of May, when Suzuki owned a 137 wRC+ and an .872 OPS, it’s not one Ross expected he’d have to make, either.
But as struggles persisted for the player the Cubs invested nearly $100 million to bring to Chicago before last season — 62 wRC+ from the start of June through Aug. 4, 67 wRC+ after the All-Star break through that same end point — Ross had to make a tough call.
“His heart is in the right place,” Ross said on Aug. 5. “We’ve got to get his head in the right place, we’ve got to get his mechanics in the right place and just give him some things just to get him back going. He knows that. He knows he needs to work on some things. It’s hard to do that in game. We’ll give him some time, and he’ll be back in there when we feel like he can help us win games.”
Suzuki got just one late-game plate appearance over the next four days. The Cubs hoped a short break would help him reset mentally.
“There was a span where I wasn’t playing, I wasn’t out there on a regular basis,” Suzuki said through interpreter Toy Matsushita. “During that time, I took some time out and thought to myself, ‘What can I do to make myself an even better player?'”
It seems like Suzuki really just needed a quick reset to get himself back on track.
In Monday’s 7-6 Cubs win over the Tigers, Suzuki went 2-for-4 and clubbed his second home run in as many days. In the 10 games since making his return to the lineup, he’s hitting .361 with a 1.146 OPS. His four home runs in that stretch are his most in any 10-game span since mid-May. He’s posted a 137 wRC+ in that time, and he’s looked much more like the professional hitter the Cubs imagined he’d be when they acquired.
“I don’t think he’s putting a lot of pressure on himself,” Ross said. “I think he’s having fun playing baseball. He’s just out there doing what he does.
“I think he puts a lot on his back. I think he plays for a lot of people even outside of this country. Most guys that get to this level and are really great players have a lot of perfectionist in them. It’s an imperfect game, and we’re imperfect people, so carrying all that can weigh you down, especially when you’re not doing what you want to do and what you’re expected to do.
“I think it’s just, like, a little bit of a reset, and it looks like he’s having fun. I’ve never seen him smiling running around the bases, yelling in the dugout. I think he’s just having a really good time.”
Suzuki said he hadn’t before experienced the challenges of hitting like he did in the weeks leading up to his reset. The 29-year-old’s stats from his days in Nippon Professional Baseball (.985 OPS in nine seasons) back that up.
So, when Ross made the decision to sit him for a few games, Suzuki took that time to better himself behind the scenes and get to performing like the player both he and the Cubs believe he can be.
“I think it was really great for me, because I was able to learn a lot of things while not playing,” Suzuki said. “That can really benefit you as a player in the long run as well. I’m glad I was able to use that time wisely.”
Ross has been impressed by Suzuki’s response to the decision.
“We’ve got tremendous support staff around here. We’ve got all the information that you’re going to want,” he said. “But at some point, you’ve got to make up your mind if you want to go out and change whatever that is. And that goes for everybody, myself included. [Suzuki] did that and made up his mind to go have some fun somehow, and I’m happy he did.”
Of course, Suzuki only has 38 plate appearances since rejoining the starting lineup. There are a lot of games left in the season. Which means Suzuki has a lot of time to prove he can continue to look this good at the plate.
Entering Tuesday, the Cubs are in sole possession of the second National League Wild Card spot and sit just 2 1/2 games back of the Brewers in the NL Central. FanGraphs gives them a 60.4 percent chance to make the playoffs.
The Cubs played their way into this position despite Suzuki’s struggles. But there’s no doubt their ceiling is higher when he’s right. If he can keep giving them anything close to this level of production, that would be a major boost for their postseason push.
“I feel really good,” Suzuki said. “I feel like I’m being really aggressive at the plate and making the right decisions. I’m just having fun a lot right now playing baseball.”
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