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When Seiya Suzuki’s first major league home run ball landed in the left-center bleachers on Sunday afternoon, president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer had to be smiling somewhere.
Suzuki’s first homer in a Cubs uniform, which already felt like the culmination of an impressive first weekend at the plate, also served as some early confirmation for all of the work Hoyer and Co. put into brining Suzuki to Chicago.
Patience was what Hoyer stressed during the introductory press conference. Hoyer knew Suzuki had the tools to be a great player, but there was expected to be a transition period for Suzuki to adjust from playing in Nippon Professional Baseball to playing in Major League Baseball.
As recently as a pregame media scrum on Opening Day, Hoyer reiterated that the Cubs do expect great things from their prized offseason acquisition. However, he also maintained that it would be difficult for Suzuki to meet those expectations right out of the gate.
“The transition is going to be real,” Hoyer said. “I think you have much better pitching, much better stuff over here. I think you also have just different deliveries, different ballparks, things you haven’t been a part of, and then you have the actual cultural assimilation. Normally, you would’ve gotten a six-week spring training. (Instead), you got a three-plus week spring training, so he’s got to figure out where to live and where to go and do it in different language. I think that’s a challenge.
“All that said, I think once he gets through that period, he has power, he’s a good hitter, he makes really good decisions at the plate, he’s a good outfielder, he’s a good baserunner, he’s got great makeup. All the things that we’re excited about bringing him on, I think they’re going to show up, but I do think it’s going to take a little bit of time to make that adjustment.”
So far, though, it appears that Suzuki has already passed that adjustment period as far as his on-field performance is concerned.
Through five games, Suzuki is batting .400 with a .524 on-base percentage and a 1.000 slugging. He homered three times in his first four contests and he now has nine RBIs. He’s walked and struck out five times apiece, though only one of those punchouts came on a swing-and-miss for strike three.
And for everything Suzuki is doing well, it feels as though some of it is starting to extend to the rest of the lineup, too. We’ll take a look at the numbers later, but after years of Chicago’s offense getting the “boom-or-bust,” “all-or-nothing” reputation, the eye-test shows more of a contact-oriented bunch manufacturing runs through means other than just homers.
The so-obvious-it-doesn’t-even-need-to-be-said disclaimer is that Chicago is just five games into the season. Despite Suzuki having a seemingly easy early transition, he still doesn’t have much MLB experience. Opponents will soon have better data and more detailed scouting reports with which they can use to attack Suzuki, and as that forces Suzuki to adjust even more, like many first-year big league players, struggles are to be expected then, too.
The same goes for the rest of the offense. Players like Suzuki and Ian Happ are having great starts to the year, but there are few who have proven themselves at the plate over a full 162-game slate. Starting well is great, but for Chicago to have any hope at making an unexpected playoff run, it’ll need a large section of its bats to put together a full season’s worth of success.
But anyways, back to Suzuki.
Even back during that introductory press conference and a small media scrum just outside the Cubs training complex after it, Hoyer described the aspects of Suzuki’s game that he thought would translate well to MLB, which included his plate discipline, his ability to avoid swinging and missing and his power. Those were the things Hoyer saw that makes him confident the $85 million contract will be money well spent.
We’ve started to see all three come into play as Suzuki’s MLB career has gotten underway, and two of those look like things the rest of the offense is starting to put to use, too. Now that the first full week of the season is coming to a close, let’s take a look at how Hoyer’s picks from Suzuki’s skills have translated and how the Cubs’ bats might be following his lead.
“The fact that he makes good decisions at the plate, so not swinging at balls. That’s obviously probably going to expand a little bit as stuff gets bigger, but we felt like that gave us comfort that he will make that transition.” — Hoyer on March 18
With an adjustment period to be expected, this felt like the major skill Suzuki needed to bring over.
It would’ve been understandable if Suzuki’s batting average or slugging percentage weren’t so high to start the season. Even after his first game, he said that Brewers ace Corbin Burnes’ cutter (a pitch that helped him with the 2021 National League Cy Young Award, mind you) was unlike anything he’d seen before. He also went up against Milwaukee reliever Devin Williams and his patented “Airbender” changeup.
“There’s some stuff that I’ve never seen before, so it’s really fun,” Suzuki said via interpreter Toy Matsushita on Opening Day. “I came to this stage to challenge myself, and to be able to face pitchers at that caliber, it’s going to bring my game to another level.”
But rather than be overwhelmed by the higher velocities, bigger movements and different deliveries of the first crop of pitchers he’s seen, Suzuki has stuck to his zone and has shown a veteran-like presence at the plate.
Per FanGraphs, he had the lowest swing percentage on pitches outside the strike zone (8.3%) among qualified hitters heading into Thursday, with Christian Yelich’s 10.2% the second-best mark. That indicates that he hasn’t been chasing bad offerings from pitchers, and instead, he’s challenging them to give him something in the zone.
That mirrors how things have gone thus far for Chicago’s current crop of hitters. Willson Contreras’ 19.5% ranked 22nd on the same leaderboard Thursday morning. Overall, Chicago entered Thursday seventh (28.1%) among all 30 teams in that category.
Where the transition hasn’t been so seamless for Suzuki, however, is when pitches do make it into the strike zone. Whereas Suzuki has done a masterful job of staying away from pitches out of the zone, he’s maybe been a bit too comfortable letting borderline pitches go. Whatever the reason is, that’s why his 30.1% called strike percentage also topped FanGraphs’ leaderboards prior to Wednesday’s game (before he moved into second with a 27.5% mark entering Thursday).
Not that that has the Cubs’ staff worried at all.
“I think he knows his zone and is staying committed to that,” manager David Ross said. “There’s not a lot of even flinching at borderline pitches. Struck out looking a couple of times, which will tell you how committed he is to his zone, which is nice. He’s not going to chase. If he can stay right there, I think he’ll continue to learn these pitchers, learn the environment and continue on the path he’s on.”
Still, watching strikes go by is something Suzuki and the Cubs as a whole (18.2%, fifth-highest) will have to work on as the season goes on.
It’s clear, though, that Suzuki is committed to keeping a patient approach at the plate. He’s willing to get deep into counts, as he’s currently averaging 4.33 pitches per plate appearance. And as this tidbit from the Chicago Tribune’s Meghan Montemurro shows, that might also be having an impact on the team’s overall patience after all.
Again, it should be stated that Suzuki’s success has come in a small sample. Teams that do their due diligence will soon have better data on him and will adjust how they pitch to him.
But that plate discipline shouldn’t be something that tapers off. It was a highly-touted aspect of Suzuki’s game, and it’s one of those intangibles that should help him continue to have success at the plate.
It would do the Cubs well if the rest of lineup takes after Suzuki’s patience in the box, too.
Lack of swing-and-miss
“I think we felt like, looking at his swing-and-miss rates and looking at what he did in different areas of the zone, we felt like it would translate really well.” — Hoyer on March 18
As early as Chicago is in the season, it appears that Hoyer was spot-on here.
Through five games, Suzuki has seen 91 pitches. Of those 91 pitches, he’s swung at 27. Of those 27 swings, only three times has Suzuki swung and missed — the same amount of swings on which he’s homered — which is 11.1% on Baseball Savant’s whiff rate metric.
Now, when he does start to swing more often, that number could rise. But despite the small sample size, it looks like his ability to consistently make contact with the ball is elite.
“It feels like he’s getting comfortable with every at-bat, right? I mean, the timing is there,” Ross said on Opening Day. “Making guys throw in the zone. It’s not an uncontrolled swing when he does, and if he has one where he feels like he’s off time, he makes the adjustment really quickly, so far (from) what I’ve seen.”
While there will certainly be some swing-and-miss in the Cubs’ lineup, Suzuki’s contact rate (88.9%, per FanGraphs) will improve the team’s overall contact rate, which ranked dead last in the majors on FanGraphs’ team leaderboards from 2019-21.
Chicago added Nick Madrigal at last season’s trade deadline, and though he’s struggled this season, he still owned the best contact rate (91.8%) among players with at least 100 at-bats between the 2020-21 seasons. When healthy, Nico Hoerner (82.5% career contact rate as of Thursday morning) provides a dependable bat. Rafael Ortega, despite the possibility that he wouldn’t make the Opening Day roster, has a career 83.4% contact rate. And as previously mentioned, Happ is on a torrid pace to start the year, with his 82.8% contact rate entering Thursday’s action also a clear career high.
Although those are only a few of the bats in the lineup, their ability to put the ball in play consistently will help the continued change of the Cubs into a team that doesn’t need to rely on power to string runs together.
And speaking of power…
“We certainly felt like the power will translate. The exit velocities are elite.” — Hoyer on March 18
So far, Hoyer was right on the money with that. That first home run he hit on Sunday was a no-doubter that sent Wrigley Field into a frenzy, and he followed it up with his first multi-homer game as he launched Nos. 2 and 3 out of PNC Park on Tuesday.
The exit velocities have also been quite impressive. According to Statcast, he’d averaged a 90.8 mph exit velocity heading into Thursday, both of his home runs on Tuesday left the bat at over 102 mph, and his max EV, which was his 110.9 mph homer on Sunday, ranked in the top 9% of the league before Thursday’s games.
“He can rake,” said Marcus Stroman, who started on the mound on Sunday. “Baseball is a tough sport, but I think he’s going to be someone who you know is going to give you a quality at-bat each and every time, someone who I think is going to bring a little fear into opposing pitching staffs and someone who is going to be a main dude in that top-three, top-four part of the lineup for years to come.”
That’s the aspect Hoyer noticed about Suzuki’s game that so far hasn’t spread to the rest of the team. Hoerner hit the first homer of the MLB season back on Opening Day, and Contreras joined the group with a solo shot on Wednesday. But so far, nobody else has taken an opposing pitcher deep. After Wednesday’s action, Suzuki still owns 60% of the team’s home runs.
Not that that should last much longer. Frank Schwindel and Patrick Wisdom have had slow starts to the season but have plenty of power in their bats, and with Happ’s early-season success, it would be a surprise if he doesn’t go deep soon.
At the same time, the Cubs have had a knack for producing runs in plenty of other ways early on. Remember how they managed to score three runs in the first inning against Milwaukee’s Brandon Woodruff on Saturday? Three walks, a hit-by-pitch, a base hit, a fielder’s choice and a sacrifice fly.
Not an extra-base hit was needed to tag Woodruff for three runs and make him throw 40 pitches, and even in the unrealistic chance Suzuki ends up being the only consistent power hitter on the roster, Ross still has a plan for this offense.
“I don’t know that power is going to be our strongest suit, but the good at-bats and (then) turn it over to the next guy seems to be a trend already that I love and that these guys, their characteristics should play out,” Ross said Saturday. “If we continue to put these guys in the right spots, that’s the kind of offense I hope we can have.”
It’s hard to say Suzuki could’ve had a better start to his Cubs career.
However, it’s certainly possible — and probably even likely — that struggles are on their way. Pitchers and defenses will adjust to Suzuki, and he’ll have to learn to adjust right back. That’s the game.
Whether he can make those adjustments remains to be seen, though his quick success to begin his time in MLB points to him being able to do so. Still, it’s so early in his career that even Suzuki doesn’t think he’s fully acclimated to the game in America.
“I feel like I’m still trying to find the perfect balance in my at-bats and just trying out different things every day,” Suzuki said on Sunday. “I feel like I’m not quite there yet.”
There’s a lot of work ahead of Suzuki as he continues down this road in Chicago.
And if they want to have any sort of similar success, the same goes for the Cubs’ “new-look” offense, too.
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