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Seiya Suzuki was in for a surprise Monday afternoon.
Major League Baseball announced it’s Player of the Week awards for each league, with the Guardians’ José Ramírez taking home the American League crown for the week. The National League winner? None other than the Cubs’ new right fielder, who’s quickly making a name for himself after making the jump from Nippon Professional Baseball to MLB this season.
From Tuesday through Sunday, Suzuki posted a slash line of .412/.546/1.059. He scored five runs and recorded seven hits — including three home runs and two doubles — and five RBIs while walking five times over six games. His first career multi-homer game came on Tuesday in Pittsburgh.
All of that, and he was surprised to learn he was named the NL Player of the Week. And no, it’s not that he was surprised that MLB thought he had the best week of all NL players.
He was surprised because, frankly, he didn’t even know that that was an award he could actually win.
“No, I didn’t know about it,” Suzuki said through interpreter Toy Matsushita when asked if he was aware MLB gave out Player of the Week awards.
Well, he certainly knows about it now, and if he keeps producing at the pace he has 10 games into his major league career, it might be time to start getting familiar with the rest of the awards MLB has to offer.
Suzuki is the second winner of the NL award so far this season after the Cardinals’ Nolan Arenado took the first honor after Opening Weekend. Arenado, however, is an established veteran in the big leagues. Suzuki had just 35 major league plate appearances heading into Monday, and yet, that tough transition period that was supposed to come when the regular season began still hasn’t come to fruition.
“When you watch him play and you see all the numbers and how we believed in him from an analytical standpoint and also from a scouting standpoint, there were a lot of high expectations, obviously,” manager David Ross said. “(That’s) why we wanted him, and the fact he’s come in and produced has been nice.”
Yes, there certainly were high expectations.
Cubs coaches and players alike raved about Suzuki’s approach throughout spring training. On Opening Day, president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer made it clear that he thought Suzuki would be worth every penny of the $85 million (nearly $100 million when taking the posting fee into account) that Chicago paid to get him, saying, “We wouldn’t have spent a lot of money on him if we didn’t think he was immensely talented.”
The expectation that Suzuki could be one of the players to lead the Cubs into this new era was there, but so was the expectation that he would see some struggles early on. That hasn’t happened, and part of that can be tied back to the work he did when he finally got down to Cubs camp for spring training.
The results weren’t pretty at first. He struck out looking twice in his first Cactus League game on March 25, and he didn’t get his first hit until his fourth game on March 30.
But as is often said, the results don’t truly matter in spring training. The process is what’s most important, and his process consisted of learning what major league pitching is really like during each of those preseason reps.
“I was working on my timing and my swing, and there were a lot of things that I was trying to be conscious of during spring training,” Suzuki said. “… I was also worried about the velocity, the different pitch types that they have over here, so that’s what I was clarifying during spring training.”
That process has quickly paid dividends for Suzuki, who came into Monday with a .400 average, a 1.503 OPS, as many walks (nine) as strikeouts and, per FanGraphs, a 282 wRC+. It’s still a small sample size, sure, but his success at the plate out of the gate has impressed everyone in the organization and makes it clear that any expected “adjustment period” is well in the past.
“I think he has adjusted. I think that’s what he’s done,” said Ian Happ, whose seventh-inning base hit knocked in Suzuki for what was ultimately the game-winning run. “It’s been really impressive to see, kind of him getting a taste in spring training and then putting it into play in the season. I think, obviously, his swing is really, really good. (He) has worked super consistent, and his eye, just in that quick adjustment period of the spring training games, has come a long way.”
Monday’s matchup with Tampa Bay marked the beginning of the next NL Player of the Week period, and Suzuki once again threw his hat in the ring with another strong performance at the plate.
Suzuki reached base in all four of his plate appearances in the Cubs’ 4-2 win, which included an error on a ground ball to short, a hit by pitch and two rocket singles — the first of which left the bat at 107.4 mph (he also turned on the jets and nearly turned it into a double), the second of which he shot to right field on the ground at 102.8 mph.
Speaking of speed, MLB.com’s Jordan Bastian pointed out that Suzuki was flying around the bases on both the error and the close play at second.
“His instincts are just really good, and his speed helps with that,” Ross said postgame. “I think his good instincts with the speed is what makes him a well-rounded baseball player.”
Suzuki has indeed looked the part of a well-rounded baseball player, and what’s even more impressive is that he’s seemingly doing it based on his own natural abilities.
When asked pregame how he’s gone about looking at all the data on opposing pitchers, he responded that hasn’t really looked at it at all.
And why is that?
“Obviously, they have a lot of great data here, but when you step in the box, there’s some different stuff that you feel, and that’s what I feel is most important,” Suzuki said. “I just have my own little data in my head that I rely on.”
“If you haven’t used something and you’ve had a lot of success, you should stick with your routine of how you did it, right?” Ross said when asked pregame about Suzuki’s comments. “Just getting comfortable here and trusting his athletic ability I think is what I would lean on, too.”
Happ was also asked postgame about Suzuki not looking at the data, and he wasn’t all that surprised to find out Suzuki is seemingly doing it all on his own.
“I think that’s just who he is as a hitter,” Happ said. “I think he’s got a ton of natural ability, and I think he trusts his eyes. You can see in his at-bats — stuff that is just off the edges, just a little bit of movement, he’s really good at spitting on those pitches and getting something over the heart (of the plate) to handle.”
Following his 2-for-3 performance on Monday, Suzuki ranks near the top of the majors in a number of important categories. Per FanGraphs, he owns a .429 average (fifth), a .564 on-base percentage (second), a .929 slugging (third), a .500 ISO (second) and a 30% barrel rate (second), and he still holds a big-league-best 12.3% out-of-zone swing percentage.
Suzuki has all the makings of an elite hitter in the majors, and his first MLB award certainly provides credibility to what he’s doing.
At the moment, Suzuki is among the favorites to take home NL Rookie of the Year honors. If he keeps playing the way he has, there’s more than a good chance he takes home that hardware at season’s end.
“He doesn’t take an at-bat off. Plate discipline from the start,” Kyle Hendricks said. “I know facing guys like that, it’s a headache. Every at-bat is tough. You don’t know quite where to go, and then he puts swings on balls in every area of the zone. He covers everything.
“It’s really tough to gameplan and attack against a guy like that, so I’m glad he’s on our side.”
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