The next great Chicago Cub or a first-month mirage? We examine the arrival in MLB of Seiya Suzuki

It has been a month of firsts for seiya suzuki. The Chicago Cubs rookie outfielder got his first major league hit during his first major league game, on Opening Day. His first home run came just 48 hours later. A day after that, he helped the Cubs win with their first multi-homer game. Then came the honors: NL Player of the Week, followed by NL Rookie of the Month for April.

But Suzuki is missing one thing that he will need during his major league career after spending nine seasons playing in Japan.

“I’m looking for a hobby,” Suzuki told ESPN last week through interpreter Toy Matsushita. “Practice is much shorter here. You also get to the field later. Batting practice isn’t as long. I have more time.”

Your partner Chris Martinwho played in Japan for several years, understands Suzuki’s amazement at the shorter workdays in MLB.

“They work non-stop over there,” Martin said of baseball players in Japan. “They don’t feel prepared unless they’re working. Even after games, they take dry swings, exercise and stuff. They just keep working.”

Martin believes Suzuki will need to learn to turn off the “baseball switch” to stay on his toes through a full 162-game MLB season. He suggested video games or golf as good hobbies to pick up. Golf was also the gardener’s idea Ian Happ.

“His dad likes golf,” Happ said. “Maybe golf is his thing.”

The reason the Japanese star’s potential off-field interests have become such a talking point in the Cubs’ clubhouse is because, at least in the first few weeks, he seems to have figured out the whole baseball thing.

After signing a five-year, $85 million deal in March, Suzuki has shown he can handle one of the biggest challenges for hitters coming from Japan’s NPB: facing the speed of the big leagues after moving from one league. best known for fine pitching. He has posted a 1.047 OPS against four-seam fastballs and a .947 mark against two-seam fastballs and sinkers thus far.

In his first 11 games, he had a 1.478 OPS, but now pitchers have a better idea of ​​how to pitch to him. His next 11 games produced a .175 batting average and 14 strikeouts in 40 at-bats.

“The opponents didn’t know me,” Suzuki said. “There wasn’t a lot of data on me. I was just reacting to pitches. There’s more data right now. There are different ways they’re trying to get close to me.”

So in addition to finding something to do with his spare time, the 27-year-old’s challenge is to prove that his strong start is the sign of a productive future in the majors and not just a mirage of the first month. The Cubs, at least, have no doubt that it comes first.

“We went after him very hard,” explained president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer. “He was the perfect guy for this offseason.”

When Suzuki was looking for a home in MLB this offseason, the Cubs were a team without much star power. Anthony Rizzo, Javier Baez Y Chris Bryant They were transferred last July. Kyle Schwarber he was placed for assignment during the previous offseason. The moves left Chicago without the four biggest offensive stars on its 2016 World Series-winning roster.

But the decision to rebuild left the Cubs with money to burn, and in a winter with several high-profile free agents available, they zeroed in on Suzuki early in the offseason. After a series of preliminary Zoom meetings in November, the team had to wait for the 99-day MLB lockout to pass in the winter before making its full offer.

One benefit of the delay: It gave the Cubs time to do their homework with Suzuki, perhaps more than with any player in recent memory.

“‘We’re going to have some time, so we’re going to focus and get a sense of what our assessment is,'” Hoyer recalled telling his staff. “You rarely have time to do that. Our opinion of him just kept going up.”

Shortly after the lockout ended, Cubs bosses had a chance to convince Suzuki to put Chicago at the top of his list.

Hoyer, manager David Ross, hitting coach Greg Brown and owner Tom Ricketts invited Suzuki and Suzuki’s agent, Joel Wolfe, to dinner in Los Angeles, where the agent was staying, to make their introduction – an opportunity to face to face that Hoyer was worried he wouldn’t get because of the speed of things in the offseason once free agency resumed.

While they couldn’t offer an immediate chance to win, a willingness to make a long-term commitment helped the Cubs stand out from a long list of suitors. Hoyer made it clear to Wolfe early on that they were interested in a five-year deal.

“I’m sure other teams were coming in with shorter offers, offering exit options and stuff,” Hoyer said. “I wanted to invest in it for what we’re trying to build. An opt-out after two or three years, I don’t want that. That doesn’t make sense to us.”

At dinner, the Cubs did their best to sell the vision of the team and the city of Chicago to Suzuki. A virtual presentation of Wrigley Field, complete with virtual reality goggles, aided the process.

“That went as well as those things can go,” Hoyer said. “I was so focused on letting him know everything we had to offer, I wasn’t really evaluating things at the time. So when we were walking to the car, I was like, ‘I think it went well.’ And the other guys were like, ‘You do you think?’ Those guys had a little more conscience. He left good. Then we did it pretty quickly after that.”

Impressed by what the Cubs told him in California, Suzuki wanted to visit Chicago in person and tour Wrigley Field in person before committing to the team. The trip sealed the deal.

“The environment was very important to me,” he said. “He wanted to take a look at the city and the countryside before he signed. He just saw me there.”

Suzuki immediately showed his personality to his new fans in Chicago. He grabbed the microphone at his introductory news conference at the Cubs’ spring training facility in Arizona to explain why he chose to wear No. 27.

Mike Trout“He said with a big smile. “I love you.”

When he tuned in to a major league game in Japan, Suzuki would often end up watching the Angels because of the popularity of shōhei ohtani. But even though he shared Ohtani’s history in the NPB and his ability to excel on the mound and at the plate, it was the three-time MVP Trout whom Suzuki envisioned himself emulating as his dream of reaching the top spot grew. the MLB.

“I was a pitcher, but I didn’t want to be,” Suzuki said. “I knew he wasn’t going to be a great pitcher.”

Suzuki was selected as a pitcher by the Hiroshima Toyo Carp in the second round of the 2012 NPB draft, but became a full-time position player upon joining the team and dominated the league as a hitter from his debut in 2015 until his debut. final season of 2021, posting a .315 career batting average, hitting 182 home runs, and making five NPB All-Star teams.

It didn’t take long for the combination of contact, power and patience that made him one of Japan’s best pro players to impress even his Major League idol.

“He’s the complete package,” Trout said recently. “I talked to Shohei about him before he signed. He has a good focus up there. When he gets a ball to hit, he doesn’t lose it.”

After seeing Suzuki firsthand at the plate for a month, his Cubs teammate Nick Madrigal he agreed: “He gets his walks but he’s aggressive at the same time. I’d say he has a very professional approach at the plate.”

“And it’s a lot of fun.”

Madrigal and the other current Cubs marveled at those first two weeks. Suzuki was in a new country, a new city, a new league and playing in less than ideal weather conditions. His focus never wavered. He had 12 hits and 12 walks in his first 11 games while playing solid defense in right field.

Now Suzuki must balance working to find early season form again with adjusting to a new schedule.

“There’s not a lot of time to tour Chicago yet,” Suzuki said. “I will go during the days off, but I have to keep my strength up for the long season.”

As easy as the adjustment made it seem in the early days, there are bound to be difficulties ahead. But the Cubs already see that Suzuki’s ability to fit into his clubhouse shows a personality that will win over fans in his new city.

“We’ve picked on him. He’s a good sportsman about it,” Martin said. “You can see that he has a very good personality. There is a good vibe.”

Chicago is starting to feel it.

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The next great Chicago Cub or a first-month mirage? We examine the arrival in MLB of Seiya Suzuki