In a few days the Chicago Cubs will open the season with their major position player acquisition of the offseason, Seiya Suzuki, starting in right – the first significant Cubs Japanese hitter since Kosuke Fukudome. Suzuki checks in with an AAV of $17 million, behind only Marcus Stroman and (sigh) Jason Heyward on the payroll. He absolutely raked in Nippon Professional Baseball, and the Cubs are paying him to do that here in the States – will he?
A comparison with the top five Japanese-born hitters who have played in MLB gives some hope but also suggests tempering expectations. The best five Japanese hitters include, in descending WAR order: that other Suzuki, Hideki Matsui, Nora Aoki, Shohei Ohtani and Tadahito Iguchi. (We’re excluding Dave Roberts, who was born in Japan but did not play in the NPB).
Ichiro simply dominates any Japanese hitter list: he accumulated more WAR (60) than the next six guys combined. I love seeing Japanese players in MLB – ours is a game that knows (or should know) no borders – but their overall impact on the game here has been marginal, to date.
Looking at the non-Ohtani members of the top five (we’ll get to him in a moment), all of them shed anywhere from 9 to 20 percent of their NPB career OPS in moving stateside. If Suzuki loses a midrange amount, say 15 percent, that would drop his OPS from a stellar .985 in Japan to a solid .837 here. For perspective, that’s basically Mike Yastrzemski. Not that there’s anything wrong with that – that there is a playoff-caliber right fielder.
The .837 may be a WAG, but it’s not ludicrous. Dan Szymborski at Fangraphs projected an .830 OPS for Suzuki in 2022. The other projection systems reported in Fangraphs range from .777 to .921, which is … ahem … a pretty wide stance. Nevertheless, the middle of that range is somewhere in the mid-800s, consistent with the other guesses.
Running at this from a different direction, the member of that aforementioned list most like Suzuki is Matsui, also a corner outfielder with prodigious power. Matsui had a career OPS in Japan of .996; in MLB it dropped to .822. Exclude his shaky first season in New York and his OPS with the Yankees was .860, but his homer rate dropped considerably from six percent in Japan to 3.6 percent in the US (although he also lowered his whiff rate).
Suzuki joins the Cubs for his age-27 season, two years younger than Matsui was when he made the jump. He also plays right rather than left, suggesting he is probably a better athlete than Matsui was when he arrived; indeed, Matsui became a full-time DH in the second half of his career. So there’s some reason to look at Matsui’s career as more of a floor for Seiya than a probable path.
OK, we left Ohtani standing at the plate a few grafs back; let’s look at his story. He is unlike anyone else discussed in this post, and not just because he pitches. Ohtani has actually added OPS since arriving stateside, up from .859 in Japan to .890 here. There are two obvious possible explanations for this which are not mutually exclusive. The first is that Ohtani is a once-in-a-several-generations talent who will, barring injury, finish his career as one of the 10 best players ever. The second and less speculative point: he arrived at age 23, before time began seriously eroding his joints and soft tissue. He would have improved as a hitter even if he hadn’t left Japan; in fact, the improvement might well have been even more dramatic.
Ohtani’s hitting profile in NPB was also different from the other guys discussed here, all of whom (including Seiya Suzuki) had strikeout-to-walk ratios under 2.0. In Japan, Ohtani whiffed 27 percent of the time while walking just 10 percent. That’s a very MLB-ish look, which has changed little since he arrived here. However, his homer rate is up as he more continuously taps his raw power.
Suzuki probably won’t see Ohtani-esque hitting improvement, given his more advanced age and less advanced raw talent. But he comes to the Cubs with the highest homer rate in Japan (5.1 percent) of all these players not named Matsui. And he arrives when teams have developed the lift and strike hitting approach that has continued to develop since Matsui’s day. It’s reasonable to expect Suzuki will leak less of his home run power than Matsui did.
Much has been made about the higher velo Suzuki will be facing in the majors, and while that is a concern, I’d like to think the Cubs would not have signed him if they didn’t think he had the current or near-future ability to deal with hotter heat. Hitters can gain speed too, bat speed that is. I don’t know how much these training techniques help veteran players like Suzuki, but the Cubs enhanced player development operation probably has some ideas along these lines if they believe Suzuki needs the help.
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Squinting through the numerical fog, it looks like Seiya Suzuki has a good chance to be good, and a small chance to be great. He can’t make the Cubs a division winner by himself, but he’ll likely be in the middle of the next Cubs postseason lineup, whenever that is.