Seiya Suzuki is headed to the U.S. majors from Japan’s. This is what I can tell you about this wonderful athlete and ballplayer.
Updated: Nov. 23, 2021
Seiya Suzuki OF
Team: Hiroshima Carp
Current status: Suzuki was posted on Nov. 22, and has 30 days to sign an MLB deal, although that time frame will likely be paused from Dec. 1 if the owners lock out the players pending a new CBA.
He told Kyodo News in 2019 that he is eager to try new things and believes he can adapt to major league pitching, but refused to say whether playing in the majors is in his plans. That changed after the 2020 season when he announced he would seek to use the posting system in the future.
These announcements typically occur after a player has told the team and has received a favorable response. At least one Carp official has leaked that the club is preparing the way with his medical requirements so that there will be no hangups.
Pos: RF Age: Turned 27 on Aug. 18, 2021. Bats: R
Honors: Best Nine (2016-2020). Golden Glove (2016, 2017, 2019, 2020). Premier 12 MVP (2019).
League leader: Runs (2019), Batting Average (2019, 2021), On-Base Percentage (2019, 2021), Slugging Average (2021), OPS (2017, 2019, 2021), OF assists (2017, 2020, 2021), WAR (2019, 2021).
Suzuki is probably the best hitter in Japan at the moment. A hard-throwing, hard-hitting high school pitcher, he was Hiroshima’s second draft pick as an infielder in 2012. Suzuki came up with a strong arm and good speed.
Suzuki is an outlier in Japanese baseball. Japan expects all players to master the basics of its doctrine, how to catch the ball, where to throw it, what to do on the bases, how to bunt, to hit the ball on the ground, and go to the opposite field. Suzuki is not a maverick, but in a culture where players are told what to do and when to do it, he is a self-starter, in the sense that Ichiro Suzuki was.
He’s fine-tuned his own fitness and strength-training regimens in an environment that looks with suspicion on players building muscle mass. While teams in the U.S. majors look at size and strength, they often overlook issues of non-playing adjustments.
I have reason to believe that some Japanese stars failed to adjust — not to the game, but to spring training and the demands of travel and pace of the season that collide their habits.
With preseason and in-season fitness regimens forged over years in a spring training and season with more days off and a greater emphasis on practice volume, Japanese players in their first spring training are suddenly without the benchmarks they’ve depended on for years to guide their fitness and game conditioning progress.
Because Suzuki has established an ability to go his own way, I suspect he will adjust to the demands of a new environment as well as any of his predecessors.
Suzuki’s not a dead pull hitter, but he goes to the opposite field almost as infrequently as anyone in Japan, and a great majority of those balls are in the air, and virtually no Central League teams shift aggressively. That will change in the U.S. majors.
He has, unlike many hitters in Japan, a very balanced stance without too much weight as he swings on the front foot and generates good bat speed. With two strikes, he may shorten his stroke somewhat but he’s still looking to drive the ball instead of trying to drag the bat through the zone and flick outside pitches foul the other way. This may help him adjust to the increased velocities he’ll see overseas.
He is not elite in terms of contact because of this approach, but he has gradually improved his ability to get the ball in the air and hit it harder.
The other dimension to his batting is plate discipline. He will have to deal with different sets of umpires and zones, but he is very still at the plate and should be able to cope.
Suzuki had above-average speed as a youngster, it’s average now. He is a good opportunistic base runner and will steal, but is not particularly good at it.
Suzuki has above-average range in right, takes good routes, and makes strong accurate throws to the outfield. The last season for which I had base-running data, 2019, showed him as one of Japan’s best at holding runners, but despite his reputation has led the CL in assists the past two seasons.
Here are some handy numbers from Delta Graphs.
|Year||Age||Out of zone swing pct||GB/FB||HR/FB%||Hard%|
What happened in 2021
I was asked recently to account for Suzuki’s 2021 MVP-caliber season and came to the conclusion that it was a combination of things, part of which is simply random variation, but that his gradually improving skills forced pitchers to adjust to him in efficient ways.
If we divide the strike zone into nine sections, and the areas surrounding the zone into 16 sections, and count the pitches thrown to Suzuki in each zone in 2021 compared to the percentage thrown in the previous four seasons, there is a noticeable change. Pitchers did their level best to keep the ball down and out of the zone.
The table below indicates the changes this past season, with greater than 1.0 indicating that Suzuki saw more pitches in that sector. In this case, Suzuki saw 18 percent more pitches down the pipe in 2021, and way more pitches out of the zone except above it.
I looked up each of his home runs, and saw that:
- From April 8 to July 1, he hit 11 home runs and in those plate appearances only one first pitch was in the zone.
- When Suzuki completely stopped swinging at the first pitch, he started getting first pitch strikes, until he hit three of those out between July 2 and July 9. After that it was back to trying to get him to chase until the end of August.
- From September, pitchers went back to trying to get Strike 1, and that failed spectacularly, coinciding with his stretch of eight homers in six games.
Suzuki will chase, particularly a dropping slider or splitter that he thinks he can drive, and he will take fearsome cuts and miss, but he isn’t easily fooled and will take his walks rather than chase pitches he doesn’t think he can drive.
We saw how he saw more pitches down the pipe and low and in, and when you look at where he mashes the ball most in terms of home runs hit per pitch in that sector, two things stand out, he’s traditionally been strongest at stuff dead center, but not that strong down and in, he was much better at both in 2021.
Here’s are the number of home runs per pitch in each sector of Suzuki’s strike zone in 2021:
So we have a selective hitter, who doesn’t chase and will lay off the first pitch until people try to get easy first strikes against him, while always making pitchers throw strikes, often with pitches they come to regret because his skills have been trending this way for a while, and he probably had some good luck to go with it.