The Seiyassance Is in Full Swing

Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

When the Cubs signed Seiya Suzuki before the 2022 season, it was part of a bold strategy to accelerate their return to contention. They weren’t quite ready for their close up that year, but the general plan was pretty clear: add a few pieces then, tack on more the following season, and aim for a good team sooner rather than later.

Good news! That plan has worked. The Cubs are in playoff position in mid-September, just like they drew it up. They supplemented 2022’s free agency exploits with a double dip last offseason. Cody Bellinger and Dansby Swanson have been right at the forefront of the charge, though Swanson has slumped recently. But for a bit, it looked like Suzuki might not be a part of Chicago’s plans.

He coasted through 2022, a solid righty bat but hardly one of the best hitters in the league. He started off this season in a funk, dealt with injuries, and finally got benched in early August. It was a long fall for someone so heralded, but honestly, you can see what the Cubs were thinking. Through that point in the year, Suzuki was batting .249/.328/.389, good for a 96 wRC+, and striking out a worrisome 25.3% of the time. He’d slumped as the year wore on, to boot; he had a wRC+ of 59 in the months of June and July.

To put it mildly, it seems like he figured something out. Suzuki returned to the lineup on a full-time basis on August 9, and he’s been one of the best hitters in baseball since then. His wRC+ over that span is 197. He’s striking out just 16.1% of the time. He’s cracked seven homers in 118 plate appearances, and he’s doing a little bit of everything besides that. He’s hitting line drives all over the place, and hitting for power and average. This is the Suzuki everyone hoped to see when he came over from NPB last year.

What changed? I think David Ross diagnosed it well in talking about his brief benching (Ross didn’t call it that, for what it’s worth, but it’s pretty clear that he was getting more than just a few rest days). “He’s just in between. If he’s looking heater, they throw him a slider,” he told The Athletic’s Sahadev Sharma. The message from the Cubs was clear and consistent. “Sometimes these guys get into trying to play cat-and-mouse with the pitcher a little too much,” hitting coach Dustin Kelly diagnosed, pointing to the same thing.

That’s one of those classic baseballisms that I’m always a little bit skeptical of. That’s what hitting is! They might throw you something fast, or they might throw you something slow. If you can’t identify them, that feels to me less like being in between and more like not hitting well. But there’s a time-honored solution, which Kelly was quick to point out in the same interview. You just sit on one of two speeds and adjust if you’re wrong. Easy peasy.

There’s just one problem with that naive solution: it’s not clear which one Suzuki was having trouble with in particular. No matter how you break pitches down, he wasn’t showing any obvious plate discipline holes even as he slumped. Even at his worst, he wasn’t missing any category of pitch at a particularly elevated rate compared to 2022:

Swing and Miss by Pitch Type
Type 2022 SwStr% 2023 SwStr% 2022 Whiff% 2023 Whiff%
Fastball 7.0% 8.3% 17.6% 20.5%
Breaking 11.4% 9.1% 31.8% 23.8%
Offspeed 13.7% 13.0% 28.4% 31.9%

If there’s anything to note, it’s a slightly increased whiff rate on fastballs. But that’s quite marginal, not much more than a rounding error. No, the problem came when Suzuki made contact. The whole point of hitting is to hit the ball hard and in the air. You’d also prefer to pull it; batted ball speeds tend higher on the pull side, basically because the bat is moving at its fastest as it gets out in front of the plate, and that’s where you need to meet the ball to pull it. But really, you want to hit it hard and in the air first, and everything else is a bonus.

That’s what everyone expected Suzuki to do when he came to the major leagues. He was a consistently excellent masher in Japan, with a career .570 slugging percentage. But in the States (and, fine, occasionally Toronto), he simply didn’t recapture that form. Through his benching, he’d been hitting roughly a quarter of his batted balls hard and in the air, slightly less than the major league average. He’d managed to hit hard, pulled contact in the air on only about 7.5% of his batted balls, meaningfully less than the 10% league average. It wasn’t limited to just one pitch type, either.

Those problems were magnified when he was at his worst; he simply wasn’t crushing pitches the way you’d expect him to. His profile makes a lot of sense if he’s bludgeoning the ball. Acceptable strikeout and walk numbers and middling corner outfield defense aren’t that interesting without power, though.

For some people, adding power basically means trying to pull the ball more. In an ideal world, I think every hitter would do some version of that; it’s just easier to hit for power to the pull side, full stop. But swings and swing decisions are complex things. Moving one lever can affect something seemingly unrelated, all down the chain. Suzuki was pulling the ball quite frequently when he hit the ball in the air in 2023, but without the same efficiency he displayed last year.

Want that in numbers? Let’s compare 2022 to 2023 through August 8, the last day before he rejoined the lineup full-time. His pull rate on balls he hit in the air increased from 16% to 28%, which sounds excellent. But his slugging percentage declined by 150 points on those balls, his expected slugging percentage declined by 120 points, his wOBA declined by 120 points, and his xwOBA declined by nearly 100 points. In other words, a decline in contact quality to the pull side offset the benefits of getting the ball there more often.

Meanwhile, his production on balls in the air that didn’t go to the pull side also fell. I’m making a series of assumptions here, but it feels to me like he was just too early on a lot of pitches, so he ended up with more so-so contact that was nevertheless pulled. Plenty of hitters talk about trying to stay up the middle with their intended swing so that if they look for a fastball and get fooled, they’re pulling offspeed pitches down the line instead of yanking them foul.

If that’s the case with Suzuki, you could imagine what a reasonable tradeoff looks like. Start hanging back more on fastballs, and he’d have a lower pull rate when he puts the ball in the air. He’d make up for it in two ways, though. First, he’d hit the ball the other way or up the middle with more authority. Second, when he did pull a ball, it would more likely be scalded thanks to the fact that what’s left in the pull bucket is a bunch of crushable pitches he got out in front of.

Quite frankly, it’s amazing how true that’s been. When he debuted last year, he hit a ton of fastballs in the air, but only 10% of those were pulled. This year, that number climbed above 20% while his contact quality cratered. But lo and behold, he’s hit 23 fastballs in the air since returning, and he’s pulled exactly one of them. It was the kind of ball you have no choice but to pull, in on his hands, and he absolutely blistered it:

Instead, he’s peppering those pitches back up the middle or to right field. Pretty much everything about those balls – production, expected production, exit velocity, hard-hit rate, you name it – has improved. In other words, his swing is more on time against fastballs; he’s meeting them and driving them into the right-center gap with authority far more than he did earlier in the year.

Meanwhile, he’s pulling the ball more frequently when he manages to lift a slower pitch, a full 33% of the time. He’s absolutely walloping those balls; he’s put nine of them into play, and he’s batting 1.000 with a 2.778 slugging percentage on those nine balls. His average – average! – exit velocity on them is 101.4 mph. He’s absolutely scalding these things, in other words.

In fact, Suzuki isn’t just crushing breaking balls on accident. He’s hunting them. He’s swung at 70% of the in-zone breaking balls he’s seen during his recent hot streak, up from 60% in both 2022 and the start of this year. That’s more frequently than he swings at in-zone fastballs. He’s chasing breaking balls more often, too, but given what happens when he catches up with one, that feels like a rational tradeoff.

To be fair, I might be reading too much into it. He’s also swinging more frequently at fastballs, particularly in the strike zone. But the breaking ball swing rates are up more, and they seem more intentional, and seriously, he’s destroying those breaking balls. It feels like a purposeful strategy, and one that’s paying dividends immediately.

How long can he keep up this new plan? I don’t want to say indefinitely, but I don’t see any obvious reason that it needs to stop. He probably won’t keep slugging .915 when he puts a breaking ball into play, but the overall profile of smashed contact on soft pitches combined with solid plate discipline speaks for itself. There’s no question Suzuki is on a hot streak at the moment, playing above his true talent level, but even a back-down-to-earth version of that is an excellent hitter.

There will, of course, be more adjustments to come. As he’s gotten more aggressive against in-zone soft stuff, pitchers haven’t changed what they’re throwing him. They’re challenging him just as frequently with those pitches. If I were an opposing pitcher, I’d try to take advantage of Suzuki’s increased aggression by throwing him more pitches outside of the strike zone. That will undoubtedly happen before long; how he adjusts to the adjustment will be interesting to watch. But I think he’ll be able to handle it; as I mentioned before, he has a good sense of the strike zone. Tilting his decision-making towards swing aggression doesn’t mean he’ll suddenly forget what the zone looks like.

All told, I’m tremendously encouraged by Suzuki’s recent surge. I try not to read too much into 100-ish PA samples; pretty much anyone can have a hot month. But the way he’s doing it feels real to me. This isn’t some fluke of soft line drives falling in all over the place or grounders finding holes in the infield. He’s just pummeling the ball, and doing it in a way that suits his game. Pulling more fastballs isn’t a cure-all for what ails hitters, and Suzuki’s turnaround is a great example. For him, the way forward was trickier than that, but that doesn’t make it less of a great plan.

All statistics in this article are current through Saturday, September 9.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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5 months ago

I remember reading something in a book by Reggie Jackson about how he always tried to hit “mid-speed” pitches, like sliders, straight up the middle. That timing would let him pull anything slower and thump fastballs to left field. Seems not dissimilar from what Suzuki’s doing now, and it illustrates that just because pulled fly balls do the most damage doesn’t necessarily mean that hitters ought to go up there focused on trying to pull the ball.