It’s been a curious offseason for the Chicago Cubs, who I still peg as being a season or two away from seriously contending after last year’s trade deadline fire sale. However, they are closer to contending now than they were before they signed 27 year old outfielder Seiya Suzuki to a 5-year, $85 million contract. There have been a lot of reactions to the newest Cubs outfielder, who made his debut with the team at Sloan Park last week. Today, I want to take a closer look at the numbers, or at least what we know about the numbers, to get an idea of what Suzuki could bring to the Cubs.
We’ll get into triple slash lines and advanced metrics in a second, but before I do, the most important numbers in this signing are, honestly, the years of the contract and Suzuki’s age. Suzuki is only 27 and he will be a Chicago Cub through his playing peak until at least his age-32 season in 2026. This means that even though Suzuki is unlikely to put the Cubs in the postseason in 2022, he projects to be a difference-maker in 2023 and 2024 when the prospects the Cubs netted from trading Yu Darvish, Victor Caratini, Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant and Javier Báez begin to arrive on the North Side of Chicago.
When the Cubs held their press conference introducing Suzuki to fans in Chicago, President of Baseball Operations, Jed Hoyer said Suzuki “can hit for power, but doesn’t swing and miss a lot.” That second part of the description is important for a team whose boom-and-bust offense has been characterized by a lot of home runs and a commensurate number of strikeouts.
I ran some leaderboards at FanGraphs and excluded pitchers to make the leagues as comparable as possible. Even with trading their potent core players last season the Cubs finished the season with the 11th most home runs in the majors. But that power came with a price and the Cubs lead all of baseball in strikeout percent. Chicago Cubs hitters struck out a whopping 25.9 percent of the time in 2021. One player obviously cannot fix a team hitting philosophy built on the three true outcomes, but it is a notable move in a different direction.
Dan Szymborski at FanGraphs ran Suzuki’s projections through his ZiPS system and projected an above average corner outfielder who’d slash .287/.351/.480 with 23 home runs and 12 stolen bases in 2022. You can see how he projected Suzuki’s performance in a neutral park through 2026 below:
As you can imagine, projecting Suzuki into a new league adds some variance into the numbers that Dan Szymborski deals with in his piece:
Given that we have no specific information to indicate that he’s changed his mind (and given that NPB is just about a week away from exhibition games), we’ll work under the assumption that Suzuki will sign with an MLB team at some point in 2022. And what might that team expect from Suzuki? Obviously, any projection will take some of the air out of that lofty OPS. After all, Tyler Austin and Domingo Santana were both elite hitters in 2021, and while it’s likely that they’ve improved, neither seems destined to become a superstar if transplanted back overseas. But the ZiPS translations for Suzuki put him in the .280 to .290 range in batting average — almost Wade Boggs in 2020s MLB — with 20-30 homers per year and an OBP somewhere around .350. Translations for NPB aren’t going to be quite as accurate as the ones for organized baseball over here, but at this point, we have a great deal of data from the players coming back and forth from Japan, considerably more than we have for Korea.
I reached out to Dan to get some updated numbers for Suzuki in Wrigley Field because the current ZiPS DC numbers at FanGraphs are in the process of being updated, and Cubs fans should be pleasantly surprised that the numbers are very comparable to the original projection, showing Suzuki slashing .287/.350/.484 with 24 home runs for his new team. Some quick math projects Suzuki for a K-rate of approximately 18.4 percent, which is quite an outlier relative to that 25.9 percent team baseline from 2021.
Suzuki was asked what he thought the biggest adjustment to major league pitching would be at his press conference, Seiya answered, “Obviously the pitchers here are different than Japan... I’m not scared of adjusting to the game here I’m going to input what I need and get used to my at bats here.”
I think Cubs fans should expect a bit of a learning curve here, but it may not be as dramatic as you think. In 2017 Eno Sarris looked at the differences between NPB and MLB batting and pitching experiences for FanGraphs. I’d encourage you to read the whole thing, but this jumped out at me:
First-pitch strike percentage is defined differently in Japan — or, at least it is on DeltaGraphs, the site from which I’ve gathered this data. Kazuto Yamazaki confirmed that it’s all pitches in the zone on the first pitch, while the one on FanGraphs is all strikes on the first pitch, swinging, fouled, or taken.
Otherwise… baseball is played the same way at the plate, it seems. For all the talk that the NPB is contact-oriented league whose batters swing more often, the differences are minor. Compare the difference in contact rate between NPB and MLB (1.4 points) and MLB and High-A (9.7 points). The contrast is stark.
Perhaps the biggest difference that Suzuki will face is that pitchers in the United States throw the ball at consistently higher velocities than they do in Japan. Keven Goldstein at FanGraphs broke this down relative to expectations for Suzuki as follows:
The biggest unanswered question for Suzuki, as is the case with any hitter coming over from Asia, is how he will do against consistent high-end velocity. The kind of radar-gun readings that earn middle-relief work in the big leagues are what players see from closers in Japan, and while the data we do have on him against higher-end fastballs is encouraging, it’s just not a large enough sample size to provide full assuredness of hit tool replication.
Seiya moves the needle for the Cubs in the short-term, but most projection systems still see the Cubs as a third- or fourth-place team in the NL Central. Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA system sees them as a 72-win team, FanGraphs is a bit more optimistic at 75 wins, but let’s be clear, even with expanded playoffs these systems still see the Cubs on the outside looking in for 2022.
However, there are two ways the Suzuki signing impacts the Cubs beyond wins and losses. First, it adds an everyday outfielder to an already crowded outfield. Suzuki is in Chicago to play, and since he plays right field due to his plus arm strength that means the logjam of playing time will most likely occur in center and left field. The player most immediately impacted by this signing is Jason Heyward who should log some time in center field but likely moves to a fourth outfielder/defensive replacement role if his offensive woes continue and two of Ian Happ, Clint Frazier or Rafeal Ortega manage a hot streak. I think this signing pretty clearly led the Cubs to trade Harold Ramirez to the Tampa Bay Rays one day after arrived at Spring Training. I’ll have a more in-depth look at the crowded Cubs outfield before Opening Day.
Second, and perhaps less obviously, by signing Suzuki the Cubs ensured some other teams did not sign him. That includes divisional rivals who would have improved their playoff odds quite a bit more than the Cubs in 2022 by adding Suzuki to their rosters according to ZiPS:
NL Central playoff probability with or without Suzuki
|Team||Playoff probability||With Suzuki||Difference|
|Team||Playoff probability||With Suzuki||Difference|
In Seiya Suzuki a strikeout-prone Cubs team added a five-tool player who is more contact-oriented than the last core of players. The Cubs should see the best of Suzuki’s MLB career at Wrigley Field, and while it did almost double their chances of making the playoffs in 2022, it still seems fairly unlikely that the Cubs will be in this year’s postseason conversation. However, signing Seiya Suzuki isn’t about the Cubs playing deep into October in 2022. Signing Suzuki is about the Cubs having a strong contact hitter playing right field for them as the next great Cubs team arrives at the Friendly Confines in 2023 and beyond.