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A Cubsmas Advent Calendar: The September of Seiya Suzuki

Has the Cubs right fielder finally broken out?

Seiya Suzuki at the plate against the Brewers in September
Photo by John Fisher/Getty Images

This is the final day of a Cubsmas Advent Calendar. You can read the explanation for the project and Day One here.

Yesterday the Dodgers added phenom pitcher Yoshinobu Yamamoto to their roster with a 12-year contract worth $325 million. When you tack that onto the Shohei Ohtani deal and the Tyler Glasnow extension, the Dodgers have committed well over $1 billion to free agents this offseason, while the Cubs... well, we are still waiting to find out what the Cubs will do. I’m not going to lie, being a Cubs fan watching the Dodgers from afar with Jed Hoyer and Carter Hawkins promises of intelligent spending feels a little bit like when the adults promised frozen yogurt was just as good as ice cream when you were a kid. It wasn’t really and we all knew it, but there wasn’t anything children could be expected to do about it other than pretend the frozen yogurt was as good as we were promised.

However, rather than wallow in the feeling that it’s going to be veggie chips rather than potato chips in Wrigleyville for the foreseeable future, on the last day of Cubsmas Advent I wanted to take a closer look at one of those intelligent spending deals. Almost two years ago the Cubs signed a Japanese star of their own: Seiya Suzuki. He arrived in MLB with an exclamation point, quickly earning an NL Player of the Week award and adding an NL Rookie of the Month award as Al wrote at the time:

In 21 April games, Suzuki hit .279/.405/.529 (19-for-68) with five doubles, four home runs, 13 runs scored and 14 walks. All of that, plus solid defense in right field, has been good for 0.9 bWAR so far this year, which is a good figure for one month.

That performance got Suzuki named National League Rookie of the Month for April. He had won a NL Player of the Week award for the week ending April 17.

However the league adjusted to Suzuki, and that, combined with injuries, created a bit of a roller coaster ride for Seiya in his first two years in the league as you can see from this 15-game rolling wOBA chart from FanGraphs:

15-game rolling wOBA

A few notes here: wOBA is the perfect stat for tracking Suzuki’s overall production because it is basically his on-base percentage plus with more weight given to extra base hits than singles or walks. Additionally, while Seiya has never gotten back to quite the absurd peak he entered the league with, his last 50 or so games look like a diffrent peak than at any time earlier in his career. If Seiya’s most recent adjustments are sustainable, the Cubs may have a Japanese star of their own in right field next year at a fraction of the cost of Ohtani or Yamamoto.

First up, let’s look at that rolling wOBA chart with Seiya’s strikeout rate overlaid on top of it. As you can see, during this most recent spike Seiya was really seeing the ball well. In fact, his K rate dropped about 10 percentage points from 26.5 percent in July down to 16.5% in August. He sustained that lower strikeout rate with an 18 percent mark in September:

Rolling wOBA and K rate

That substantially lowered strikeout rate could be a real advancement for Suzuki, especially if he can sustain it over the course of a season. It appears at least some of that improvement is coming from seeing certain pitches better — notably sliders, as you can see below:

Seiya Suzuki results by pitch type

Pitch Type 22 # 23 # 22 SLG 23 SLG 22 K% 23 K% 22 HH% 23 HH%
Pitch Type 22 # 23 # 22 SLG 23 SLG 22 K% 23 K% 22 HH% 23 HH%
4-Seam 581 675 .523 .442 21.0% 32.3% 54.9% 69.0%
Sinker 351 532 .511 .500 19.8% 14.2% 48.6% 54.3%
Slider 371 432 .291 .605 33.0% 21.9% 26.0% 45.6%
Changeup 152 248 .265 .309 25.6% 23.7% 33.3% 31.7%
Curve 163 183 .448 .385 33.3% 18.5% 36.8% 32.6%
Cutter 152 207 .314 .395 23.1% 26.9% 29.6% 43.3%
Sweeper 58 121 .538 .548 38.5% 18.8% 25.0% 24.0%
Select stats Statcast

Suzuki’s approach against sliders last season improved considerably. In 2022, Seiya had a .291 SLG against sliders while striking out against them a third of the time. In 2023 he’s improved his slugging against sliders to .609 while only striking out against them 21.9 percent of the time. Notably, he’s also hitting sliders much harder than he did before. There are still improvements to be made, especially against curveballs and changeups, but he is striking out less against those pitches even if he’s not yet hitting them especially hard.

Steamer currently projects the Cubs right fielder for 599 plate appearances with a .264/.346/.459 slashline and a wRC+ of 118 that is right in the middle of his two MLB seasons to date. That would be an underperformance of his 2023 campaign that saw him slash .285/.357/.485 with a wRC+ of 126.

Projections should be cautious and land right in the middle of demonstrated results so far, that said, I can’t help but dream on a Suzuki breakout in 2024 that looks more like the end of his 2023. In the second half last season Seiya hit .313/.372/.566. His wRC+ was 149 and he lowered his strikeout rate to 20 percent while still walking 9.1 percent of the time. That performance over the course of a full season would be quite the boon for the Cubs lineup. While no qualified hitters put up a 149 wRC+ over the course of last season, it pretty squarely lands between the eighth-best hitter by wRC+, Juan Soto with 155 and the 9th best hitter by wRC+, Bryce Harper at 142. That’s quite the upside in performance for a player who has three more years left with the Cubs at the cost of $17 million a season — intelligent spending, indeed.