It’s been a month of firsts for Seiya Suzuki. The Chicago Cubs rookie outfielder collected his first big league hit during his first big league game, on Opening Day. His first home run followed just 48 hours later. A day after that, he helped the Cubs to a win with his first multi-homer game. Then came the honors: National League Player of the Week, followed by NL Rookie of the Month for April.
But Suzuki is missing one thing he’ll need during his major league career after spending nine seasons playing in Japan.
“I’m looking for a hobby,” Suzuki told ESPN last week through interpreter Toy Matsushita. “Practice is a lot shorter here. Also the time you get to the field is later. Batting practice isn’t as long. I have more time.”
Teammate Chris Martin, who played in Japan for several years, understood Suzuki’s amazement at the shorter work days in MLB.
“They work non-stop,” Martin said of baseball players in Japan. “They don’t feel prepared unless they’re working. Even after games, they’re doing dry swings, working out and stuff. They just kept working.”
Martin thinks that Suzuki will need to learn to turn off the “baseball switch” to keep sharp for an entire 162-game MLB season. He suggested video games or golf as good hobbies to pick up. Golf was outfielder Ian Happ‘s idea as well.
“His dad is into golf,” Happ said. “Maybe golf is the thing for him.”
The reason that the Japanese star’s potential off-the-field interests have become a topic of conversation in the Cubs’ clubhouse is because — at least in the early weeks — he already seems to have figured out the whole baseball thing.
After signing a five-year, $85 million deal in March, Suzuki has shown he can handle one of the biggest challenges for hitters coming from Japan’s NPB: facing major league velocity after moving from a league known more for finesse pitching. He has posted a 1.047 OPS against four-seam fastballs and a .947 mark against two-seamers and sinkers thus far.
In his first 11 games, he had a 1.478 OPS, but now pitchers are getting a better idea of how to pitch him. His next 11 games produced a .175 batting average and 14 strikeouts in 40 at-bats.
“The opponents didn’t know me,” Suzuki said. “There wasn’t much data about me. I was just reacting to pitches. Right now there is more data. There are different ways they’re trying to approach me.”
So, along with finding something to do with all his spare time, the 27-year-old’s challenge is proving that his hot start is the sign of a productive future in the majors and not just a first-month mirage. The Cubs, at least, have no doubt that it’s the former.
“We pursued him really hard,” president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer explained. “He was just the perfect guy for this offseason.”
When Suzuki was looking for an MLB home this offseason, the Cubs were a team without much star power. Anthony Rizzo, Javier Baez and Kris Bryant were all traded last July. Kyle Schwarber was DFA’d during the preceding offseason. The moves left Chicago without the four biggest offensive stars from its 2016 World Series roster.
But the decision to rebuild left the Cubs with money to spend and in a winter with several high-profile free agents available, they zeroed in on Suzuki early in the offseason. After a series of preliminary Zoom meetings in November, the team had to wait out the winter’s 99-day MLB lockout before making its full pitch.
One benefit to the delay: It gave the Cubs time to do their homework on Suzuki — perhaps more than on any player in recent memory.
“‘We’re going to have some time, so let’s really lock in and get a feel for what our evaluation is,'” Hoyer recalled telling his staff. “You rarely have the time to do that. Our opinion of him just kept going up.”
Shortly after the lockout ended, the Cubs brass had the opportunity to convince Suzuki to move Chicago to the top of his list.
Hoyer, manager David Ross, hitting coach Greg Brown and owner Tom Ricketts took Suzuki and Suzuki’s agent, Joel Wolfe, out to dinner in Los Angeles, where the agent was based, to make their pitch — a face-to-face opportunity Hoyer was concerned he wouldn’t have due to the speed of the offseason once free agency resumed.
While they couldn’t offer an immediate chance to win, a willingness to make a long-term commitment helped the Cubs stand out from a long list of suitors. Hoyer made it clear to Wolfe from the beginning that they were interested in a five-year deal.
“I’m sure other teams were coming in with shorter ones, offering opt outs and stuff,” Hoyer said. “I wanted to invest in him for what we are trying to build. An opt-out after two or three years, I don’t want that. That doesn’t make sense to us.”
At dinner, the Cubs pulled out all the stops in selling the team’s vision and the city of Chicago to Suzuki. A virtual presentation of Wrigley Field — complete with VR goggles — helped the process along.
“That went about as well as those things can go,” Hoyer said. “I was so locked in to just make him aware of everything we had to offer, I wasn’t really assessing things in the moment. So when we were walking to the car, I said, ‘I think it went well.’ And the other guys were like ‘you thought?’ Those guys had a little more awareness. It did go well. Then we got it done pretty quickly after that.”
Impressed by what the Cubs told him in California, Suzuki wanted to visit Chicago for himself and tour Wrigley Field in person before committing to the team. The trip sealed the deal.
“The environment was really important for me,” he said. “I wanted to get a glimpse of the city and field before signing. I just saw myself there.”
Suzuki immediately showed his personality to his new fans in Chicago. He grabbed the microphone at his introductory news conference at the Cubs’ spring training facility in Arizona to explain why he chose to wear No. 27.
“Mike Trout,” he said with a big smile. “I love you.”
When he turned on a Major League Baseball game in Japan, Suzuki would often end up watching the Angels because of Shohei Ohtani‘s popularity. But even though he shared Ohtani’s NPB history and his ability to excel on the mound and at the plate, it was the three-time MVP Trout whom Suzuki envisioned himself emulating as his MLB dream grew.
“I was a pitcher, but didn’t want to be a pitcher,” Suzuki said. “I knew I wasn’t going to be a great pitcher.”
Suzuki was selected as a pitcher by the Hiroshima Toyo Carp in the second round of the 2012 NPB draft, but became a full-time position player upon joining the team — and dominated the league as a hitter from his 2015 debut through his 2021 final season, posting a career .315 batting average, belting 182 home runs and making five NPB All-Star teams.
It hasn’t taken long for the combination of contact, power and patience that made him one of Japan’s best professional players to impress even his major league idol.
“He’s the whole package,” Trout said recently. “I talked to Shohei about him before he signed. He has a good approach up there. When he gets a ball to hit he isn’t missing it.”
After getting a firsthand view of Suzuki at the plate for a month, Cubs teammate Nick Madrigal agreed: “He takes his walks but is aggressive at the same time. I would say a very professional approach at the plate.
“And he’s a lot of fun.”
Madrigal and the other current Cubs marveled at those first couple weeks. Suzuki was in a new country, new city, new league and playing in less than ideal weather conditions. His approach never wavered. He had 12 hits and 12 walks in his first 11 games while playing solid defense in right field.
Now Suzuki must balance working to find that early-season form again with adjusting to a new schedule.
“There’s not much time to go around Chicago just yet,” Suzuki said. “I will go during off days, but I have to maintain my strength for the long season.’
As easy as he made the adjustment look in the early days, there are surely struggles ahead. But the Cubs already see that Suzuki’s ability to fit in their clubhouse showcases a personality that will win over fans in his new city.
“We’ve messed with him. He’s a good sport about it,” Martin said. “You can tell he has a really good personality. There’s a good vibe.”
Chicago is starting to feel it.