On Sunday, in a game which can be seen on Peacock at 12:05 pm, the Chicago Cubs play the Phillies at Citizens Bank Park. The Cubs don’t have a lot going for them this season, but one thing they got right was purchasing rookie right fielder Seiya Suzuki.
Suzuki led Nippon Professional Baseball in on-base percentage and slugging percentage last season and is a two-time Central League batting champion. As one of the hottest names in free agency this offseason, Suzuki signed a 5-year, $85M deal with the Cubs (plus an additional $14.6 million dollar posting fee).
The Chicago Cubs’ payroll has gone down in each of the last four seasons, so the March 17 signing of Suzuki may have been a bit of a surprise. But this organization has had quite a number of Japanese position players. Think of Kosuke Fukodome, Munenori Kawasaki, and So Taguchi.
I still marvel at how difficult a transition it must be for a player to make the jump from Japan over to America, with the language and cultural barriers. What’s it like to be the only player in the clubhouse that speaks the same language as you do? Even with a translator, it must be so frustrating and lonely.
Seiya struggled — in fact from April 28 to May 24, he batted .169/.235/.286. And on May 26, he went on the IL after injuring his left ring finger on a slide.
Since returning from the Injured List, Suzuki in his last 13 games before the All-Star Break, was batting .356/.396/.511 with 2 HR and 5 RBI. Not only that, Sunday will be Suzuki’s 20th day game of the season. In day games, he is batting .356/.458/.695.
He hasn’t been great, he hasn’t drawn a lot of national attention, and yet his OBP in the first half is .355.
Ichiro Suzuki — the great Ichiro — had a lifetime OBP of .355.
In Ichiro’s rookie season of 2001, he batted .350, had 242 hits, stole 56 bases and had an OPS of .838. He won Rookie of the Year and MVP.
But Ichiro’s OPS+ was virtually the same as Seiya’s in their rookie campaigns. Ichiro had an OPS+ of 126. Seiya has an OPS+ of 125.
They share the same family name, but they are not related and they are very, very different baseball players.
Seiya has a batting eye that Ted Williams would approve of. Seiya averages 4.27 pitches per plate appearance. He simply wears pitchers out. Ichiro in his rookie year, averaged 3.43 pitches/plate appearance (and 3.64 in his career). Seiya makes contact on more than 23% of his swings, one of the highest percentages in baseball.
And Seiya had a career-high 38 HR and 1.073 OPS during his final season in NPB. That’s cleanup power that Ichiro didn’t have. Like Ichiro, they are both excellent defensive players, Seiya being a Gold Glove winner in each of the last five seasons.
Brad Lefton, a freelance journalist who specializes in Japanese baseball and covered Ichiro for more than 20 years, draws a line in the sand at my comparing the two.
“Ichiro is a once-in-a-generation player. Sure he was talented and gifted, but his smarts to understand the game — understand everything — separate him. There aren’t a lot of players like Seiya. He’s a good quality outfielder with speed and power. But he’s not Ichiro.”
Ok, fair enough. My next question for Lefton was this: Has Shohei Ohtani diminished Ichiro’s accomplishments in the eyes of American baseball fans?
“It’s possible in America, but not in Japan,” Lefton said. “To the Japanese baseball fans, Ohtani is carrying the symbolic torch. Hideo Nomo proved in 1995 that it is possible for pitchers to come over from Japan and succeed in the major leagues. Ichiro proved that it is possible for a position player to come over and succeed. And Ohtani, well, he’s proving that an unimaginable talent is possible.”
Ichiro will be eligible for the Hall of Fame in 2025, and should be a first-ballot Hall of Famer. He finished with 3,089 hits in Major League Baseball and another 1,278 in the Japan Pacific League. That’s a grand total of 4,367 hits.
Not even the most optimistic members of the Cubs’ front office can expect the production from Seiya that the Mariners got from Ichiro. But Seiya — like Ichiro — spent nine years playing professionally in Japan. Seiya batted .302 with a .402 OBP and hit 189 homers in Japan, and is spending his age-27 season as a rookie in the States.
There aren’t a lot of players like Seiya Suzuki. It’s going to be fun to watch his development.
And as for the Mariners, well, they have a rookie outfielder that had the nation sit up and take notice of him at Monday’s Home Run Derby. Julio Rodriguez is that traditional rookie, only 21 years old. What power! As Ken Griffey, Jr. said about him, “Quit comparing him to me. Let that man create his own path.”
J-Rod had 81 total dingers in Monday night’s Derby, including 32 homers in round one. He made more money from finishing second in the Derby than he will for his entire season salary (he’s making the major-league minimum salary).
Julio is having quite the rookie season. His wRC+ is 145, and his fWAR of 2.9 puts him in the top 20 or 24 players in the game. Again, he’s 21 years old! And he’s leading the Seattle Mariners, the hottest team in baseball.
Seattle hasn’t made the postseason since 2001, when Ichiro was a rookie. Rodriguez was born on December 29, 2000. The Mariners haven’t made the postseason since J-Rod was 10 months old.
In the 24 games before the All-Star break, Rodriguez batted .301/.365/.634 with 8 HR and 22 RBI in the 24 games. Oh, the Mariners were 21-3 in those games.
What’s going on in Philadelphia?
The Phillies were floundering but their fans are excited at their play over the last month. They replaced Joe Girardi, and interim manager Rob Thomson led the team to a 27-14 mark over his first 41 games.
Philadelphia isn’t as good a team as the Mets or Braves, but there still may be room for a postseason berth.
Kyle Schwarber in his last 42 games (since June 1) has hit 18 home runs, more than anyone in baseball. Is it Thomson’s managing, or Schwarber’s slugging? Both? Neither?
Rob Thomson served as the bench coach or third-base coach for Joe Girardi for all 10 years of Girardi’s tenure as manager of the Yankees. And he served as Girardi’s bench coach/confidante in Philadelphia, as well. The two were, and are, good friends.
If the Phillies capture a postseason spot, does Girardi get any of the credit? For that matter, does Thomson? Will he be rewarded with the job on a permanent basis?
This happens quite a lot in professional sports. If anyone watched the recent mini-series Winning Time (about the 1979-1980 Showtime Lakers) they’ll recognize the team won when the assistant coaches Pat Riley and Paul Westhead took over for Jack McKinney (in his case, replaced early in the season due to head injuries sustained in a bicycle accident). It looked like the assistant coaches showed disloyalty to their mentor. It’s a tough spot for a career lifer like Thomson, getting his first crack at managing a major league club. Girardi and Thomson are tight and have been through so much. It must have been bittersweet for Rob to get the job.
It’s one thing to go on a good run when a managerial change is made, another to make it work long-term. Thomson got the bullpen sorted out—well, as sorted out as it could be. And he’s just being himself, learning to let the staff do their job and communicating as best he can.
I hope the 58-year-old Thomson can have some fun at the job, as well.
How to Watch:
|Sun., July 24||MLB Sunday Leadoff Pregame||11:30 a.m.||Peacock|
|Sun., July 24||Cubs vs. Phillies||12:05 p.m.||Peacock|