Suzuki aims to attack fastballs in sophomore year

First, outfielder's new look will be on display in World Baseball Classic

February 11th, 2023

MESA, Ariz. -- emerged from the Cubs' complex on Saturday morning and headed to the cage, bat handles protruding from the equipment bag over his shoulder. The outfielder then heard a boisterous shout that carried across the agility field.

Suzuki beamed upon seeing manager David Ross, and the Japanese slugger raised his right arm and flexed. After the pair shook hands and embraced, Ross lifted up Suzuki's right sleeve and inspected the results of the past four-plus months of training.

"It's a completely new year for me," Suzuki said via his interpreter, Toy Matsushita. "I don't want to dwell on what I did last year. It's a new year -- a new me. Mentality-wise, I'll be way more used to the environment."

Suzuki is coming off a rookie season that included plenty of peaks and valleys as he navigated the Major Leagues for the first time after starring in Japan. Beyond the pressure of the five-year, $85 million contract he signed with the Cubs, Suzuki had to deal with a shortened Spring Training, the longer MLB schedule, the differences in travel and acclimating to a new country.

That does not even touch on the adjustments Suzuki had to make on the field, learning how to adjust to the new deliveries, pitches and velocity he was facing in the big leagues. Over the offseason, as Suzuki prepared for the World Baseball Classic and his sophomore tour with the Cubs, he took all he learned and set his training priorities.

"My first year in the big leagues," Suzuki said, "I felt like I could be better stamina-wise and physicality-wise. So that's what I concentrated on over the offseason. Just all-around, make sure I have the power -- not just upper body, but lower body, as well. And just trying to get used to the fastballs -- the fast velocity is different. So I wanted to make sure I had the physicality going into this season."

First things first, Suzuki will test things out in the Classic.

The 28-year-old Suzuki remembers watching Japan win the World Baseball Classic in the first two tournaments (2006 and 2009) with stars like , , and . This year's Japan team also includes Darvish, as well as superstar .

Suzuki was part of the ’17 Japan team that went 6-1 in the Classic -- the lone defeat coming in the semifinals against the United States.  He is hoping to help his country recapture its early WBC glory.

"We're going to go in there pretty strong. We want to win a lot of games," Suzuki said. "Watching the World Baseball Classic on TV when I was a kid, it really motivated me to one day be on that team. Now that I'm playing in the World Baseball Classic, I want to be that figure for all the kids that are going to be watching."

Japan is part of Pool B, which also includes Korea, Australia, China and the Czech Republic. Pool play runs from March 9-13 in Tokyo, which is also where the quarterfinals will be held from March 15-16. The semifinals (March 19-20) and the championship (March 21) will take place in Miami.

If Japan goes the distance, as Suzuki hopes, there would be a week left of Cactus League games before camp breaks and the Cubs prepare for Opening Day. No matter what path Suzuki's preseason schedule presents, he feels equipped for the year ahead.

In 111 games last year, Suzuki posted a slash line of .262/.336/.433 with 14 home runs, 22 doubles, 46 RBIs and 54 runs scored. After a strong April (.934 OPS), Suzuki endured slumps and injury setbacks that knocked his production down to a .241 average and .717 OPS by Aug. 20. Over his final 32 games, though, Suzuki slashed .315/.392/.514 to give him a strong showing to carry into the winter months.

"Training-wise, I feel like I'm well-prepared," he said. "In terms of last season, I don't feel like I was able to do much for the team, so I want to run it back and make sure I do well."

As for that impromptu flex on Saturday morning, Suzuki laughed. He said that was less about his own workouts and more about the shape Ross was in when the manager arrived to Arizona.

"Rossy looked big last year, but this year he looks really small," Suzuki quipped. "He's always eating chocolate. I've got to make sure he's not doing that this year."