First Cubs hit? Suzuki makes it a home run

New OF adjusting to MLB pitching, taking advantage of unprecedented access to data

March 31st, 2022

MESA, Ariz. -- After outfielder Seiya Suzuki's first game with the Cubs last week, manager David Ross was asked for his initial impression of the Japanese slugger's plate appearances.

"I saw a good-looking guy in a Cubs uniform," Ross said with a smile. "That's what I saw."

In Wednesday's 8-5 win over the Mariners, everyone at Sloan Park saw why the Cubs were so aggressive in their recruiting and signing of Suzuki. In the fourth inning, Suzuki sent a pitch from Seattle lefty Marco Gonzales towering high over center field, where the ball found the grassy berm to the left of the batter's eye.

For Suzuki, it marked his first career home run as a Major Leaguer, following his signing a five-year, $85 million free-agent deal with the North Siders. It also brought an end to an 0-for-8 start to his Spring Training, as he makes the adjustment to MLB pitching.

Speaking via his interpreter, Toy Matsushita, Suzuki said he was thrilled to have his first home run happen in a Cubs home ballpark.

"It felt really good to be able to hit it in front of my home fans," Suzuki said. "They were cheering me on. It felt amazing. When I went back to the dugout, the coaches, the teammates, they welcomed me and they were very, very, very happy as well. So, it just felt really good."

Behind the scenes, Suzuki has been stepping into live batting practice regularly against Chicago's arms. He has also been putting on a show in the normal rounds of BP. The power just had not yet translated to Cactus League games -- not that anyone was too worried.

"His swing is great. He works really hard," Cubs outfielder Ian Happ said. "His work is fun to watch. His BP has got a ton of pop the other way. And I'm excited to see it in games [this season]."

After his start for the Cubs, lefty Drew Smyly had exited Sloan Park and headed to the team's complex by the time Suzuki's blast landed. The pitcher lit up and said, "Right on," when he found out about the home run.

"He's got tremendous talent," Smyly said. "He's done everything he could over there. So, it's exciting to see someone with that pedigree in Japan to come over here and showcase it over here. I think he's going to be really good."

Last season with the Hiroshima Toyo Carp, Suzuki launched 38 homers, had nearly as many walks (88) as strikeouts (89) and turned in a .317/.433/.636 slash line. He has been touted as one of the most polished professional bats to make the jump from Nippon Professional Baseball to the Majors.

That said, the Cubs' evaluators -- along with Suzuki -- expect there to be an adjustment period to MLB arms. Suzuki noted Wednesday that the delivery motions he has faced here are much different from what he saw in his home country. There is also the matter of higher velocity and sharper breaking pitches.

"I enjoy those new challenges," Suzuki said.

Suzuki also said that he was not armed with the wealth of data and information now available to him from the Cubs. That will become even more fine-tuned after Spring Training, when the outfielder will have detailed scouting reports to consult.

Suzuki is looking forward to diving into all of it as he continues to learn and adapt to facing new pitchers.

"In Japan, I didn't have this much data to look at," Suzuki said. "Obviously, it's very, very detailed, and most of the pitchers here I've never faced. So, I'll like to use that data, use those scouting reports and get a better at-bat."

The adjustments have already been evident this spring.

There were five strikeouts within Suzuki's eight hitless at-bats to begin the spring, though he was called out on some borderline pitches in his first two games. He has shown increased plate discipline -- drawing one walk, working the count better and putting the ball in play more often.

"The only time I was nervous was the first at-bat in my first game," Suzuki said. "Other than that, I've been just trying to make adjustments, just trying to learn from every at-bat."

Suzuki was 0-for-2 with a swinging strikeout and a flyout in his first two trips to the plate against Gonzales. In their third meeting, the slugger misfired badly on a first-pitch changeup and whiffed early. Two pitches later, Suzuki's powerful swing connected.

"Obviously, it went over the wall," Suzuki said. "So, it went pretty well."