After finishing strong in '23, Suzuki aims to be 'that bat' in '24

March 13th, 2024

MESA, Ariz. -- The Cubs do not believe what did in the batter’s box over the season’s final two months last year was an aberration. There is hope that the outfielder finally realized his potential down the stretch of his second year of Major League acclimation.

The Cubs signed Suzuki out of Japan three springs ago due to his blend of power and patience, plus his status as one of the stars of Nippon Professional Baseball. In August and September, he looked the part and was one of baseball’s elite batters, setting a foundation for an important campaign as a crucial bat for a Chicago team hunting for October.

“He realizes that he can be that bat in our lineup. And he wants to be,” Cubs hitting coach Dustin Kelly said. “That's one of the things that he talks about, is like, he showed everybody how good he really is. And it wasn't just like a hot two-week period.”

To provide a snapshot of how well Suzuki played over the final two months of the season, the Cubs right fielder posted a 183 wRC+ during that span. The only two qualified Major League hitters ranked above him in that time period were Mookie Betts (194) and Marcell Ozuna (186). Behind Suzuki were Ronald Acuña Jr. and Bryce Harper.

Looking at that list, it is not hyperbole to say Suzuki was one of the best hitters in the game to finish the season. Cubs manager Craig Counsell -- managing against Suzuki in the Brewers dugout for the past two years -- said it became increasingly difficult to game plan against the slugger as he learned the league and elevated his production.

“It's one of those hitters that, it's the most dangerous hitter,” Counsell said, “because there's lots of hits in there and there's damage, right? And that always means like, ‘What do we do?’ It leaves less options for pitchers, because the damage, it scares pitchers when you're game planning.”

Counsell then let out a slight chuckle.

“When you're starting to say about a hitter, 'Well, this is where he can't hurt you, but you know you're gonna give up hits,’ like, that's a good hitter,” the manager added. “That's where Seiya kind of got to -- to me -- at the end of last year.”

Suzuki was at a low point in early August, leading to a mental break for a few games. Then, after returning to the lineup on Aug. 9, Suzuki hit .356/.414/.672 with 11 homers, 15 doubles and 37 RBIs in his final 47 contests. Among batters with at least 150 plate appearances in that period, only Betts (.360) had a higher batting average and only Ozuna (.721) had a higher slugging percentage.

The handful of games off helped Suzuki hit reset on his mindset and he returned with some tweaks to his routine and approach.

Behind the scenes, Suzuki cut down on the volume of his swings and learned from the cage routines of players like Dansby Swanson, Cody Bellinger and Ian Happ. Suzuki teamed with the Cubs’ hitting coaches on more targeted drills and started planning his work in advance, reducing inconsistency from day to day.

“It was just about creating a plan beforehand,” Suzuki said via his interpreter, Toy Matsushita, “and making sure I complete those tasks every day. Prior, it was more of, I'd get to the field and I'd kind of decide at that point what I want to do. But I know when things were going well for me, it was just creating things beforehand. That really helped me mentally.”

Suzuki also became a much more aggressive hitter both in early-count situations and on pitches in the zone.

In August, Suzuki’s rate of swings within the first three pitches climbed to a season-high 28 percent. It dropped to 22.4 percent in September, but that was still higher than any of the first four months. That result was a jump in slugging and a decrease in strikeout rate, while only experiencing a slight drop in his overall walk rate.

“A big part of it is just using his eye and using his plate discipline to his advantage,” Kelly said. “Knowing that he can get to some pitches that were in the heart of the zone earlier in the count just really helped open up the aggressiveness. And what it ended up doing is it just put a little bit more fear into the pitchers.”

Suzuki believes he can do the same thing again this season.

“I finished off the season pretty strong last year,” Suzuki said. “I've been able to continue that same type of feeling that I had when I finished the season. And I still feel like I have that same mentality coming into this season. I’m just really excited for what’s ahead.”