Why Seiya's hot start is for real

April 19th, 2022

Take a look at any leaderboard or his own player page, and you’ll see that by raw production, Seiya Suzuki’s MLB career is off to a fast start. He’s hit safely in all nine games where he had at least one official at-bat, tied with Andy Pafko in 1943 for the longest career-opening hitting streak by any Cubs player since at least 1901.

His .429 batting average is fifth among qualified players and his 1.493 OPS ranks third. The only players with more homers than his four are Ozzie Albies, C.J. Cron and Vladimir Guerrero Jr., with five each.

He’s been huge for the Cubs, and helped the club get off to a 6-4 start. But not all hot starts for players are created equal. It isn’t just about the results, in this case. The process stats indicate that what he’s doing is built for long-term success.

Here’s a look at below-the-surface numbers that suggest Suzuki is the real deal.

He picks his swings carefully

Suzuki has swung at 29.8% of pitches he’s seen this season, the third-lowest rate in the Majors among qualified hitters, behind only Ji-Man Choi and Spencer Torkelson (29.1% each). In his first taste of big league pitching, he’s waiting for his pitch -- more so than almost all other hitters in baseball.

“It's pretty amazing, man, to be honest with you,” Cubs catcher Yan Gomes said after Suzuki’s first home run on April 10. “And it's not so much just not swinging at pitches. He doesn't even bite at them, either. That usually happens the opposite way early on. But just having little conversations with him, you can tell he's done it. He's obviously been playing in Japan and at the higher level there for a long time.”

Leave it to a catcher to have an accurate perspective on a hitter’s plate approach. To Gomes’ point on not biting, Suzuki has a miniscule 8.4% chase rate on out-of-zone pitches, the lowest of all qualified batters. The benefits of not swinging too often and avoiding getting fooled by out-of-zone pitches are clear: it allows the batter to control the plate appearance. There are examples of players who have or have had success out of the zone, but on the whole, such contact is fruitless: the league hit .149 and slugged just .207 in at-bats ending on out-of-zone pitches in 2021.

“He knows his zone and is staying committed to that,” Cubs manager David Ross, another catcher, said. “There's not a lot of even flinching at borderline pitches. He's also struck out looking a couple times, which tells you how committed he is to his zone, which is nice. He's not going to chase.”

And makes them count

Not swinging very much and avoiding chasing could be interpreted as passiveness, but when the swinging results are as strong as Suzuki’s have been, it’s clear this isn’t just beginner’s luck. The production has already been noted: top-five ranks in batting average, OPS and home runs. But let’s go beneath the surface on the swings that produce those results.

When he does swing, Suzuki has a 20% whiff rate, which is lower than the MLB average. His average exit velocity when he makes his prolific contact is 93.4 mph, which would’ve been top-10 last season and is currently in the 88th percentile in the 2022 early going.

It isn’t just the lack of misses, and hitting the ball hard. He’s making a ton of sweet-spot contact – currently at a well-above-average rate of 50.0%. That translates to a lot of fly balls and line drives, which lead to good outcomes. It also explains how six of his 20 batted balls have been barreled; in other words, had the ideal combination of launch angle and exit velocity.

Why do we care that he’s making sweet-spot contact and barreling the ball? In 2021, the league-wide batting average in at-bats ending on sweet-spot batted balls was .596, and the slugging percentage was 1.111. And that doesn’t even factor in how hard the ball was hit. When we look at barreled batted balls, it was a .772 batting average and 2.591 slugging percentage. None of these numbers are misprints.

What’s next

"He's played at a high level. The Japanese league is a really high level,” Ross said Sunday. “Coming over here, to me what's stood out is just how calm the at-bats are, right? You hear about the plate discipline and the contact, but just being able to find his pitches and not chase outside the strike zone with the velocity that's here and some of the nasty stuff that he's faced so far, it's just been really impressive. I'm glad he feels comfortable. Yeah, it's been really impressive so far."

His manager sums it up well. And there’s no reason to believe that these fundamental tenets -- hitting the ball frequently, hard and in the air, when he does swing -- would change for Suzuki as the season wears on. These are part of a sound approach that many players would seek to replicate. His discerning plate discipline and strong approach when choosing to swing indicate that Suzuki’s success is here to stay.