Nothing in the tumultuous 2021-22 offseason we are traversing is normal, and with the ongoing lockout, what we assume will happen is not guaranteed. One such uncertainty falls at the feet of 27-year-old Nippon Pro Baseball outfielder Seiya Suzuki, whose posting to Major League Baseball clubs was slated to be an oft-watched pot upon the hot stove this offseason.
Boasting video-game numbers over his 2021 campaign and herculean power reminiscent of some of the greatest NPB exports we’ve ever seen, Suzuki is truly a unique player deserving of the attention.
A pair of deals stand in the way of Suzuki’s major league debut, though. Beyond the ambiguity of whether MLB team owners and MLBPA will come to a new Collective Bargaining Agreement for the season to begin in some semblance of ‘regular’ time – the uncertainty of whether Suzuki can agree to terms with an MLB team within his posting window is a mystery all its own. As if the delicate navigation of signing a player was not formidable enough, Suzuki will have a terse 20 days to make his own agreement with an MLB team.
This time crunch is a thorny obstacle, though not one which is entirely warranted. Earlier this month, Suzuki seemed to assuage fears of a return to NPB in a highly-recommended interview with the Athletic’s Andrew Baggarly.
In an effort to push through the mucky-muck of uncertainty and towards the castle made of clouds, let’s assume first a new Collective Bargaining Agreement is settled and baseball resumes as normal. Our second assumption, wherein Suzuki reaches an agreement with an MLB team, is the crux of the conversation I wish to initiate today – “what can we expect from Seiya Suzuki in MLB, and how can he benefit fantasy teams?”
WHAT WE KNOW ABOUT SEIYA SUZUKI
We all know Nippon Pro Baseball is not Major League Baseball – but we should also know Seiya Suzuki is a truly unique player. Fair enough. But how then, is NPB different from MLB?
From a gameplay perspective, many NPB stadiums use artificial turf fields which leads to higher rates of ground ball singles. Stadiums are more compact on average and have shorter fences than their American counterparts, leading to greater home run output among players. Curiously though, the NPB power-category leaders are most often foreign-born players. The rarity then, of Japanese players with considerable power skills translating completely to MLB is great. Pitching staffs are managed differently in NPB, and a batter seeing only a pair of pitchers in a given day is commonplace, as opposed to more liberal bullpen use in America.
Another major difference is in the NPB ball. MLB baseballs are generally larger and heavier than those in NPB. Furthermore, the wear-and-tear of a season is also less severe in NPB, as they play 144 games as opposed to MLB’s 162, and travel through Japan is less time-consuming than it can be in America.
Rather than taking a three-point stance to tackle the issues individually, the better approach is to assure you again – Suzuki is a unique player. Scouring his three-year averages, Suzuki hit .317/.432/.582 with about 91 runs, 30 home runs, 27 doubles, 83 runs batted in, 13 stolen bases, and 81 strikeouts per season. Oh, baby.
In the 2021 season specifically, he shines brightly when compared to the average NPB player:
|2021 NPB AVERAGE||0.279||467||131||24||2||15||59||61||83||51||7||0.353||0.433||0.277||0.787||0.308|
Beyond the statistics above, Suzuki’s comfortable in the outfield, normally playing right field but with enough natural speed to man center and boasting an absolute hose of an arm to keep runners honest. On the basepaths, he’s no slouch either, but his method of keeping pitchers on their toes is more Goldschmidt-Esque ‘game intelligence’ than Billy Hamilton ‘press and steal.’ This Baseball IQ also encompasses Suzuki’s exceptional approach at the plate. For many stretches of the 2021 season, his walk rate was higher than or equal to his strikeout rate of around 17 percent.
As if it needs any more praise than the graph above can say alone, the calling card for Suzuki is unequivocally his lumber.
Seriously…HE SLUGGED .639!
WHAT WE CAN ASSUME ABOUT SEIYA SUZUKI
The point remains, though – Nippon Pro Baseball is not Major League Baseball.
At some point or another in our fandom and research into the different levels of the game, we’ve seen NPB (and all professional leagues not named MLB) labeled “something between AAA and MLB,” or “glorified AAAA.”
No, no, NPB is a professional baseball league of the highest standard. The disparity of talent from one league to another is inarguable, though, and beyond unfair or misinformed exaggerations of level-versus-level or league-versus-league, MLB is a different animal than anything Seiya Suzuki has ever faced. Again, though, and feel free to say it with me:
“Seiya Suzuki is a unique player.”
You’re getting good at this!
Still, though, when considering the upcoming leap in competition, the potential workload increases, and the cultural pressures which come packaged with moving across the planet to take a highly publicized new job, Suzuki’s numbers are bound to fluctuate. All told, I feel the best pool of players with which to compare Suzuki at this point in their careers are those whose footsteps he follows from Japan to the Show.
In terms of methodology, I found a simple approach to be the most appropriate. “How did ten of the other highest-profile NPB posted players perform in their final year in Japan, in their first year in MLB, and what were the percentage differences found from year to year?”
The answers are as varied as the players themselves.
The quartet of So Taguchi, Tsuyoshi Nishioka, Yoshi Tsutsugo, and Shogo Akiyama each stepped into part-time roles in their first stateside seasons and saw their numbers plummet to career lows on the virtues of lost playing time. This is understandable, yet a disappointing reality of MLB hosting a vast collection of the world’s top-tier talent – not everyone can play every game. All told, these four ‘Part-Timers,’ as I will collect them moving forward, saw an average of 65 percent fewer games played, 81 percent fewer hits, 93 percent fewer home runs, and 46 percent fewer stolen bases in their first seasons.
Granted, six players stepped into full-or-nearly-full-time roles with their new teams and seemed to have a smoother path to replicating their previous year’s numbers. Ichiro Suzuki, Hideki Matsui, Kazuo Matsui, Kosuke Fukudome, Nori Aoki, and Shohei Ohtani played about 13 percent more games than in their previous seasons, stole roughly seventy-eight percent more bases, and only suffered two percent fewer hits and 16 percent fewer home runs from season-to-season! These ‘Full-Timers’ were all productive major leaguers in their first campaigns, albeit with slightly elevated stolen base rates in the cases of Ichiro and Aoki.
Looking at the crop of ten players in their final seasons of NPB play, several similarities jump out in terms of individual numbers and in terms of their relative closeness in total to Seiya Suzuki’s final slate.
At first glance, the comparisons between Suzuki’s 2021 season and the ‘Part Time’ group’s final efforts are few and far between, with the most pertinent year-to-year comparison through this collection being Yoshi Tsutsugo’s 2019 campaign. Respectfully, Tsutsugo is not the most complimentary comparison to a player of Seiya Suzuki’s hype and pedigree despite his interesting conclusion to the 2021 season in Pittsburgh. Either way, Tsutsugo’s hits, doubles, runs, and RBI totals are similar to Suzuki’s in their final seasons.
Of the ‘Full-Time’ crew, two names settle at the top of the pack comparatively: Kosuke Fukudome and Shohei Ohtani.
Okay, okay, calm down. This is not me saying Ohtani is an applicable comparison to Suzuki. As a matter of fact, I’ll go on record and say Suzuki will not and should not have the level of buzz Ohtani had upon his first season in MLB. Either way, there’s truth in the numbers, most pertinently their similar AVG, OBP, SLG, and OPS figures. Fukudome’s 2006, though, appears to be a closer match to Suzuki’s 2021 season than any other of the pool. The batting rates are MORE comparable than Suzuki and Ohtani’s, but Fukudome’s HR total is closer to Suzuki’s in their final season.
These are all arbitrary comparisons by nature, and while I personally find the most similarity between Suzuki and the trio of Fukudome, Tsutsugo, and Ohtani’s final years in NPB, you may find a different conclusion. Maybe even a deduction a little closer to home?
WHAT WE CAN PREDICT FOR 2022
It should be obvious Suzuki’s 2021 in NPB was a far cry from the average AAA player’s numbers in 2021. Again though, and for the hundredth time:
“Seiya Suzuki is a unique player.”
I considered Frankensteining AAA players’ best 2021 statistics together to challenge Suzuki – but he’d still compare strongly against the fictional AAA monster. Trying again to best predict future results, I averaged the percentage difference data in the players’ final years in NPB and their first years in MLB I referenced earlier. I multiplied Suzuki’s 2021 NPB numbers by the average percentages, but those numbers are still based upon other players’ skills and other teams’ constructs.
Honestly? None of these methods can make a condign prediction for Seiya Suzuki’s expected production in 2022 MLB. The jump will be a difficult one to make, and as such it is incredibly difficult to forecast the MLB career of Suzuki, let alone set forth reasonable projections for his first stateside season. Many may even call this a fool’s proposition.
Fortunately, I am precisely the fool for the job and have managed to compile what I consider to be a relatively modest projection for Suzuki’s first MLB season.
First and foremost, these assume a full(-ish) share of at-bats for an MLB team in 2022 in order to be remotely accurate, so let’s suppose Suzuki is granted these opportunities.
Second, it’s important to understand the main reason I believe Seiya Suzuki can and will be successful in MLB is his exceptional plate discipline. Check out how Suzuki’s average swing rate, contact rate, O-Swing rate (swings at pitches outside the strike zone divided by pitches outside the zone), and swinging-strike rate best compared to any of his future fellow major leaguers:
What great company to be included with – truly a crop of hitters who excel at getting on base. Much like the other OBP monsters above, Suzuki’s patience and eye keep him from swinging at pitches outside of the zone, and when he does struggle he will usually know when to swing. Granted, it is certain he will see better pitching than he ever has, and with it, will probably swing and miss at a higher rate than normal, but the skills are in place to rectify the mistakes he might make against MLB arms.
While we have been fortunate to see talented players posted from Nippon Pro Baseball in our lifetime, Seiya Suzuki is a truly unique player, and I believe he will be a winning addition to your fantasy teams in 2022 – should everything shake out with the timing issues against him. Without further ado, here are my projections for Seiya Suzuki’s 2022 in MLB:
Pouring over Ariel Cohen’s ATC projections, I notice a striking comparison between Suzuki’s numbers and those of Christian Yelich and Kris Bryant. Bryant goes off the board in average NFBC drafts at pick 89.54 (min. 56) and Yelich’s ADP sits at 101.02 (min. 31).
Suzuki’s NFBC ADP as of writing is 230.59 (min. 117), and I can’t see the figure going any lower after he signs and people catch on to his unique skillset in earnest. Invigilate any news regarding his signing window and interested teams – Japanese newspaper Nikkan Sports recently reported the 27-year-old free agent has narrowed his potential destination to one of four teams – the Chicago Cubs, San Francisco Giants, Seattle Mariners, and San Diego Padres. Some of these landing spots would certainly be more conducive to the projections I made for Suzuki than others. Nevertheless, I remain confident in this unique talent, and the research I have done over the winter betokens Suzuki is a player well worth your study, investment, and support.
I plan to do all three in the 2022 fantasy baseball season. Will you join me?