MESA, Ariz. – Ichiro Suzuki is a sinewy 5 feet 11 inches and 170 pounds, while Mike Trout is a stout 6-2, 235. They represent wildly different body types and playing styles, but their unique abilities have transformed into the influencing of the career path of Seiya Suzuki.
After just two weeks with the Chicago Cubs, though, Suzuki is doing a lot to create his own identity.
On opening day, the outfielder was thrown into the fire against Corbin Burns of the Milwaukee Brewers – the National League’s reigning Cy Young Award winner – and produced a single and a walk, which is no small feat against a pitcher known for his pinpoint control. General Chat Chat Lounge
“I had never seen a pitch like that before, but it excited me,” Suzuki told Japanese reporters of Burnes’ cut fastball. “I was like, ‘Wow, there are pitchers that can do this here?’ The force and movement of the ball was amazing and simply something I had never seen. “
Excited? Yes. Deterred? Not at all.
Since his debut, Suzuki has continued to radiate, playing right field and batting in the middle of the Cubs’ order. He was homered in back-to-back games at Pittsburgh, had gone deep twice more through Thursday and had 12 RBI, along with 13 walks, two of which were intentional. He was leading the majors with a .520 on-base percentage.
While they share a surname, Suzuki is not related to Ichiro Suzuki, the longtime Seattle Mariners star who made his own scintillating debut in 2001. Ichiro Suzuki’s stellar first season earned him the rare combination of being both the most valuable player and rookie of the year – Making him the only one of the 16 position players to come over from Japan to be named his league’s top rookie. (Shohei Ohtani, a two-way star, was also in 2018.)
The 2022 MLB Season
A season that was in doubt is suddenly in full gear.
The 17th position player from Japan, of course, is Seiya Suzuki, and his .343 batting average through 13 games makes comparisons to Ichiro Suzuki fairly obvious.
Those comparisons have been coming since Seiya was selected out of high school by the Hiroshima Carp in the second round of the 2012 draft. Immediately, he was nicknamed the “red-helmeted Ichiro,” a reference to the loudly colored headgear of Carp batters. He was also given the same number as Ichiro, 51, before eventually accepting No. 1 for the 2019 season, a prestigious honor with the Carp.
Just like Ichiro, the younger Suzuki’s journey to the right field began on a high school pitcher’s mound, where he reached 92 miles per hour on radar guns. But Hiroshima coveted his offensive potential and began developing him as an infielder. He bounced around between positions during call-ups in 2013 and 2014, but by 2016, at age 21, he was the Carp’s starting right fielder.
The young Suzuki’s battle to secure a position in the eye of Hiroki Kuroda, who had pitched in the United States, including the Yankees from 2012 to 2014. It led to career-changing advice – and a shift in approach. The red-helmeted Ichiro would try to get more out of his muscular physique.
“I was so completely consumed with establishing myself and fighting for a job with the carp back then that American baseball was the farthest thing from my mind,” Suzuki explained recently in his native Japanese. “But Kuroda San noticed and told me about a player over there who reminded him of a similar build and skill set. He told me if I worked hard, I could like him. “
Kuroda had just rejoined the carp after seven seasons and 79 wins for the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Yankees. The player he was referencing to inspire Suzuki? The Angels’ Trout – considered by many to be one of the finest all-around players in baseball history.
Kuroda’s encouragement made an immediate impact.
“I started searching for this video of this guy,” Suzuki explained. “When I found it, I was mesmerized by his talent. He could run, he could throw, he could hit, and he had power. For Kuroda San to tell me I had to develop within myself the kind of player that was so inspiring. It gave me great motivation at the exact time I needed it most. It influenced my training, my diet, and my whole approach. I became so much more focused on that guy. “
By the time Kuroda retired in 2016, two seasons after Suzuki’s teammate, Trout had won two of his three MVP awards and been voted to five consecutive All-Star Games – a streak now at nine. Reached in Japan by phone, Kuroda explained what he saw in the young Suzuki to make such a comparison.
“I know I set the bar high,” Kuroda said in Japanese. “But they’re both right-handed-hitting outfielders with a similar build. Obviously, I’m not a batter, but when I look at Seiya Suzuki from a pitcher’s perspective, I see a really tough out. Beyond that, you are the term ‘five-tool player’ in America, and that is exactly what he is. Not just a talented batter, but he excels in all the skills required of a position player. That complete package with that body type reminded me of Trout. “
Kuroda was further enthralled by the way Suzuki took his advice to heart.
“All I did was notice his potential and give him a goal, albeit a high one,” he said. “He had the drive and the desire to pursue it. In addition to his all-around athleticism, I would say his unwavering ambition is one of his most impressive qualities. “
While Suzuki was inspired by Trout’s talent, he cautioned that his goal was to play less like Trout and more to channel his energy into maximizing his talent, which is what he saw from Trout in those videos.
“Baseball is a sport you play every day,” Suzuki said. “By giving myself the challenge of maximizing my potential to the fullest like Trout had done to him, I was able to push myself when I got frustrated by telling myself, ‘I bet he kept pushing himself,’ or when I would feel exhausted, I think, ‘You’re not going to reach your best like he did if you stop here.’ He was not my rival; he was my inspiration. “
In addition to his fielding exploits, which earned him five of Japan’s Golden Glove awards, Suzuki hit .300 or better in six consecutive seasons for Hiroshima, winning batting titles in 2019 and 2021. Those same seasons, he also led in the Central League. -base percentage and on-base plus slugging percentage. He hit 25 or more home runs every year as a regular and reached double digits in stolen bases three times. He made two All-Star teams and represented Japan at the 2017 World Baseball Classic and last summer’s Tokyo Olympics, where he earned a gold medal.
While Suzuki said he had not previously considered competing in the United States, that challenge would eventually become a natural progression of his dedication to maximize his potential. Suzuki acknowledged Trout’s influence by adopting his jersey number, 27, on signing with the Cubs.
As Suzuki talks about the exhilaration of all the new things he hopes to encounter in American baseball – like Burnes’s cut fastball – he threw in an unexpected curveball, which made Kuroda’s observation about his quest for self-improvement all the more evident.
“I even imagine the fans’ way of heckling is different here, and I can’t wait to experience that,” he said.
If his start is any indication of how his career will develop, being heckled may not happen often, at least not in Chicago.
Brad Lefton is a bilingual journalist based in St. Louis who has covered baseball in Japan and America for nearly three decades.