Zobrist would always deliver insightful answers once he got to his locker, but first he had to do his postgame work with Tim Buss, the longtime strength and conditioning coach for the Cubs who followed Joe Maddon to the Angels after the 2019 season. Like Zobrist, the only World Series MVP in franchise history, Suzuki pays attention to the details and understands that it’s a long season.
“Obviously, there are good things and bad things every day,” Suzuki said through his interpreter, Toy Matsushita. “The most important thing is just trying to find that even ground where you kind of figure out what’s working well and what’s not working well. That’s how these days are going, just trying out different things and hoping to get better results.”
This is the adjustment period that Cubs officials predicted after Suzuki signed a five-year, $85 million contract in the middle of March. It’s just that Suzuki flipped the script by starting his major-league career with a nine-game hitting streak, recording his 10th RBI in his 22nd plate appearance and moving up to the No. 2 spot in the lineup. These struggles — while maybe a little out of order — are to be expected. Suzuki, 27, took that into account when he declined overtures from teams with World Series expectations this season and chose to grow with the Cubs.
This won’t make the chart the next time that Jed Hoyer’s baseball operations department tries to recruit a free agent from Japan: Chicago has seen one “sunny” day in the last 42 days since March 21, according to NBC 5 meteorologist Paul Deanno. The 45-degree temperature at first pitch and gusts of wind and steady rain throughout Tuesday night’s 3-1 loss to the White Sox muted the little buzz that accompanied this two-game crosstown series at Wrigley Field. After the preseason buildup and an initial burst of optimism, April pretty much confirmed the 2022 Cubs are who we thought they were.
Suzuki earned his National League Rookie of the Month award for April, when he got on base more than 40 percent of the time and posted a .934 OPS. He also hasn’t hit a home run in more than two weeks and recently went through an 0-for-15 streak that he snapped with Sunday’s RBI double off Cy Young Award winner Corbin Burnes. Tuesday’s 0-for-4 night against the White Sox included some bad luck — he hit a line drive at José Abreu, who caught it and stepped on first base for a double play that ended the third inning — and two strikeouts (one swinging and one looking).
“We wouldn’t have spent a lot of money on him if we didn’t think he was immensely talented,” Hoyer said on Opening Day. “The transition is going to be real. You have much better pitching, much better stuff over here. You also have different deliveries, different ballparks, things you haven’t been a part of. And then you have the actual cultural assimilation where you normally would have gotten a six-week spring training. He’s trying to figure out where to live and where to go and do it in a different language. That’s a challenge.
“All that said, once he gets through that period, he has power. He’s a good hitter. He makes really good decisions at the plate. He’s a good outfielder. He’s a good baserunner. He’s got great makeup. All the things that we’re excited about are going to show up. But I do think it’s going to take a little bit of time to make that adjustment.”
It’s still early, but Suzuki has already shown the kind of presence that can help transform a lineup. While Suzuki isn’t the same leadoff hitter, remember how Maddon once viewed Dexter Fowler and proclaimed, “You go, we go.” Suzuki has a .438 batting average and a 1.357 OPS in the team’s nine wins. He’s 6-for-44 with 17 strikesouts in the team’s 14 losses.
It’s important to note all of these first impressions, how Suzuki sticks to a Zobrist-esque postgame routine and carries himself around his new teammates. As Cubs closer David Robertson observed, “He’s happy all the time.” Cubs reliever Chris Martin — who went to Japan to reboot his career and pitched for the Nippon-Ham Fighters in 2016 and 2017 — can identify with Suzuki’s transition on some level.
“At the beginning, it’s hard,” Martin said. “But then once you kind of settle in, it ends up a little easier. Not competition-wise, but you’re just so far away from everything else. You’ve got one thing to focus on. You just focus on baseball. For me at the time, that’s what I needed.”
After bouncing around several organizations — Detroit, Colorado, Boston and the Yankees — Martin was nearing his 30th birthday when he and his wife moved to Japan shortly after getting married. Martin learned how to slow the game down and gained more confidence in pressure situations, lessons that helped him create a second act in the majors and earn a 2021 World Series ring from the Braves.
“(Seiya’s) a little bit different than the ordinary style of hitting that they have over there,” Martin said. “He has a very good approach, a good eye. A lot of them do, but I feel like when you get those guys in swing mode, they just start swinging. They don’t want to strike out. They try to put the ball in play. That helped me a lot. I wasn’t very good at pitching out of the zone. He’s obviously different. He has a much better eye and obviously makes really good contact.”
After playing more than 900 games with the Hiroshima Carp, Suzuki already knows what it’s like to perform in loud atmospheres, figure out the proper adjustments with his swing and handle the demands that come with being a famous player, experiences that should translate to an extent during his first season with the Cubs. Since these things tend to go in cycles, the White Sox will probably be on a downswing by the time “The Next Great Cubs Team” is hosting a crosstown game with more electricity at Wrigley Field.
“You get a different perspective when you actually get here and look at the field and the city,” Suzuki said. “It’s very unusual to see fans on the roofs, but it feels like something really special. The fans are the reason why the team is here, and they’re kind of like watching over us as we play.”
During Tuesday’s postgame media scrum, reporters surrounded ex-White Sox second baseman Nick Madrigal, whose locker is next to Suzuki’s in the clubhouse. After standing in right field for nine innings on a cold, damp night that felt more like a late-season Bears game at Soldier Field, Suzuki moved around the group to get to his locker. Suzuki grabbed a bat, walked with Matsushita out of the locker room and disappeared down the tunnel that leads toward the team’s underground hitting facility.
(Photo: Nuccio DiNuzzo / Getty Images)