(Saint) Seiya is coming home

Things are shaping up well for this Astros fan. Houston has won the pennant for the 3rd time in the last 5 years and is going for a second WS title starting tomorrow, at home against the surprising Atlanta Braves and their Trade Deadline outfield, one that dispatched the juggernaut LA Dodgers and avoided what could have been the most talked about WS matchup in the history of the game.

For a season that is coming to an end, one has yet to reach the finish line in its regular part: in Japan NPB is still going strong, with magic numbers to reach and Postseason places to secure, a delay given by the Tokyo Olympics, for that the NPB season had a month-long break, giving the best chance for the home team to deploy a star-studded roster and win a gold medal, a feat they achieved indeed.

As it applies for MLB, the end of a season has sad and nostalgic moments in NPB too: club icons such as Yuya Hasegawa for Softbank, Koshien legends such as the “Handkerchief Prince” and now ex-Fighter Yuki Saitoh and global ambassadors of Japanese baseball such as Daisuke “Dice-K” Matsuzaka all have called it a career, with much fanfare, deserved ovations and even tears, because yes, there’s crying in baseball sometimes.

It’s also a key point of the International market: as of now many players are reaching not only domestic FA rights, restricted to Japan, but also international FA rights, so that they are able and free to pursue a career in the US, a path chosen by the likes of Shogo Akiyama and Shun Yamaguchi most recently.

For all other players the American dream has to wait: Japanese contracts, much like US ones, are particularly lenghty and convenient for franchises in granting them a ton of “years of control” at bargain prices without the possibility for the player to look for a better deal elsewhere…unless the team allows so though!

NPB teams are given the right to post players, making them available for MLB purposes at a fee, one that is now capped but went upwards of $50M for Matsuzaka, leaving then the burden of contract negotiations to the player’s agent and the team who won the bidding war, discussions that have to come to fruition in a set time otherwise the player returns to his NPB team and no fee has to be paid.

This is how Yoshi Tsutsugo and the mythical creature we like to call Shohei Ohtani came to the States, and that’s how other mainstay Japanese players could have been part of MLB had the fee been agreed on or a contract agreement reached, significant hurdles that kept perennial Gold Glove 2B Ryosuke Kikuchi and speed demon CF Haruki Nishikawa to their hometown clubs.

This risk shouldn’t show up again with the next big thing coming from Japan to MLB, the best hitter the Rising Sun is ready to ship to the States since Hideki Matsui, Ohtani’s explosion notwithstanding.

Seiya Suzuki is a damn good ballplayer, that’s for sure.

Much has been said since news broke about Suzuki’s posting by his team, the Hiroshima Toyo Carp, the former home of now-Twins ace Kenta Maeda: Suzuki is a name scouts started to follow years ago, a disciplined power hitter that can more than hold his own in RF thanks to a cannon for an arm and surprising speed for his build.

What’s not to like!? A clockwork .300 hitter, 30+ HR pop and a K/BB ratio that rarely goes over 1, some stolen bases and years with .600+ SLG, Seiya has all the makings of a middle-of-the-order bat, a plug and play masher that produces RBIs and extra-base hits in bunches while not being as whiffy as your customary power threat.

Then again, the same could be said about Tsutsugo and we know how he fared so far in the big leagues, a difficult transition made even harder by the pandemic and the existence of 95+mph fastballs, only at the tail-end of the season in a Pirate uniform he found a dim light at the end of the tunnel, though whether he finds a Major League contract for next year is all but certain.

Should we be scared about Suzuki too then? Mostly no. When Yoshi became the object of MLB teams’ desires, many pointed out a decisive flaw in his game: his inability to catch up with the high heat even in Japan, with his numbers coming mostly on MiLB level fastballs and all kinds of breaking/offspeed pitches. Surprisingly Tampa Bay jumped the gun on a multi-year contract, sometimes even the best fail their homework, and that hole in his swing showed up all too soon, almost pushing him away from the Majors with a plane ticket back to Yokohama.

Fortunately Seiya is not the same breed: a compact and short swing, he found power in his stroke after completely changing his body to a muscular 1.80 m for 100 kg build, a small tank that generates serious firepower with a simple hack, without the deliberate leg and hand motions we are accustomed to see from Japanese hitters.

Resembling a Major Leaguer more than he does a NPB slugger, Suzuki is primed to have an impact in the ML, one that should be easier then both Tsutsugo and Akiyama, as he’s a much better defender than the former and has 10 times the power of the latter without a ton of whiffs and a damage-oriented approach that suits the States better than Japan.

A natural RF, both in range and arm, a howitzer that would classify as a 70 in your usual scouting reports, some said he could play a decent CF in the Majors, and I wouldn’t put it past him although I think he lacks reactions and jump to be more than decent, the Adam Duvall defense kit, a little stretched in center, elite on the corner.

He’s also not a good baserunner when it comes to steal, barely over 60% SB success in his NPB career, but his Sprint Speed should be in the red for Savant, which allows him to go 1st to 3rd on base hit more often than not. He has a balanced BIP profile, pulling in the air for power but, with a Pull% just over 40%, he’s not a dead “hit to left” RHB, so he can wait and let the ball travel to punch the other way, casually dropping a knock or even going full oppo taco in his hitter-friendly park in Hiroshima.

Still, he’ll have to transition from low 90s heaters to 100+mph gas, from loopy curveballs and wandering forkballs to whatever in the world this is, and as such his numbers have to be corrected a bit, just like the difficulty setting on most games.

Another caveat is where, and with whom, he played until the end of the season: Hiroshima is a good place to hit but a bad lineup to hit into, a 1–9 that has really not a lot to offer, a bunch of contact hitters with the only 20+ HR supplier being Suzuki. That meant he received the second half Juan Soto treatment quite a lot as of late, after a two month tear that saw him go to <20 to almost 40 bombs he’s now getting walked a ton, leaving the burden on the hands of Kikuchi and breakout catcher Shogo Sakakura.

This leaves his plate discipline numbers skewed, not a lot though as he always showed a knack for the zone, lacking the willingness to expand that is typical of a power hitter, but it must be considered when doing the hardest part of the job: comparing him to MLB players, trying to put him into perspective as he’s ready to step in American soil.

I tried to do that in an imprecise way, just like everyone without a transition model does: look at what he did in Japan, take away some HR and BB, add Ks and see who he resembles.

Suzuki has a good foundation though: even if we take away some pop I can’t see him slug less than 20 HR, but I also don’t expect him to walk more than 10%, 12% at best and his K rate will hardly stay under 20%. On this broad stroke I found three possible outcomes, alas three hitters he could reproduce in performance come 2022:

This is not a bad trio! All of them were worth at least 2 WAR, good but not great, and all were at least league average, if not above average hitters on their own. Carlson and Verdugo were bad defensively but that’s because of their CF stints, while their RF results are solid, and all of them are passable baserunners, Verdugo even a good one.

What changes here is the power/discipline profile, and that mirrors a couple of possible outcomes for Seiya: he could sacrifice power for contact, avoiding too many Ks but seeing his ISO in the low to mid .100 he could end up with a Verdugo-like statline, one that doesn’t inspire but is that of a good big leaguer, one that takes a walk, strikes out less than the league and knocks 10 bombs while batting in the .280s, more of a #2 than a cleanup hitter.

He could also be a Dylan Carlson, searching for more pop in his bat at the expense of contact and more strikeouts without lessening his walking skills, a slugger more than a high AVG hitter.

My favourite comp though is Avisail Garcia: both have stocky builds and amazing tools, look in disbelief at Avisail’s Savant page and his speed/defense bloodshed, both have 20+ HR in their bats, a .200 ISO barrier they ought to shatter. If anything, Seiya should walk more than Garcia’s 7% BB, and have a higher, but not that higher, AVG than .260 but he’ll also have a lot on his hands smashing almost 30 bombs, moreso if he ends up in Comerica or other Hells.

That’s to say that I expect Suzuki to be a 3+ WAR player from the get-go, a solid performer both with his bat, a 110–120 wRC+ at worst, and with his physical tools, allowing him to bring positive Def value to his WAR calculation, a decent amount of OAA and a lot of Assists from the RF premises. He won’t bat over .300 or walk at a 16% clip, but even if those rates regress to a .270 and 11%, we are talking about well above average production both offensively and defensively.

What about his contract though? He’s 27, young enough for a 4+ year deal but competition on the market and red flags due to the recent Akiyama/Tsutsugo struggles could scare potential interested franchises. I’d say he gets around 13–15M$ AAV on a 3 year deal with team options for year 4/5, a solution that makes both him and the team happy, a hefty bag but not a potential albatross for a payroll, a friendly sign if he proves to be the real deal.

Which I think he is: Seiya may not be a Zodiac cavalier, but he is a great hitter, fielder and player all around. Going from Japan to the States is not easy, albeit the last Suzuki to make the jump will be enshrined in Cooperstown in a couple of years.

No pressure, Seiya! And see you in the US, possibly in the NL thanks!

NPB stats updated to October 25th, MLB stats from FanGraphs.

Italian baseball stathead. I’ll write about MLB, Nippon Professional Baseball and Korean dramas/shows. A lot of graphs, Astros related content and references.