Masanori Murakami became the first Japanese-born player in Major League Baseball in 1964. It took thirty years for Hideo Nomo, the second, to appear in an MLB game. There have been a total of 63 Japanese-born players to appear in a Major League game. That number has climbed since the appearance of Nomo in 1995. Ichiro needs no introduction, but other players like Hideki Matsui, Kenji Jojima, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Koji Uehara, Mashiro Tanaka, and countless others have impacted the American game over the past 30 years.
Nomo won Rookie of the Year in 1995. Ichiro won MVP in 2001. Matsui won World Series MVP for the Yankees in 2009. It’s truly a gift the contribution that Japanese-born NPB players have made their way into the Major Leagues. Most recently, the awe and splendor of Shohei Ohtani have been magnificent for the league. Not since Babe Ruth have we seen a player perform to his magnitude both on the mound and at the plate. We’ve seen the elite talent that can be found from the NPB, so who’s next? Enter: Seiya Suzuki.
Suzuki began his NPB career at 19 after he was drafted in the 2nd round of the 2012 NPB draft. Suzuki was drafted as an infielder but started in 2015 as an Outfielder for the Hiroshima Carp. Playing in 97 games that season, Suzuki posted a .275/.329/.403 batting line. He hit just five home runs that season in 238 at-bats.
The following season was the beginning of the ascension for Suzuki. In 2016, Suzuki truly burst onto the scene and appeared in 129 games for the Carp. He hit an impressive .335/.404/.612 with 29 home runs for the season. To add to his remarkable performance at the plate, Suzuki also won his first gold glove award.
Altogether, through 9 NPB seasons, Suzuki has compiled an impressive resume. His career slash line is an outstanding .315/.415/.571. He has 182 home runs, 182 doubles, 16 triples, 82 stolen bases, and a 1.16 SO: BB ratio. Suzuki walks and strikeouts at the same rate: 16%. All of this is even more impressive when factoring he is just 27 years old. Only five MLB players have compiled at least a .315 average, a .400 on-base, 180 or more home runs, and fewer than 600 strikeouts through their age 27 seasons in the live-ball era. Those players are Albert Pujols, Mel Ott, Joe DiMaggio, Frank Thomas, and Lou Gherig.
What does a player comp look like for Seiya Suzuki? Averaging the previous three seasons, Suzuki averages 30 home runs, ten stolen bases, a .300 batting average, and a .425 on-base percentage. Since 2010, the only four outfielders to match that output in a single season are Christian Yelich, Bryce Harper, Mookie Betts, and Mike Trout (twice). Limiting our search by age to match Suzuki’s 24-26 age range leaves us with only Mookie Betts and Mike Trout.
When watching Suzuki, his easy power is clear. His swing is very repeatable and straightforward, with not too many moving parts. The bat speed that he achieves with such an easy approach is impressive. I see some similarities to Mike Trout in his swing. He keeps his back elbow high and sees the strike zone well. There isn’t a clear hole in his swing, and he hits for power to all fields.
At times you can see hints of Ichiro when Suzuki slaps the ball to right field and twists his hands. At times, Suzuki tends to lay off breaking pitches in the zone. This could hurt him in the MLB. He has some swing and miss in his game low in the zone that MLB pitching could attack, but I don’t see it as a major concern for him that he can’t adjust to.
The Posting Fee
To be signed to a contract, Seiya Suzuki must first be posted by the NPB. While this hasn’t been officially confirmed yet, it seems likely that Suzuki will be posted this offseason. To be “posted,” the Hiroshima Carp will notify Rob Manfred of their intention. The posting fee will be based on the eventual MLB contract that Suzuki signs with an MLB team. Suzuki would then be given 30 days to discuss the terms of a contract with an MLB team. If a contract agreement is reached in the 30-day window, Suzuki would be free to play for his new MLB team, and the posting fee would be paid to Hiroshima by Suzuki’s new franchise. If unable to reach a contract agreement, the rights to Suzuki’s contract will return with him to the NPB, and he will likely continue to play in Japan.
Following the 2017 season, the MLB and NPB agreed on a new posting system in which the posting fee is based on guaranteed money in the players’ MLB contract. The Shohei Ohtani signing was not subject to this new implementation, and as such, his contract and posting fee is not a good reference for what Suzuki may sign for.
Some recently posted players can give us a reference for what this would look like for Suzuki. The Mariner’s won Yusei Kikuchi’s rights in December 2018 for $10,275,000 and was signed to a four-year, $56 million contract. Yoshi Tsutsugo signed with the Tampa Bay Rays for two years, $12 million, and a posting fee of $2.4 million.
Suzuki will be the first elite Japanese prospect to post following this new posting system. I expect a contract to be in the range of four to five years. Look for Suzuki to sign somewhere near four years, $50 million. This would put his posting fee total at just over $9 million. Based on this expectation, you can expect a lot of suitors for the Japanese star. Suzuki will be among the top free agents this offseason.
A proven five-tool outfielder in Japan, with a somewhat risky contract that carries a meager cost if the player hits in the MLB as he has in Japan. Which MLB team wouldn’t welcome that contract this offseason? The Seattle Mariners have been a proven player in the international market for some time, including most recently with Yusei Kikuchi and most notably with Ichiro Suzuki.
The Royals make sense as well. A small market team with some young talent on the rise also carries some spending capacity into the offseason and looks to compete next season. With their eyes always on value, the Rays make sense and already boast an impressive MLB roster and outstanding farm system to boot. One can’t rule out the Yankees as they look to round out their roster finally. Suzuki would be an exceptional top-of-the-order bat with the outstanding on-base ability to balance their power/strikeout heavy lineup.
Very early in the process, it’s unsure who will genuinely be a suitor for Suzuki. The one certainty is his place among the top outfielders this season. As the MLB offseason kicks underway (we hope, although lockout looms), it will be a story to watch. Who will win the latest NPB star?