Why are Nico Hoerner, Seiya Suzuki, and Ian Happ still batting together at the top of the order? That was a common refrain among Cubs fans as the struggling trio was yet again tasked with setting the pace for a team that had dropped three of four to open the second half. Even though David Ross has little choice when dealing with a team-wide slump, it’s understandable to wonder why things remained the same on Wednesday against the Nats.
Had this been going on in 2020 or ’21, the lineup might have been shifted around. But just as Ross has softened when it comes to knee-jerk reactions to benching players for mental mistakes, he’s also a little more willing to let hitters figure some things out on their own in spots where they feel more comfortable. We’ll save any debate on the merits of that strategy for another time, this is about one slumping player in particular and how he may be able to avoid these skids in the future.
Suzuki batted .254 with a 96 wRC+ in April, then he was at .319 and 163 in May before bottoming out at .177 and 33 in June. He was at .234 and 76 heading into Tuesday’s blowout until going 4-for-6 with a homer to raise those numbers by 49 and 33 points, respectively. Hell, that outburst raised his season average by nine points and pulled his wRC+ from three points below average to three above.
Two of his three singles weren’t the kind of piss rockets that required a North Shore adult diaper, but they still got the job done. His 1st-inning knock, however, was hit 114.6 mph and his homer in the bottom of the 6th left the bat at 108.2 to start what became a 16-run rally over three frames.
“Seiya looked phenomenal tonight,” Ross told reporters after the game. “He’s got one of the best swings in the league. When you watch him, the consistency with that timing, when it’s there [emphasis mine], he feels really good. Hopefully he can build off today, because he looked really good tonight.”
I wanted to highlight that little caveat from Ross because it mirrors something Brendan Miller of CHGO tweeted about Monday night when it comes to Suzuki’s timing. Miller was wondering aloud about the variation in that timing in particular and how it might be leading to those inconsistent results.
I'm interested to hear Seiya and Cubs' hitting coaches talk about his leg stride and timing cues. Seiya's leg stride duration has to vary among the most in MLB.
E.g., Seiya gets started earlier on the right (homer), and rushes on the left (weak groundout). pic.twitter.com/xKLu4xdTGI
— Brendan Miller (@brendan_cubs) July 18, 2023
Included in the thread was a reference to how then-Angels hitting coach Eric Hinske, who got Anthony Rizzo to crowd the plate during his time with the Cubs, worked with Shohei Ohtani to reduce what had been a big leg kick. This was ahead of Ohtani’s rookie year and actually came after spring training, which is pretty wild when you think about it. Hinske gave the 23-year-old enough time to see that he was going to be eaten up by big league fastballs, then suggested replacing the kick with a toe tap.
“He did it in batting practice that day, and he was hitting homers all over the field,” Hinske shared with ESPN’s Alden Gonzalez. “He said, ‘OK, I’m in.’ And that was it.”
Let’s just stop here for a moment to appreciate how incredible it is for an all-world hitter to change his swing timing and mechanics three days prior to the start of his first regular season in MLB. Ohtani went on to bat .285 with 22 homers and a 149 wRC+ while making 10 starts with a 3.31 ERA. Dude’s a freak, full stop.
Suzuki is five years older than Ohtani was then and he’s already got nearly 800 MLB plate appearances under his belt, so this is far from a direct comparison. What we can examine, however, is the idea of changing or at least tightening up the right fielder’s timing mechanism. That doesn’t mean ditching the leg kick altogether and it may not be a matter of adjusting anything physically.
In the example Miller noted above, and I’m sure we could find others, it appears as though there are times when Suzuki may be making his swing decision too late and is delaying his kick as a result. Most hitting coaches will tell you that decision should already be made before each pitch, so the only choice to make is when not to go. Easier said than done, particularly at the highest level of the game, but I do wonder whether confidence, or lack thereof, is playing a role.
We’re talking about hundredths of seconds here making the difference between a sharp single and a weak chopper. Everyone raves about Suzuki’s work ethic and how focused he is, though I can’t help but wonder whether that could lead to him being a little tight at times even second-guessing himself and costing precious moments. Baseball players are creatures of habit and routine, I don’t want to suggest otherwise, but there’s a difference between rote memorization and being extemporaneous within a framework of knowledge.
When Suzuki is able to get into a flow state and just be a hitter, he’s one of the best out there. I’m hypothesizing, of course, but it seems like there are periods when he’s either trying to force the action or simply isn’t trusting his talent to win out. When he does trust it, though, he’s really fun to watch. Now I guess it’s just a matter of figuring out how to get that to happen all the time, if indeed I’m close to correct here.