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 converged in influencing 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 Burnes of the Milwaukee Brewers — the National League’s reigning Cy Young Award winner — and he produced a single and a walk, which is no small feat against a pitcher known for his pinpoint control.
“I had never seen a pitch like that before, but it excited me,” Suzuki told Japanese reporters of Burnes’s cut fastball. “I was like, ‘Wow, there are pitchers that can do this here?’ The force and movement of the ball was surprising 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 homered in back-to-back games at Pittsburgh, had gone deep twice more through Thursday and had collected 12 R.B.I., 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 had his own scintillating debut in 2001. Ichiro Suzuki’s stellar first season earned him the rare combination of being both 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, also was, in 2018.)
The 2022 M.L.B. Season
A season that was in doubt is suddenly in full gear.
- Musical Chairs: In a series of unexpected off-season moves, franchise icons for the Dodgers and the Braves swapped places — even though neither seemed to want to leave.
- Guardians of the Past: Cleveland changed its name, acknowledging the widespread belief that it was racist. Some fans are struggling to move on.
- Call Her Manager: Rachel Balkovec is the first woman to manage a team in affiliated baseball. Her players know who is in charge.
- Six Outs From Perfection: Could you pull a pitcher who was six outs from a perfect game? Would you? Dave Roberts has done it twice.
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 initially given the same uniform 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 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 caught the eye of Hiroki Kuroda, who had pitched in the United States, including with 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 totally 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 me and told me about a player over there who I reminded him of with a similar build and skill set. He told me if I worked hard, I could be 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 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 it within myself to develop into that kind of player 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 becoming that guy.”
By the time Kuroda retired in 2016, after two seasons as Suzuki’s teammate, Trout had won two of his three M.V.P. 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 are 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 have the term ‘five-tool player’ in America, and that’s 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 less to play just 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 with his, I was able to push myself when I got frustrated by telling myself, ‘I’ll bet he kept pushing himself,’ or when I would feel exhausted, I’d think, ‘You’re not going to reach your best like he did if you stop here.’ He wasn’t 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 the Central League in on-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 in last summer’s Tokyo Olympics, where he earned a gold medal.
While Suzuki said he initially had not considered competing in the United States, that challenge eventually became the natural progression of his dedication to maximize his potential. Suzuki acknowledged Trout’s influence by adopting his jersey number, 27, upon signing with the Cubs.
As Suzuki talked about the exhilaration from 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 apparent.
“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.