CHICAGO — A day off on Tuesday turned into a bit of a rest when he wasn’t in the lineup again Thursday against a righty. But after starting against a lefty Friday and struggling once again, it seems like Seiya Suzuki will be watching from the dugout until further notice.
“He knows he needs to work on some things,” manager David Ross said prior to Saturday’s 8-6 win over the Atlanta Braves. “It’s hard to do that in-game. We’ll give him some time and he’ll be back in there when we feel like he can help us win games.”
The Cubs’ offense is currently humming along. They were shut out by Max Fried on Friday, but other than that they’ve looked as relentless and imposing as any team. They’re not quite at Atlanta’s level, but the run they’re on is impressive. Doing so without Suzuki is unexpected, but his struggles have been pretty clear for all to see.
Ross never used the word “benching” and the focus was clearly on trying to help Suzuki find his best self. The vast majority of Ross’ nearly nine-minute pregame session with the media was focused on Suzuki and his problems at the plate. But Ross wouldn’t commit to whether this would be an extended period of time that Suzuki wouldn’t be playing.
“I don’t know about that,” Ross said. “It could turn in a day. We’ll talk to the hitting guys, talk to him and continue to watch batting practice. I don’t think it’s anything long-term. We’re in a position where some other guys are swinging the bat well and we’re fortunate to have guys who are playing well.”
Jeimer Candelario was acquired on Monday and hasn’t stopped hitting (130 wRC+ on the year) since. Mike Tauchman has been playing right field against righties with Cody Bellinger in center and Candelario at first. Tauchman has earned every bit of playing time he can get after posting a 121 wRC+ and putting up tremendous at-bats at the top of the lineup. He led off Saturday’s win with a walk and added a single later in the contest.
Suzuki seemed to have found his stroke with a few quality games before the All-Star break. But since then, he’s posted a 67 wRC+ with a 27.9 percent strikeout rate and generally looks like he’s lost at the plate.
“(We’ll) give him a minute to work on things,” Ross said. “We can see how off he is and just not in rhythm. I think he’s beating himself up a little bit wanting to produce for the guys. His heart is in the right place. We gotta get his head in the right place, we gotta get his mechanics in the right place and just give him some things to get him back going. He knows that.”
For those who have been watching Suzuki’s at-bats of late, it’s hard to miss just how out of sync he is.
The swing above was from Suzuki’s last at-bat on Friday. It’s a clear sign that he’s “in-between” and essentially guessing when he’s at the plate.
“He’s just not recognizing when to get ready to hit and what pitch is even coming,” Ross said. “He’s just in-between. If he’s looking heater, they throw him a slider and if he’s looking slider, they’re throwing heaters. You gotta stop guessing and get a plan in place. Simplify your thoughts in these moments when things are spinning out of control and in a downward spiral. You gotta regroup, start at square one and have a plan in the box.”
Awkward swings like that happen on occasion to all players. But for Suzuki, it’s been a regular occurrence for the past couple of weeks.
“Sometimes these guys get into trying to play cat and mouse with the pitcher a little too much,” hitting coach Dustin Kelly said. “We game plan, have the reports and the percentages. It doesn’t always tell you exactly what’s going to happen and some guys start to guess a little more. At times, when he gets in a spot where he doesn’t feel exactly right with his timing and swing, he has to guess a little bit more.”
The Cubs’ solution for Suzuki has been to focus on just one pitch instead of trying to figure out how the pitcher is going to attack him.
“We’re just trying to tell him to stay on his fastball timing,” Kelly said. “He has a good enough swing to where if it’s not a fastball he can either shut it down or since his bat path is so good, he can stay through it to the pull side. So the focus is hammering the fastball. Look for your fastball in your zone and that’s what you want to be on time for. If we’re late for that, then everything else compounds on top of being late for the fastball.”
Ross admitted that the issues are both mental and mechanical. When a player is not feeling right with their swing, they can start to think about too many things at the plate rather than just the task at hand.
“You’re working on things and you don’t feel right mechanically,” Ross said. “That creeps into your head in the box. Instead of competing, you’re trying to figure out, ‘Ok, where are my hands? Where’s my leg kick? How’s my timing?’ Your thoughts are in the wrong place.”
Kelly explained that Suzuki has a “great swing” but there are always a few mechanical aspects they “hammer” to try and get him right.
“Just make sure your head is really still and gathered,” Kelly said. “That it’s not a big rock back and then a rock or crash forward. Because of the leg kick. When he’s underneath himself — I call it gathering underneath — it’s not a big sway back and that’s when his head stays still. As long as he keeps his head still and eyes level, he can play the game out front and not let the ball get onto him. It’s about being on the attack and getting the baseball as opposed to waiting for them to come to him.”
So now the work continues. Suzuki can’t remain on the field when he’s been so unproductive. The Cubs are in a race for their division. Player development and assuaging egos can’t be a part of Ross’ thought process right now and they clearly aren’t. He has the depth to put better players on the field and he’s doing so.
But there is recent Cubs history of a player losing playing time only to come back and help impact a surprise race into October. Near the end of 2015, Joe Maddon made the decision to remove Starlin Castro from shortstop. Castro wouldn’t start the next six games but played second base about a week after the decision to take him off short. In his final 140 plate appearances that year, Castro posted a 162 wRC+ as the Cubs went 31-17 over the last month and a half of the season.
That would obviously be a best-case scenario. Given that Suzuki has three more years on his five-year, $85 million deal, the Cubs know getting him back on track is important. Tauchman, Candelario and others give them insurance for this season, but they can’t be expected to stay at such an elite level going forward. Production from Suzuki is likely going to be needed at some point this season and certainly beyond.
“He wants to be better and knows he’s got things to work on,” Ross said. “I know he wants to be in the lineup, wants to be playing and wants to help the team win. But he’s going to work. He wants to be in there and be better, but he also knows he’s not helping the team right now.
“Seiya has been a big part of our success to get to this point and we need him to be good for us to continue to go where we want to go.”
(Photo of Seiya Suzuki: Jamie Sabau / Getty Images)