Seiya Suzuki is on a different level right now.
Suzuki was already on the short list of players you could call the best in Japan, but the Hiroshima Carp’s star outfielder has found another gear during the second half of the season. Suzuki has been on top of his game for the past several weeks, breathing new life into the Central League home run race and turning up the heat on the Yomiuri Giants in the chase to reach the postseason.
If the CL handed out a second-half MVP award, Suzuki would be the choice. He was good in the first half too, putting up solid numbers before a rough patch to start interleague play and then contracting COVID-19 in May. Suzuki returned from his virus-induced exile in time to help Japan win the gold medal during the Tokyo Olympics in August and was ready to go when the NPB season resumed later in the month.
Suzuki was 1-for-4 with a two-run single in his first game after the Olympic break on Aug. 13 and remained steady for the rest of the month.
Then he caught fire.
Suzuki is batting .370 since Sept. 1 with 19 home runs and a 1.374 on-base plus slugging percentage in 39 games. He also has 35 RBIs and more walks (28) than strikeouts (25) over that span. Suzuki was hitting .298 overall for the season on Sept. 1 and has since surged to the top of the league with a .322 average.
He was the CL Player of the Month among batters for July/August (combined due to the lengthy All-Star and Olympic breaks) and then again in September. He’s making a strong case for October with six home runs — including five in his last six games — and 13 RBIs in 14 games.
Suzuki’s home run surge has put him in position to snatch the home run title away from the Tokyo Yakult Swallows’ Munetaka Murakami and the Yomiuri Giants’ Kazuma Okamoto, who have spent most of the year at the top of the standings and are tied for the lead with 39. Suzuki is one behind with six games left to play, while Murakami has eight and Okamoto has four.
Suzuki hit Nos. 37 and 38 against the Hanshin Tigers on Sunday night, but wasn’t too interested in the race, telling reporters, “it doesn’t matter,” when asked about the home run title.
His supercharged second half has helped give the Carp a chance to slip into the playoffs, a highly unlikely prospect on Sept. 23, when the club was a season-high 17 games below .500.
With Suzuki as the driving force and the rest of the team playing well, the Carp are 15-6 since then and just three games behind the third-place Giants for the final playoff spot. Yomiuri has kept the door open for Hiroshima by going into a total collapse with a 2-15-3 record over the same period as the Carp’s turnaround.
It may still be too little, too late for Hiroshima, which must contend with the first-place Swallows and second-place Tigers in five of their remaining six games while also hoping the Giants continue to struggle. Even so, they still have hope thanks in part to Suzuki’s heroics over the past two months.
Suzuki may not get the Carp into the playoffs, but he has put himself in a great position to win two-thirds of the Triple Crown if he maintains his batting average and adds a couple of home runs. He’s currently fourth with 87 RBIs but will fall short in that race with three 100-plus RBI players ahead of him.
Recent voting trends suggest Suzuki won’t be this year’s CL MVP — the award generally goes to a player from the pennant-winning team — but he should warrant serious consideration.
In addition to his other numbers, the well-rounded outfielder also leads NPB with a 1.090 OPS and is one of just two players — the DeNA BayStars’ Tyler Austin being the other — above 1.000. Suzuki is leading NPB with a .469 weighted on-base average, per Deltagraphs, and also has nine stolen bases.
Hopefully NPB fans have gotten a good look. While Suzuki won’t reach international free agency until 2023 at the earliest, a strong enough interest in moving to MLB could encourage the Carp to post him either after this season or the next in order to cash in on his appeal rather than lose him for nothing.
As one of Japan’s best all-around players with a good approach at the plate, speed, power and a strong arm from the outfield, there will be MLB clubs waiting to sign Suzuki should he hit the market in 2021 or beyond.
He’s already being included on lists from North American publications as a player to watch this winter. ESPN’s Jeff Passan listed Suzuki among the second tier of his look at the upcoming free agent class on Sept. 29 and Bleacher Report’s Joel Reuter predicted Suzuki will be one of the most talked-about players of the winter.
For now, Suzuki has six games left to try and help his team complete one of the more improbable runs into the postseason NPB has seen in some time and maybe even rack up a few individual accolades along the way.
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