Cubs outfielder Seiya Suzuki looking good, thanks to late push

Outfielder Seiya Suzuki’s first major-league season has had its ups and downs, but an upswing in the last month has positioned him among the better Cubs rookies of the expansion era, which started in 1961.

Suzuki, who is in Japan on paternity leave, has a .769 OPS, 115 weighted runs created plus and 1.7 Fangraphs WAR in 417 plate appearances.

That sits comfortably among Cubs position players who won National League Rookie of the Year awards. It’s not in the ballpark with 2015 winner Kris Bryant (.857, 136, 6.1) or 2008 winner Geo Soto (.868, 120, 3.0), but it compares favorably to 1989 winner Jerome Walton (.720, 103, 2.0), 1961 winner Billy Williams (.822, 110, 1.2) and 1962 winner Ken Hubbs (.645, 70, minus-0.6).

Among notable non-award winners, Adolfo Phillips put up a 3.4 fWAR in 1966, second among expansion-era Cubs rookie position players; Mel Hall, who appeared in 12 seasons with a 7.0 career fWAR, had 2.9 of it with the Cubs in 1983; and middle infielder Addison Russell, who had a 2.6 fWAR in 2015, did it with defense despite a 90 wRC+.

Suzuki won’t win NL Rookie of the Year. A pair of Braves figure to be the leaders, with pitcher Spencer Strider (11-5, 2.67 ERA, 4.9 fWAR) the favorite over outfielder Michael Harris II (.305/.344/.541, 18 home runs, 4.4 fWAR).

For Suzuki, however, getting to this point has required a turnaround. He bottomed out at a .717 OPS on Aug. 20. He was hitting .241/.315/.402 for 100 wRC+ and a mere 0.8 fWAR. A 100 wRC+ signifies a league-average hitter, and league-average offense isn’t particularly valuable from a corner outfielder.

But Suzuki has been a different player since Aug. 21, hitting .337/.406/.545, with his 96 plate appearances including four of his 13 homers. His star-level 164 wRC+ is 24th in baseball for that period, and he has tacked 0.9 on to his fWAR.

During the hot streak, 25% of Suzuki’s batted balls have been line drives. Before Aug. 21, only 17% were liners. According to Fangraphs data, in the earlier period, Suzuki generated soft contact on 20.1% of batted balls, medium on 51.5% and hard on 28.4%. Of late, there has been much more hard contact, with soft on 16.2%, medium on 39.7% and hard on 44.1%.

The season has gone in the opposite direction for the Cubs rookie with the next-highest fWAR. Man of many positions Christopher Morel is at 1.4 fWAR for the season, with 104 wRC+ and a .727 OPS.

When Suzuki bottomed out, Morel was riding high with a .788 OPS, 120 wRC+ and 1.7 WAR. Since Aug. 21, the numbers have nosedived to a .459 OPS on .141/.225/.234 hitting, 33 wRC+ — one-third that of an average hitter — and minus-0.4 fWAR.

The cold streak is only 72 plate appearances, and Cubs fans can hope it’s no omen. Worrisome is a 40.3% strikeout rate that has rocketed after 30.5% in the earlier period.

For Suzuki, however, the arrow is pointing up when he returns to Wrigley.

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