Listening to KJR in the wake of the Chone Figgins benching, I heard the question asked why Ichiro isn’t moving into the leadoff spot instead of Dustin Ackley. That’s a legitimate question, insofar as you think batting order matters. I honestly don’t care much about it. What is more interesting to me is the conversation on Ichiro.
When it was decided that he would move to third in the order, a lot was made of how he would have to change his approach to hit with more authority. Fans talked about it, Wedge acknowledged it, Ichiro even came to camp with a revamped swing. A month into the season, he’s pretty much back to his old swing, and going by what I heard on the radio today, people think that he’s pretty much the same old Ichiro.
I guess if you thought he was going to turn into Barry Bonds or Adam Dunn or something, then he hasn’t changed that much. If you’re a little more realistic and look into the numbers a bit deeper, we’re seeing a changed Ichiro. First of all, he’s rebounded significantly from last season. There’s plenty of time left for numbers to go south, of course, but he’s been worth 1.0 wins above replacement* already this year, coming into tonight’s game. Last year, he was worth 0.2 for the whole year. WAR can go backward if Ichiro were to go in the tank, but right now he’s on pace for one of his better seasons.
*If you’re unfamiliar with WAR, it’s a stat designed to incorporate all aspects of the game to accurately compare players across positions. The idea is that there’s a baseline level of production that any generic triple-A player could provide, or any player that could be obtained without much trouble, who is considered the “replacement-level” player. Offense and defense are then measured against that replacement level, with an adjustment given depending on how difficult a position you play. It adds up throughout the year (think home runs instead of batting average). 2-3 WAR is pretty average production, above 6 or so and you’re thinking about MVP consideration. I have some issues with how it values and measures defense, and I think actual replacement players are kind of rare, but as a way to compare players, it’s a great tool.
The picture of Ichiro at bat has always been the guy who swung at whatever he wanted, slashing the ball around the infield and using his speed to reach base. He’d mix in the occasional drive to the outfield, and walks were an uncommon occurrence. His walk rate hasn’t changed much. In fact, it’s decreased a bit so far, as has his strikeout rate. For that matter, most of his stats aren’t terribly different from his career averages thus far. What’s different is how he’s getting to that point. Ichiro’s always hit a lot of groundballs, by design. In 2004, his best year, his GB to flyball rate was 3.55, with groundballs 63.7% of the time. This year his GB/FB rate is 1.68, by far the lowest of his career. What’s even more encouraging is that his line drive rate is 28.6%, again the best of his career and among the league leaders. He’s essentially cut his ground balls and replaced them with line drives and a few more fly balls.
Line drives are the optimal outcome, with ground balls usually leading to more hits and fly balls to more power, obviously. So why hasn’t Ichiro been even more productive? Well, to my eyes and limited analyzing skills, it’s a combination of things. I don’t know that Ichiro’s skill set is perfectly suited to fewer ground balls. He just doesn’t have the power to run huge home run to fly ball ratios like true power hitters do, and he doesn’t even have the power to get those line drives and fly balls to doubles as often as we’d like. That being said, I’m betting that if he keeps hitting the ball like he is now, he’ll find more holes than he has. Luck hasn’t been good to the Mariners in recent years, and I’m betting it’s to blame here too. Hopefully it’ll change, but who really knows. Just remember that even at the rate at which he’s currently producing, Ichiro’s in for a good year.
Ichiro’s clearly looking to put the ball in the air more often, but that’s not all that’s changed about his approach at the plate. I mentioned that his walk rate is down, so it would seem he’s swinging at more pitches outside the zone. He is, compared to his best years, but he’s swinging at a lot fewer than the past two years. He’s also making a lot more contact outside the zone, which would suggest he’s swinging at fewer of the really bad pitches that we’ve seen Ichiro chop at in the past. Maybe not, but that would be my guess, and my eyes seem to agree. He’s also making contact at an improved rate with pitches in the zone. Basically he’s hitting everything he swings at, and he’s hitting them for a lot more line drives and fly balls than in the past.
So, what’s the takeaway from all this? I’d say Ichiro’s being more selective and is trying to drive the ball more. He’s having decent success, although not as much as anyone would like. It could be he just doesn’t have the power for this approach, or it could be he’s been unlucky and his production will increase from here on. Best case would probably be that he gets red hot soon from more line drives falling in and more fly balls going for extra bases, pitchers notice and start pitching around him, and he starts getting more walks to go with his line drives.
The changes in Ichiro aren’t extremely noticeable because they haven’t led to dramatically different results thus far. It’s been said for so long that Ichiro has this power that he can summon at any time that I think many people were expecting 20 home runs all of a sudden. That’s not likely to ever happen. He is different, though. The question now is whether it will have any dramatic effect on his production on the field. Of course, even at this rate, Ichiro is the least of the Mariners’ worries on offense. He might not be vintage 2004 Ichiro, but he’s not far off. Most importantly, 2012 has been a return to form thus far, and that’s all we really should have been hoping for. Ichiro isn’t Barry Bonds, but he is Ichiro, and that’s plenty good enough for me.