Shannon Drayer recently posted an article on Ichiro Suzuki‘s thoughts of the 2011 season. It seemed that he was very candid during the interview, and in her words, it was revealing. It felt like Ichiro came clean with his performance during the year. It felt like he wasn’t justifying his poor performance. It felt like he was just as confused as the fans were. We’ve been spoiled with the consistency of Ichiro up until this season. Now that his performance is obviously in the decline, most of the fans opinions are conflicted. Should Ichiro be moved down in the lineup, should he still play the field, should he reject the final year of his contact and go home – you know, those opinions.
It adds to the enigma of Ichiro. He’s always been the silent, quiet type. The Erik Bedard type. His success was unprecedented, and conversely, his decline felt unprecedented. It felt like he could perform like he did in 2004 forever. It felt like his rookie season set his personal performance bar, and he was always trying to better it. It felt like we’d never have to worry about him.
Now, it doesn’t feel right. As fans, we have to worry. Not because of Ichiro, the person, but because of Ichiro, the player. Ten years without a playoff berth is too long, and the Seattle franchise has to start putting together the pieces of this convoluted puzzle to start winning. Thing is: is Ichiro a part of the solution, or is he the problem?
The 2011 season felt like the season of “could-have-beens”. The Mariners biggest weakness was driving in runs and hitting with RISP. I’ve found a couple things worth pointing out about Ichiro’s performance. Thinking back subjectively about the season, it felt like whenever there were opportunities for Ichiro to perform in a clutch situation, he would fail. Sure enough, he led the team in GIDP.
Interestingly, Mike Carp almost grounded into the same amount of double plays Ichiro did, and Carp had almost 400 less at-bats. I suppose that’s another post for another day.
Hopefully you’ve read what Drayer had to say about Ichiro’s comments. After reading it myself, it felt like it was a slap to the back of his head. A wake up call. Ichiro, stop being an average American player! Be yourself!, he yells to himself. So then, what can Ichiro do to better himself next year? The most critical part of the interview was the very last question in that article. He says that he adjusted something. He adjusted something in his approach, but we aren’t sure exactly what it was. We can only speculate – and I speculate that he was trying to be more of a pull-hitter. And it failed.
The first thing that stands out his is slugging percentage. This year he slugged .335, an MLB career low. That’s 51 points lower than he had slugged in 2008, a year where he still managed to lead the league in hits. Up until this season, 2008 was the low-point in his career in regards to slugging. Conversely, the highest SLG% he held was in 2009, and luckily, there’s a spray chart for that!
To me, this looks like a prototypical Ichiro spray chart. His hits are pretty evenly dispersed across the field, with most of the power staying in right field. Here’s a spray chart from this season:
The power’s still there. The hits still came to deep right field. The spray charts are surprisingly similar. Most troubling is the lack of infield hits. We can speculate on whether or not he lost a step due to his age, sure, I see how that’s possible – but I’m trying to understand his mindset. The core of his being. His approach at the plate.
Whatever adjustment (or “decision” as he put it) Ichiro made clearly had a giant impact on his success with the bat. My speculation is that he was attempting to become a power-type hitter. Although his FB% was about 2% less than his career average (22.1% against 23.7%), his LD% was up from the previous two years. His IFFB% took a trampoline jump upwards, sitting at 14.2% this year, against 6.1% and 8.8% the two years previous.
To bring it all together, I present Ichiro’s IFFB% from 2008: 14.4. The second to worst slugging year of his career. The similarities are eerie. Was he trying to pull the ball more? Was this then, in turn, causing him to get under the ball?
There’s something about the mindset of a player. Ichiro clearly had attempted to change something, and it didn’t work. The power’s there. The mythical/unmythical power is there. More than one source has cited that he absolutely demolishes balls in batting practice. The spray charts show that he is capable of power. It all comes back to the mindset. His goals. His approach.
If this is the case, the biggest problem with Ichiro is that he is trying not to be Ichiro. Ichiro is not a power-type hitter. Ichiro is not a pull-hitter. Ichiro is a finesse-hitter. He can use the entire field. He can leg out infield hits. He can hit six to ten homeruns a year. Ichiro needs to forget about changing his approach. If Ichiro were to be just himself, he would be fine.
So much about this game is about mechanics, routines. Ichiro used to be a creature of habit. Maybe he should go back to the way things were.
It feels like it’s the right thing to do.
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