Of all the naysayers out there, those who are boycotting games, plotting to sack Nintendo, or just disenchanted with Seattle’s 11-year dry spell, there is one person who still believes in the power of the Mariners: Munenori Kawasaki.
Okay, maybe he believes more in the power of Ichiro than the power of this team to contend for the AL West, but his enthusiasm is undeniable. If you’ve seen him at the plate, on the field, or even in the dugout, you’ve witnessed his irrepressible energy and joie de vivre, whether he’s doing pushups at first base, flapping his hands before an at-bat, or chasing Ichiro onto the field.
While Kawasaki’s love for the game has translated perfectly from his roots in Nippon Professional Baseball to Major League Baseball, his skill set has not. Over eleven seasons in NPB, he earned All-Star titles eight years in a row, nabbed two Gold Glove awards, and won two gold medals with the national Japanese team in the 2006 and 2009 Olympics. By his third full year with the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks, Kawasaki was batting over .300, with 171 hits, 48 walks, and 42 stolen bags in 564 at-bats.
As a Mariner, Munenori has floated around from backup shortstop to emergency catcher to whatever role Eric Wedge sees fit to stick him in. In 16 games and 35 plate appearances, he’s put up a .194/.288/.194 line, with 6 hits, 4 runs, and 4 walks. Of course, judging him on the smallest sample size would be as silly as dismissing his skills after his 2000 season, when he broke into professional baseball with an .000 average over one game and four at-bats.
The same can be cautioned about his glove work: on the field, Munenori’s defense is impeccable, a perfect fielding percentage in 82.1 innings, with 13 putouts and 25 assists. While FanGraphs does not provide projections for Mune’s glove, it does shed some light on the results we might expect from him at the plate. According to the ZiPS projection system, Kawasaki is heading towards a season of 119 starts, 500 PA, and a batting line of .248/.288/.296. His strikeout rate—currently on par with a walk rate of 11.4%—will rise to 14.3%, while his walk rate will sink to just 4.9%.
Now, I’m not the biggest believer in intangibles: grittiness and effort without results do nothing for me. However, though Kawasaki still requires time to adjust to a new league and a new set of opposing pitchers, there’s something to be said for the way he has revitalized the clubhouse. After all, how many players would name a victory dance after themselves and serenade the manager after a win?
So, while the Mariners drift to the bottom of the division, Safeco Field continues to empty, and the next championship title appears even further away, there is at least one reason that keeps me tuning in to every game: the presence of a player who puts his heart into each play, and arrives at the ballpark not just
for Ichiro to win, but to have fun doing it.