I should preface my first post here at Fansided by introducing myself. I am from Portland, Oregon, and I’m a huge fan of both the Trail Blazers and the Mariners. During the past rec-league, slow-pitch softball season, my glove tallied a 26.4 UZR in center (source questionable), placing me squarely between Coco Crisp (2007) and Andruw Jones (2005) for third-best season among center fielders in the last decade.
Well now that you know me, let’s move to one of my favorite topics: Ichiro!
Ichiro’s sudden decline last season is well documented. He recorded just a .272 average on his way to his first sub-200-hit season this side of the Pacific. Worse yet was his .310 on-base percentage (OBP) from the lead-off position. Ichiro has always sported an excellent OBP–.370 career—but much of that has been tied up in his ability to hit, not his ability to walk. In fact, over the course of his career, hits and reaching on errors have made up more than 82% of Itchy’s total trips to the basepaths. So when his average went down last year, his OBP fell just as quickly.
This brings us to the topic of his position in the lineup. MLB.com reports that Eric Wedge is considering moving Ichiro down from the leadoff spot, possibly to the two or three-hole. With only 13 career starts at a position other than leadoff, we have very little idea of how he’ll perform there, but his skill set suggests that it might be a better spot for him.
From the leadoff spot, Ichiro looks out to see the bases empty more than any other hitter in the lineup. The BOOK informs us that leadoff players hit with runners on base 36% of the time, while the next-lowest position in the lineup gets to hit with runners on 44% of the time. Ichiro’s career numbers are right in line with that research, as he has seen men on just 35% of all trips to the plate during his career. Observe some important numbers in my rectangular chart.IchiroPA1B%U-BB%OGT
Quick explanation: we’re looking at the percentage of plate appearances resulting in singles, unintentional walks, and then the cleverly abbreviated “Other Good Things,” (like intentional walks, hit-by-pitches and reaching on errors).
A huge percent of Ichiro’s success in both situations comes in the form of singles, which—with the bases empty—are worth exactly the same as a walk. Essentially by hitting Ichiro first, his ability to put the ball in play and reach base is partially wasted on empty bases, whereas increasing the proportion of times he comes to the plate with runners on would turn many of those singles into RBI. You know, kill two birds with one stone. Or something.
So in theory, it seems as though moving Ichiro down the lineup card would be a good thing for both him and the team. This would require that his production doesn’t dip even further adjusting to a new spot in the order, and that the Ms have a reasonable replacement atop the lineup.
As for production, Ichiro can obviously hit with runners on base. As with most players, all of his stats improve in those situations. Additionally, Ichiro has slashed .324/.410/.412 (avg/obp/slugging) in his 78 chances batting from somewhere other than leadoff. While I know as well anyone to be cautious around small sample sizes, this is definitely not bad news. And outside the stats, Ichiro has always come across as the professional of professionals. If anyone can handle a change in lineup scenery, it’s him.
As for other leadoff options, this might be the perfect opportunity to give—shudder—Chone Figgins one last chance. His most recent productive season (2009) came from the leadoff spot, and he has a history of solid patience. A greater percent of his trips to first come by the walk compared to Ichiro, and Figgins can then turn walks into doubles with the best of them. As recently as 2010 he put up a walk rate of 10.5%, compared to the league average of 8.5%. That’s basically 20 OBP points over an average hitter, exactly what you want from your leadoff man. Of course, he actually has to be able to hit, too. This would definitely be an experiment with a short leash.
If you’d rather Figgins played left bench on another planet, then I think the best option for leadoff is Dustin Ackley. He posted a 10.6% walk rate in his rookie season, good for a .348 OBP. Though it was just half a season, he has the minor league numbers to back it up, posting a 14% walk rate to go along with a .387 OBP between West Tennessee and Tacoma. A lineup that goes Ackley, Jesus, Ichiro, Smoak actually looks almost formidable. I realize “formidable” and “Mariners lineup” don’t really go together, but that’s definitely a solid top four.
If you couldn’t tell, I am in full support of moving Ichiro down in the lineup during his final contract year. His contact skills are more suited for just about every other lineup position, and we have a great option for leadoff in Dustin Ackley.
*Thanks to Baseball-Reference for all its wonderful numbers.