- Alan Schwarz, MLB
- 0 Shares
Call this an Ichi Culpa.
Back in mid-May, after the decomposing Mariners staggered through New York, I wrote a column here on ESPN.com on what appeared to be the decline of Ichiro Suzuki. He was hitting .317, yes, but a look at his full performance both to that point and last year suggested that this was not the player who wowed us back in 2001 and 2002. Among other observations both positive and charitable, I cited Suzuki's "transparently thin layer of other offensive contributions" and claimed that, at the plate, "he has regressed into a one-dimensional singles hitter."
Rather predictably, this prompted a torrent of hate mail from hard-core Mariner fans, whom, I have learned over my years, typically exhibit civility and syntax that would make Dick Cheney blush. But enough about my fine flanneled friends. Just as predictably, perhaps, the column seemed to prompt a torrent of hits from one Ichiro Suzuki that leaves me similarly red-faced.
Since May 1, Suzuki has:
1) Batted .394, rapping 50 hits in a month two different times. With 40 already in August, he's about to make it three.
2) Re-established himself as a preeminent leadoff man, raising his on-base percentage to .412, tops among No. 1 hitters. Though he remains dramatically singles-oriented, his .874 leadoff OPS ranks first among AL leadoff hitters.
3) Been even hotter after the All-Star break, ridiculously so -- he's batting .483 (70-for-145) since Houston with a 1.113 OPS.
4) Solidified his chance at another batting title, and reached pace for 257 hits, tying George Sisler's all-time record.
5) Left an entire league shaking its head.
"He's got great hands, and he can fly," says manager Ron Gardenhire of the Twins, whom Ichiro blistered for seven hits in three games last week. "Curveballs that would lock up some guys, he'll start toward first and still foul them off. When someone's hitting .350, there's really no stopping him."
"He's fun to watch -- there's something about the way he plays the game that affects you," A's third baseman Eric Chavez says. "He can hurt you so many ways. He won't even hit the ball good, but get the run in. He's the last player I'd want to see up with men on base."
Then there are his teammates.
"He'll chop one off the plate. He'll flare one. He'll hit one hard. And all of a sudden he's got three hits," Bret Boone says. "Because he's so fast getting out of the box. No one can compare with him getting from home to first -- probably who has ever played. I ask him sometimes, 'Are you gonna count that as a hit? Nobody else in the world can get a hit like that!' And he goes, 'On purpose.' "
Sure enough, Suzuki has a purpose to his game that doesn't mesh with baseball's modern jack-and-jog mentality. His unique style of moving toward first base while swinging is bred by his incredible eye-hand coordination and short follow-through, which allow him to put the ball in play despite being out of typical hitting position. (Though he does keep his hands back more than it first appears.) Other than his rare home runs, which are mostly to the right side of the field, his spray chart is just that -- hits sprayed all over the diamond, particularly to startled infielders.
"He can hit a ground ball to second base and he beats it out," A's general manager Billy Beane says. "I'm not sure there's anyone else who can consistently do that. He's a very difficult player to get a handle on."
With that in mind, diagnoses of an Ichiro decline were not unreasonable. Almost every one of his vital numbers had decreased consistently since 2001, and his April slump (he batted .255 with just three extra-base hits) was particularly alarming. It appeared as if pitchers had made better adjustments than those he'd made in response. But give him credit -- Suzuki knows his game, hones it sharp, and applies it better than anyone else in baseball.
Speaking through his Mariners interpreter, Suzuki claims he is playing better now than in his entire career -- whether in Seattle or his amazing seven years with Japan's Orix Blue Wave -- in large part due to his studying of pitchers and his own game. "Many experiences hopefully equals better performance," he says. "I'm hoping that that's the case." In that same vein, however, he doesn't see himself as so smoking as the rest of the league believes.
"I don't feel like I'm hot right now. I feel like I'm just playing normally," he says. "The reason I say that is because [in the past] my skills weren't as high as they are now. When I was a little younger and getting hits you could say that I was hot because I really wasn't complete as a player. I really didn't know what I was doing to get those hits. But now I feel more experienced with more abilities. I don't know if you could say that I'm hot right now."
Suzuki does play the game in a bit of a vacuum, in the eye of his own tornado whipping through American League plains. He probably thinks Sisler is where some of his teammates ate last night. In a baseball world consumed with walks and power, he is compulsively driven only to get hits, whether they travel 400 feet or 90, bounce one time or seven.
In fact, it was the Mariners' suggestion that he take more pitches and perhaps unleash greater power that contributed to his early 2004 slump. This spring training, hitting coach Paul Molitor looked to round out Suzuki's game a bit and wound up dulling it.
"He started the season trying to be a little less aggressive, and you could tell he wasn't comfortable," Molitor says. "He was trying to respond to information given to him by his manager and his hitting coach. In hindsight, I don't know if the messages really resonated with him -- how they'd make him a better player. After a while I said he should just go back to his old methods."
Suzuki is aware that his power -- particularly for a right fielder -- is not at a high level, but feels more comfortable refining his strengths. Asked if power is important, he says, "Of course if I get a double or triple I'm closer to home, so obviously I would like to get more doubles and triples ... I think you need to look at if a player can hit doubles and triples and hit for power. If a player can't hit for power, but does hit them sometimes, doing that might not be the most important thing."
It's amazing to consider how Ichiro's season might have gone had he not strayed from his style in April. He might have threatened a .400 average, a tremendous feat considering he walks so infrequently (34 times so far) that he piles up huge numbers of at-bats (511, projecting to 708 for the season, which would break Willie Wilson's all-time record of 705). Baseball's .400 hitters, all of whom of course came before 1941, averaged only about 560 at-bats. Ichiro's approach leaves his "season" lasting a full 25 percent longer.
Either way, his hits will continue to mount, and mount faster than most any player in baseball. Seattle manager Bob Melvin has said that Ichiro could wind up approaching Pete Rose's career record of 4,256 hits, thanks to his more than 2,100 (including Japan and his three-plus years in the big leagues) and age (still just 30). When you think about it, by the time he retires, Suzuki will, like longtime Negro Leaguers Satchel Paige and Monte Irvin, have to be considered a top Hall of Fame candidate despite spending much of his career outside the major leagues.
More immediately, in this lost season for the Mariners, Suzuki's push for Sisler's record will probably come down to the last week of the season with two series, at Oakland then home for Texas. "We still have a lot of fans come out and watch our games," Suzuki says. "When I think about that, I want to be able to perform well, and maybe have the fans be excited about something. And be able, as a professional, even though the team's not doing well, still be able to go out and perform to the best of my ability."
That ability is clearly more pure and persistent than I thought back in May. The only decline, quite clearly, is in pitchers' ability to get this little bugger out.
Alan Schwarz is the senior writer of Baseball America and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. His new book, "The Numbers Game: Baseball's Lifelong Fascination With Statistics," is published by St. Martin's Press and can be ordered on Alan's Web site.
6hJacob Nitzberg, ESPN Stats & Information
22hRandy Jennings, Special to ESPN.com