At age 38 and moved to third in the batting order, Ichiro plans to evolve into more of a traditional gap hitter.
PEORIA, Ariz. — A quiet Mariners camp was riled up on Tuesday.
In his post-workout media session, Eric Wedge matter-of-factly dropped the blockbuster news he had been hinting at since the end of last season, with a couple of new twists. Turns out it was a three-parter:
Part one: Ichiro is no longer the leadoff hitter. Gasp.
Part two: Chone Figgins is. Whaaa?
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Part three: Ichiro will hit third. Wow.
OK, it wasn’t quite that melodramatic, but each element packs a wallop, even if you saw it coming. Each one can be debated from here until opening day. Go figure: In a season being sold as a youth movement, it was the movement of an old guy that caused the biggest buzz. (Speaking of the vaunted Mariners youth movement, I’m still trying to figure out where Figgins fits into that; but I guess there are 36 million reasons to take one last shot at resurrecting his Seattle career, at the temporary expense of one of their purported future cornerstones, Kyle Seager.)
Ichiro, meanwhile, turned 38 last October, and now he will be asked to re-invent himself. And do so in the spot in the batting order many consider to be the most crucial — the one traditionally reserved for the team’s best hitter.
That has clearly been Ichiro in the past, but it was not Ichiro last year, when his “slap and run” style stopped being effective. We are already seeing signs of what for him is a radical new approach.
For one thing, in batting practice Ichiro has unveiled a much wider, and more balanced, stance. For another, he’s not lifting his front leg, not perceptibly. His hands are lower. And, putting it all into action, he seems much more intent on scalding line drives than the slashing style of old.
“You can already see he’s obviously made some adjustments this winter if you watch him take BP,” Wedge said. “Ultimately, what I want him to do, I want him to make it his own. He’s as smart a baseball player as we have in there. He understands the game very well. He understands what the responsibilities and priorities are with someone hitting third. I’m trusting in that. What he wants to do is what’s best for the ballclub. That’s what he’s doing here.
“Any adjustment he’s making is because there’s good reason for it in his mind. I don’t think he made any changes coming in here from a batting-stance standpoint with regards to just hitting third. I do know one thing: He’s stronger. He knew this was an option, and I think he prepared for it.”
Turns out that’s exactly the case. Ichiro said he had been preparing himself mentally all winter for the possibility of hitting third. And he confirmed that he had also been working on changing his hitting style.
“I’ve been working on that stance the whole offseason, so that’s not temporary,” he said.
Asked why, he said, “To perform better. We all make changes, adjustments to perform better. That’s the only reason.”
Ichiro, to his credit, is saying all the right things about leaving leadoff, and Wedge stated emphatically: “He’s on board. I was very clear with him, he was very clear with me. He’s ready to go.”
It is true that Ichiro actually played more games hitting third than first during his seven years in Japan, and won a batting title in all seven of those years. It is true that he dabbled in the three-hole during both of Japan’s World Baseball Classic title runs. And it is true that every Mariners manager preceding Wedge — starting with Lou Piniella — toyed with the idea of hitting Ichiro third.
It is also true that Ichiro’s identity as a major-league player outside of Japan — as a Mariner, in other words — has been inextricably linked to being a leadoff hitter.
In fact, in spring of 2001, when Piniella was contemplating Ichiro hitting third, Ichiro told the Seattle P-I, “I guess you could say I have the experience in the middle of the lineup. But I don’t like it. When you look at major-league hitters, the picture of Ichiro isn’t what comes to mind when you think of No. 3 hitters. I’m not a home-run hitter … But if the manager says to do it, I will do it to the best of my ability.”
Piniella eventually backed off on the idea (except for three games in 2002, during which Ichiro went 8 for 14 as the No. 3 hitter) as did all his other managers. But that was when Ichiro was cranking out 200 hits a year and hitting .300 annually, a trend that stopped at 184 and .272 last year.
To me, the change in Ichiro’s approach is more interesting, and potentially more impactful, than the change in the Mariners’ batting order. I think it’s absolutely the right thing for him to do, regardless of where he hits in the lineup — the best way to regain his stature as a premier hitter.
At his age, Ichiro is not going to get any faster, so an approach that has been so predicated on infield hits — more than 50 a season in his prime years, and up to a peak of 63 in 2001, when he took the league by storm — is not going to continue to be effective.
The first reaction, of course, is to say, “So why put a guy like that in three hole?” It’s a legitimate question. But everyone has seen what Ichiro can do in batting practice when he swings from his heels. Drive after drive into the seats. His career numbers hitting in the clutch are excellent (.333 batting average/.436 on-base perecentage/.411 slugging percentage with runners in scoring position in over 1,300 at-bats). And there has always been a sense that Ichiro can do what he wants with a bat, if he puts his mind to it.
Now, it seems, he is ready and willing to put his mind to being a more conventional hitter, one aiming for the gaps and not the hole at shortstop.
It’s going to be fascinating to watch this play out.
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Twitter @StoneLarry.
|No. 3 hitters|
|Only three players opened the season in the Mariners’ No. 3 spot in the batting order at least three times. From the team’s opening-game lineups, 1977-2011:|
|No. 3 hitter||Pos.||Seasons|
|Ken Griffey Jr.||CF||9||1991-99|
|Alvin Davis||1B||4||1985, ’88-90|
|No. 3 hitters|
|Only three players have opened the season in the Mariners’ No. 3 spot in the batting order at least three times. From the team’s opening-game lineups, 1977-2011:|
|No. 3 hitter||Pos.||Seasons|
|Ken Griffey Jr.||CF||9 (1991-99)|
|Alvin Davis||1B||4 (1985, ’88-90)|
|Dan Meyer||1B||3 (1978-80)|