(Photo by Associated Press)
Every Mariners manager in the last decade, I promise, has kicked around the notion of Ichiro batting third. And each one, for a variety of reasons, has ultimately rejected it — just as the latest skipper, Eric Wedge, has so far indicated that he, too, will do, despite a lineup that, as constituted, has a glaring dearth of qualified candidates for the No. 3 hole.
The reasons for perenially conjuring up the idea are obvious — first and foremost being Ichiro’s tremendous batting skill, and his excellence over the years in clutch situations (.333/.405/.421 career stats with runners on base, .337/.439/.417 with runners in scoring position, .348/.479/.445 with runners in scoring position and two outs).
The second motivation, in many cases, has been the absence of another bona fide threat to plug in there. When you have guys like Jose Vidro and Franklin Gutierrez manning the No. 3 hole, the temptation to move Ichiro there has to be overwhelming. And looking at this year’s lineup, I honestly can’t see who will fill that hole, traditionally reserved for a team’s best hitter. Oh, someone will be penciled in there, but it won’t be what you’d call a prototypical No. 3 hitter, because the Mariners don’t have one of those, at least not readily apparent. Not that Ichiro is the prototype, either, but he has some obvious attributes that continue to make the idea intriguing.
It began literally before he even put on a Mariner uniform. On Feb. 1, 2001, while in town for FanFest, manager Lou Piniella said that the M’s new signee out of Japan fit in logically as the No. 3 hitter, behind Mike Cameron and Carlos Guillen. That was a spot that had been filled prior to 2001 in Seattle by Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex Rodriguez — there were no complaints in those days.
“That would be ideal, to have Ichiro show he can hit third for us,” Piniella told reporters.
But when Ichiro arrived in camp, he made it clear that he preferred to hit leadoff, and Piniella put him there, to obvious great effect. Ichiro won the batting title, the MVP award, and the Mariners won 116 games. Piniella never quite gave up the idea that Ichiro would be good in the No. 3 hole, however; he started him there three times in 2002, and all Ichiro did was go 8-for-14 in those games. Still, by this point he was ensconced as a leadoff man, and when he set the all-time hits record in 2004 and won another batting title, it seemed foolish to mess with such a good thing.
By 2004 Bob Melvin had replaced Piniella, and the idea of Ichiro moving to third resurfaced briefly. On June 12, 2004, with the Mariners struggling offensively, Melvin moved Ichiro to third in the order, behind Randy Winn and Rich Aurilia.
“This isn’t permanent,” Melvin told reporters. “It’s just an effort to get our hottest hitter into a more productive spot. Ichiro is our best hitter with runners in scoring position this season. We talked in spring training about the possibility, if we were struggling, of trying this. Well, this is the day.”
That configuration lasted for 10 days, without the dynamic results of 2002. In those 10 games batting third in the order, Ichiro hit just .270 in 37 at-bats and had just two RBI. He was 1-for-12 with runners in scoring position. A small sample size, but large enough for Melvin. He put Ichiro back atop the order, and didn’t ever move him again.
“We had never intended for Ichiro to hit third for long; he’s our leadoff man,” the manager said. “More than anything, it was just to change our look. It was not the case at all that he was supposed to produce runs in the three slot.”
Flash forward to late March of 2006, with another manager in place, Mike Hargrove. In spring training, Hargrove told reporters that watching Ichiro hit third in manager Sadaharu Oh’s lineup for Team Japan in the World Baseball Classic earlier that spring was giving him some ideas.
“I’ve always been intrigued by Ichiro hitting third,” he said. “When I managed against him with Baltimore, I was intrigued by the idea. It is not out of the realm of possibility it would happen here.” (Hargrove quickly adding, “That would never be done without first discussing it with Ichiro.” He also said, seeming to backtrack, “If we thought that Ichiro hitting third would help us scoring runs, it’s something we’d consider. But otherwise, I don’t see that for us right now.”
Flash forward again to 2009, in Don Wakamatsu’s first spring as manager. For an exhibition game on March 30 against the Brewers in Peoria, Ichiro’s name showed up in the No. 3 spot. Eyebrows were raised. Just kicking things around, said Wakamatsu.
“I brought it up to him the other day and will talk to him today about it,” he told MLB.com. “Do I foresee him as the third-place hitter? No. But it gives me another viable option if I got with more of a run-and-gun offense. It’s not about Ichiro coming in and hitting 40 home runs. I’m smart enough to know I need him to be right mentally, and we don’t go off the deep end where all of a sudden it’s messing with the routine that he has been awfully successful with.”
And therein lies the crux of the matter. While Ichiro has always said that he will do whatever the teams wants him to do (and has put that into action by moving to center field in 2008), he has made it obvious that he is most comfortable at leadoff. In the 2004 biography “Ichiro Suzuki” by author David S. Leigh, Ichiro talks about the 1995 season in Japan, when the Orix Blue Wave moved him out of the leadoff spot and hit him third for a stretch.
“My batting average had gone down, and I was doing really poorly,” Ichiro is quoted as saying. “It was very tough to bat third. Batting leadoff was the perfect spot for me. I could totally focus on hitting when I was first. It felt great to be the leadoff batter and get a hit. Batting third, it’s a completely different feeling you get standing there in the batters box.”
In spring of 2001, when Piniella was toying around with the idea of 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.”
I have no doubt that still holds true. And with Chone Figgins available as a capable leadoff replacement for Ichiro, I’m sure the temptation to move Ichiro is greater than ever — especially having just watched an offense that was one of the worst in the last 50 years. But at the winter meetings, Wedge had come to the same conclusion as all his predecessors: “Ichiro is our leadoff hitter,” he said. “He’s had a tremendous amount of success there. We’ve got a lot of work to do here. We don’t need to take on something else right now.”
Last week at FanFest, I posed the question again to Jack Zduriencik, whether the Mariners would re-visit the notion of Ichiro batting third. Here was his answer:
“Right now, we are where we’re at with this. We’ll probably stay the course right now. Certainly, as you head into spring training, I’m anxious to sit down with Eric and his staff about a lot of things and hear what they have to say about a ton of things.
“Sometimes, those little moves aren’t as easy as you might think, because you affect a lot of things. You affect the psyche of another player. Comfort level is big, confidence is big. When a player knows who he is, where he’s at, what his surroundings are, those are things that help guys be successful. We’ll go into spring training and address a lot of issues and decisions. I’m looking forward to hearing input from everybody. But I don’t expect that (Ichiro leading off) to change.”