(Ichiro gets a hit in the first inning at Fenway Park on Saturday, April 30. Photo by Getty Images).
I distinctly remember being at Yankee Stadium in late April of 2003, and approaching Ichiro to talk to him about his ongoing hitting slump. Ichiro hit .243 in April of that year, following a September the previous season in which he .248. For a span of 212 at-bats, he had hit under .250, and some were wondering if the Ichiro magic had expired. I dug up the resulting column, and here’s what Ichiro said:
“It has been a stressful month,” he said. “It’s not something where they beat me up. It’s more like there was something I could do, or was supposed to do, but could not get to that point. So that has given me more stress and frustration.
“If someone beat me up completely, I could tip my hat, and admit that. But it’s more like I made mistakes by myself.”
Yet Ichiro says his confidence has not wavered.
“Confidence is something I have built up while I have played in the past,” he said. “I don’t think it’s going to fall down any time, because confidence is always building up. Most important is to make small, small adjustments on a daily basis. That’s more like a feeling or sense, and finding that sense is more important than anything.”
Does he feel that attainment of this zen-like “sense” is near?
“It’s something I try to find while I’m playing and while I’m thinking about it. If I find out, I make small adjustments. It’s hard to express what it is. It’s not something I can express right away.”
The upshot is that Ichiro hit .389 in May of 2003 en route to another .300/200-hit season.
Flash forward to the beginning of May in 2004. Ichiro had limped through another struggling April, hitting just .255 in the month with a .309 on-base percentage. At spring training, hitting coach Paul Molitor and manager Bob Melvin had talked to Ichiro about the importance of on-base percentage, suggesting he be more selective at the plate and “try to do things leadoff men do that help create runs for your team,” as Molitor explained later.
After April, however, Molitor and Melvin told Ichiro to go back to what he felt comfortable with.
“In hindsight, we were probably a little misguided,” Molitor would say later. “Our intentions were good. But aggressiveness is a huge part of his success. He was willing to try some different things, and it might have attributed a little to his slow start. Once we saw he was a little out of his game, we made sure he knew to go ahead and do what he felt most comfortable with.”
Ichiro felt comfortable enough in May to explode to a .400 average, with a .477 on-base percentage. And he went on to hit a career-high .372 that year, breaking the major-league record for hits in a season with 262.
It has been a career-long pattern for Ichiro, who generally putters his way to — for him — lackluster starts in April, then explodes in May. It’s as if the first month is a feeling-out process that allows him to get comfortable at the plate, make the “small, small adjustments” necessary to hit with authority.
April has been the worst month of Ichiro’s career (and when I say “April,” that includes the few days of March that sometimes start the season), with a cumulative .302 average, .353 on-base percentage and .346 slugging percentage. May has been the best month, with a .362/.409/.465 line. Ichiro’s average rises 60 points from April to May, while his OPS (on-base plus slugging) rises 125 points.
In that context, Ichiro is actually in a better jumping-off point than usual this season, having hit .328 in April. It’s the fourth-best April average of his career, after having his second-best April, average-wise, last year (.344). He followed that in 2010 by hitting .336 in May, which actually was his third lowest average in that month. Ichiro has hit higher than .370 six times in 10 Mays, and has been under .300 just once (2005 — a year in which Ichiro had his best April ever, and the lowest average of his career at season’s end).
Here is a summation of Ichiro’s average in April, May, and season’s end in his 10 years, with his OPS in parentheses:
2001: .336/.358/.431 (.789) April, .379/.409/.532 (.941) May, .350/.381/.457 (.838) full season.
2002: .316/.387/.469 (.856) April, .404/.477/.440 (.917) May, .321/.388/.425 (.813) full season
2003: .243/.317/.306 (.623) April, .389/.415/.558 (.973) May, .312/.352/.436 (.788) full season
2004: .255/.309/.304 (.613) April, .400/.436/.496 (.932) May, .372/.414/.455 (.869) full season
2005: .356/.404/.505 (.909) April, .288/.339/.405 (.744) May, .303/.350/.436 (.786) full season
2006: .287/.353/.352 (.705) April, .371/.418/.444 (.862) May, .322/.370/.416 (.786) full season
2007: .305/.352/.463 (.815) April, .357/.411/.434 (.845) May, .351/.396/.431 (.827) full season
2008: .252/.310/.361 (.671) April, .319/.384/.398 (.782) May, .310/.361/.386 (.747) full season
2009: .306/.317/.419 (.736) April, .377/.417/.515 (.932) May, .352/.386/.465 (.851) full season
2010: .344/.388/.406 (.794) April, .336/.392/.427 (.819) May, .315/.359/.394 (.753) full season
2011: .328/.380/.378 (.758) April
Career: .302/353/.396 (.749) April, .362/.409/.465 (.874) May, .331/.376/.429 (.805) career.
Just for the heck of it, here are Ichiro’s career totals for the other months:
.344/.390/.450 (.840) June
.325/.370/.430 (.800) July
.326/.365/.417 (.782) August
.324/.365/.414 (.779) September/October
This season, Ichiro’s May got off to a bad start. He went 0-for-4 on Sunday, and then lost a ball in the sun in the ninth inning of a tie game, leading to the game-winning run by the Red Sox. HIstory shows that things will get better.