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Hot Stone League

Larry Stone gives his take on a wide array of baseball issues and weighs in about the Mariners, too.

June 3, 2011 at 10:39 AM

Ichiro has earned the benefit of the doubt (with minor-league report)

ichi0603.jpg

(Here is today’s Mariner minor-league report).

If it wasn’t for Chone Figgins, the No. 1 target of Mariners’ fans would no doubt be ichiro, who is flailing at what for him is an unprecedented extent. It has been jarring to see him look so lost at the plate and so pedestrian in right field.

Yet for those who are ready to write off Ichiro — and believe me, they’re out there — you do so at your own peril. I firmly believe that his sustained performance over the past 10 years has bought a little patience, and earned him some faith. I can understand the hostility toward Figgins, whose greatest accomplishments came in another uniform and has been known to Mariner fans primarily as a highly paid under-achiever. But Ichiro has been a Hall of Fame caliber player for a decade, all with the Mariners.

Yes, his May was terrible, the worst of his career (in a month that has historically been his best). He hit .210, and it wasn’t a hard-luck .210, either. Ichiro has always built his average with infield hits and well-placed dinks and dunks, but at his best, he combined his little ball with line drives and gappers. Of late, Ichiro has not hit the ball with authority, and that has allowed opposing defenses to “cheat,” taking away the nubbers and bloopers.

Yet we’ve seen Ichiro struggle before. I’ve written a few “What’s wrong with Ichiro?” columns over the years, only to watch him, shortly thereafter, catch fire and get on one of those other-wordly streaks in which it seems like he’s getting a hit every time up.

The only problem is, he’s 37 now. When a younger player slumps, it’s just a slump. When an aging player slumps, it’s a mystery: Is it a slump, or is it a sign that the downward slide of his career has begun? Derek Jeter, roughly the same age (he turns 37 later this month) is going through some thing very similar.

That day of irreversible decline comes for every player (and earlier than it used to, in the post-steroids age). Certainly, Ichiro at 37 is not the same player that Ichiro was at 27, when he was the American League’s MVP, or at 30, when he hit .372 and set the single-season hit record with 262.

But he’s only one year removed from a season in which he hit .315 with 214 hits. I’m not ready to concede that Ichiro is, to use a term posed by Mitch Levy of KJR the other day, a “shot fighter.”

Ichiro has got too much of a track record not to make the necessary adjustments and work out of this slump. Yes, he’s struggling now, but I’d be shocked if, at the end of the season, Ichiro’s numbers aren’t very close to what they always are.

(Photo by Associated Press)

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