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

June 10, 2011 at 10:06 AM

Does Ichiro need to re-invent himself as a hitter?

ichirokneel.jpg

(Photo by Associated Press)

When April ended, there was little reason to suspect Ichiro was about to begin the biggest slump of his career, one that has Seattle fans furiously debating whether he is done as an impact hitter.

In his last 11 games of April, Ichiro hit .447 (21-for-47) to raise his average from .250 to .328. He had multi-hit games in seven of the last eight he played in April. And looming was May, the month in which Ichiro’s season traditionally takes off — the month in which he owned a lifetime .362 average. All seemed rosy for the Mariners’ leadoff hitter.

As we know, May turned into a disaster for Ichiro. He hit .210 in the month, and is at .132 for the first nine days of June. Put it together, and Ichiro is working on a 35-game stretch in which he is hitting .189 (27-for-143) with just four extra-base hits (three doubles and one triple). He has walked 11 times, giving him an on-base percentage of .245 and a slugging percentage of .224. He seems lost at the plate, a characteristic we could rarely apply to Ichiro over the past decade.

It’s been dreadful, and while I still think Ichiro will get hot at some point, reality is reality. For this to still be a typical Ichiro year, he’s going to have to heat up fast. He’s had 262 at-bats so far this year. Over his Mariner career, Ichiro has averaged 682 at-bats in a full season (excluding 2009, when he had his only stint on the disabled list). Using that number as a guide, he has 420 more at-bats to go this season. To reach his standard of 200 hits, Ichiro needs to add 134 more to the 66 he currently has. That would require him to hit .319 the rest of the way (134-for-420) — certainly not out of the question for the Ichiro we used to know.

If he does that, Ichiro would hit .293 based on an average 682 at-bat season (the number of at-bats would go down, of course, if Eric Wedge decides to rest Ichiro more often as the season progresses). To reach his other standard of a .300 batting average, Ichiro would need 205 hits, requiring him to hit .331 the rest of the way.

That number, .331, is an appropriate one, because it happens to have been Ichiro’s lifetime average coming into the season. For him to reach his career average of .331 this season, Ichiro needs 226 hits in a 682 at-bat season. In other words, he would have to go 160-for-420 the rest of the way — .381. And to equal the .315 he hit last year, Ichiro would need 215 hits in the scenario I set up — that’s 149 more hits, or a .355 average the rest of the way.

Those are daunting numbers, but the real question, I believe, is this: Can Ichiro continue to be the same type of hitter he was? Or, if he has lost the proverbial step at age 37 (a theory supported by his defensive troubles this season), does he need to adapt by changing his style and ceasing to be the player I dubbed “The Sultan of Slap” in 2001?

Ichiro’s success has been built around an unorthodox approach, in which he confounded defenses with his ability to mis-hit the ball and still get base hits on slow rollers, dunkers over the infield, chops, bunts — you’ve seen it. Ichiro’s speed, and the way he’s seemingly two steps up the line as he hits the ball, has been a huge part of his game. It’s what made him such a kick to watch, because you never knew when he was going to mix in a smash to the gap, or even, on 90 occasions (none yet this year), a home run.

Here is a list of the infield singles and bunt hits accumulated each year by Ichiro, according to the Stats Inc. database (ranked by infield hits, from most to least in his career), along with his batting average for that season:

2001: 63 infield hits, 10 bunt singles (.350)

2009: 59 infield hits, 6 bunt singles (.352)

2010: 59 infield hits, 7 bunt singles (.315)

2004: 57 infield hits, 4 bunt singles (.372)

2002: 53 infield hits, 9 bunt singles (.321)

2007: 53 infield hits, 7 bunt singles (.351)

2008: 52 infield hits, 8 bunt singles (.310)

2003: 45 infield hits, 9 bunt singles (.312)

2006: 41 infield hits, 1 bunt single (.322)

2005: 34 infield hits, 6 bunt singles (.303)

As you can see, Ichiro’s last two seasons have ranked second and third when it comes to infield hits, which would seem to indicate that if he has lost a step this year, he lost it overnight. Here’s another way to look at it. Here are Ichiro’s year-to-year averages if you exclude his infield hits:

2001: .285

2002: .261

2003: .263

2004: .317

2005: .267

2006: .280

2007: .296

2008: .254

2009: .286

2010: .249

It’s obvious how important infield singles are to Ichiro’s overall success. Take them away, and he’s no longer a special hitter. Furthermore, last season was the worst of his career as a “conventional” hitter, and 2008 was his second-worst.

So far this year, through 63 games, Ichiro has 15 infield hits (and two bunt singles). That projects, over a 162-game season, to 39 infield hits. That would be the second-lowest total of his career, surpassing only the 34 infield hits he had in 2005 — his worst offensive season. And so far this year, Ichiro is hitting .206 (51-for-247) if you exclude the infield hits.

What does it all mean? It’s always dangerous to make generalizations with Ichiro, who has always been one to turn conventional wisdom on its ear. As lost as he looks now, he is still fully capable of going on one of his patented hot streaks (and I expect him to, soon). To me, the key for Ichiro’s turnaround is to regain his line-drive stroke and hit those periodic balls to the gap that always so beautifully complimented his slap game by forcing the defenses to play honest. This year, teams are giving him less and less respect, tightening their defensive alignment so that when he does hit a line drive, the oufield is so shallow they’re tracking it down. And infielders, with no fear of him slashing the ball past them, are also playing closer and eliminating his infield hits.

Perhaps Ichiro has lost a step. It’s part of the aging process. What he needs to do is establish that he can still hit the ball with authority to the gap, and then we’ll find out if the Sultan of Slap is still alive and kicking. If he can’t do that, then there’s reason for serious concern.

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