(Here’s Ichiro during BP on Sunday. He won’t be bunting much in the No. 3 hole, however. Associated Press photo).
It was evident almost from the first swing he took that something was different about Ichiro this spring. I watched him through a fence on the first day he took swings, all by himself, and even to my untrained eye, I could tell that it wasn’t the old Ichiro. He looked more conventional than I had ever seen him, not the slap hitter I was used to seeing.
But that was just an informal session after a long flight from Japan, so it wasn’t clear to me if this was something that was going to last. Watching him pretty closely this week in batting practice, however, it became clearer and clearer that a major transformation had taken place. For one thing, he has a much wider, and more balanced, stance. For another, he’s not lifting his front leg, not perceptibly. . And, putting it all into action, he seems much more intent on scalding line drives than the “slap” style of old.
Turns out my eyes weren’t deceiving me. Other people, like Eric Wedge, have noticed the same thing. And today, when Wedge announced that Ichiro will be his No. 3 hitter, it came into clearer focus.
“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.
“He’s a smart player, a very smart hitter. 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.”
To me, the change in Ichiro’s approach is more interesting, and potentially more impactful, than the change in the Mariner batting order. I think it’s absolutely the right thing for him to do, the best way to regain his stature as a premier hitter. In fact, last June I wrote a blog post entitled, ‘Does Ichiro need to re-invent himself as a hitter?” in which I answered that question affirmatively. At his age, he’s 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.
Last year, Ichiro had just 38 infield hits, the second-lowest total of his career (he had 34 in 2005, his previous worst year). His batting average if you exclude infield hits was .227, by far the lowest of his career. My theory is that teams were taking away his infield hits by playing him tighter than ever, because they didn’t respect his ability to drive the ball past him — either in the infield or outfield. He had just 30 extra-base-hits.
The first reaction, of course, is to say, “So why put a guy like that in three hole?” It’s a legitimate question. But every Mariners manager who has ever had Ichiro on his team has flirted with the idea, because they see what Ichiro can do in batting practice when he puts his mind to it. Drive after drive into the seats. 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 putting 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 play out.