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Daily coverage of the Mariners during the season and all year long.

June 16, 2009 at 9:13 AM

The curious case of Ichiro: clubhouse chemistry can’t be ruled out

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Good morning to all of you as the Mariners get set to resume their suddenly disastrous road trip, this time in San Diego tonight. Don’t have to tell you the stakes. Losing three straight in Colorado has dropped the Mariners to 5 1/2 games behind the division-leading Texas Rangers. Perhaps more importantly, though, the M’s are now three games behind the second-place Angels. As we wrote last week, the Rangers are sprouting holes all over and might not be atop this division for long. But the M’s have to keep pace with the Angels and have dropped three games to them in a span of three days.
One thing that is quickly becoming the positive news story for the Mariners are the career resurrections of a pair of thirtysomething players. We’ve all heard about Russell Branyan and what he’s done since finally being given a full-time role. But what about Ichiro and all the stuff he’s been up to at the plate?
Going into tonight, Ichiro is putting up his best offensive numbers in five years, at an age — 35 — when most players start to slow down.
Ichiro’s .360 batting average is his best since 2004, the year he broke George Sisler’s record for most hits in a season. His .395 on-base-percentage is also his best mark since that time while his .488 slugging percentage and .883 OPS are the best of his career.
His projected total of 244 hits would be his best since the record-setting 262 five years ago. And his projected 14 homers would be the second-best total of his career, the highest being 15 clubbed in 2005. The 34 doubles he’s on pace for would tie his career-best mark set in 2001.
Ichiro’s isolated power of .128 is just below the career-best .133 he put up in 2005 and dwarfs the .076, .080 and .094 he’d posted the past three seasons.
So, yes, quite a turnaround on a team that needs every bit of power and average his bat can provide. All this from a 35-year-old, who last season — playing for a 101-loss team that everybody in this country forgot about — posted the worst OPS and slugging percentage of his career and the second-lowest on-base percentage and batting average since he joined MLB.
The reasons for this sudden surge? Well, forget the home ballpark, since it’s been the same since he joined the majors in 2001. In fact, if you delve deeper into Ichiro’s numbers this season, he’s performed better away from Safeco Field.
He’s done the most damage against Baltimore, Kansas City and Boston. But then again, historically, his .371 and .366 averages against the Orioles and Royals coming into this season had been the highest of his career. So, that can’t be it. Maybe it’s his slightly improved showing in three games against the Red Sox? Come on.
Better “protection” from the No. 2 hitter? Are you kidding me? Well, maybe since Branyan took over that spot, but, seriously…no.
If you ask me, it’s too early in the season to draw any definitive conclusions. I’d rather wait for the entire season to play out first. But one thing I can suggest, based on past years put out there by Ichiro, is that he is a guy prone to hot streaks. I mean, when he gets hot, he gets really hot. Check out the Mariners’ team record for hitting streaks. He’s got the top one and the majority of the top-10.
And you can’t deny, this latest streak he’s been on has been quite a run, posting a .932 OPS in May and now a .945 in June. But he can do that. I’ve seen it firsthand — with my own eyes. Some folks around the league might not know this about Ichiro, but fans in Seattle do — when he’s hot, he can be as good as any power hitter.
So, maybe we can attribute it to a hot streak. Maybe not. Hey, I’m just attempting to cover all the angles here with this serious analysis.
And now, reluctantly, I must acknowledge the “elephant in the room” that everyone is pondering but no one wants to talk about. Why would they, since this subject has been known to spark blog wars and endless debates and finger-pointing. And it’s something that gets discussed anytime stats go from bad to good in a hurry on a particular team.
I’m talking about chemistry. Clubhouse chemistry, that is.
We’ve all yelled and screamed about it. Pondered its existence. But you have to admit, ever since Ken Griffey Jr. and Mike Sweeney came on board, taking the clubhouse and media heat off of Ichiro, the guy has been lights-out. Perhaps the fact that both players, especially Griffey, have made a conscious effort to ease Ichiro “into the group” of players more than ever, he has felt more relaxed and been able to concentrate purely on his game?
I mean, who before would have had the guts to tickle Ichiro to the ground in batting practice? Richie Sexson? But I’ve seen Griffey do that. Seen him make Ichiro laugh more than I’ve seen the leadoff man do since coming to Seattle. Sure, it’s a little thing, an “intangible” if you will. But I’ve always believed that a more relaxed work environment makes for a more productive one.
And besides, none of the other things I’ve mentioned above totally explains why Ichiro is doing what he has this season. So, why not throw the team chemistry angle out there? I mean, it’s on everybody’s minds. No sense keeping it a secret when it’s part of the bar talk I hear amongst fans discussing his play.
So, there it is.
Of course, it goes without saying that Ichiro is one of the hardest working guys on the team. Shows up early, does a rigid stretching workout, hits in the cages extra-time. His body is in fantastic shape for a guy in his mid-30s. Besides, he really only began playing a full 162-game major league schedule at a later point than most players start their careers. So, maybe he’s got a ton of mileage left in him. And maybe all he needed was a change of environment, going from the negative one the past five seasons or so to a more upbeat, positive clubhouse and workplace?
Gosh, you know, he reminds me of another hardworking, thirtysomething guy who keeps himself in excellent shape and also played for the 101-loss Mariners of a year ago. A guy who put up consistently good numbers the past few seasons and now has lifted his game to another level. A guy who’s since moved on to a more positive clubhouse environment with the defending World Series champion Philadelphia Phillies and is also riding quite the hot streak right now.
You know, Raul Ibanez?

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