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July 26, 2012 at 6:00 AM

It took leaving Seattle for Ichiro to finally be used in roles he’s better suited for

ADDITIONAL NOTE: If you missed last night’s hour-long show I hosted on the Mariners and Ichiro on Sports Radio KJR, you can hear it in the podcast above.
One of the more interesting aspects of seeing Ichiro go to the New York Yankees is hearing how he’s going to be used there and noticing how differently he gets spoken about once outside the Seattle sphere that served as his home for 11 seasons.
The most telling piece I’ve read thus far came from longtime New York writer Wallace Matthews on who wrote of how Ichiro had to agree to a set list of conditions in order for the Yankees to take him.
“He was fully educated on all our requirements,” Yankees general manager Brian Cashman told “One by one, every box got ticked off.”
The first requirement? That he hit in the bottom third of the batting order. Some people feel the batting order doesn’t matter much, but MLB teams do and the first move by the Yankees was to get Ichiro away from the top ( they did put him at leadoff yesterday, but that was due to A-Rod’s injury and it’s unclear how long it will continue). The lineup thing was a point of contention in Seattle for much of this season, obviously, but the Yankees had their idea of where Ichiro fits best and it’s in line with what many here on the blog were clamoring for since spring training. You want your high OBP guys up top and a .280 OBP is never going to be one of those, no matter how good or bad a team is. It was pretty clear by May that Ichiro should have been batting 8th ahead of Brendan Ryan, but team officials were reluctant to do that out of fear of injuring Ichiro’s pride. How do I know this? I talk to them daily.
Moving on, the other requirement is that Ichiro will be platooned against left-handed pitching. No more DH “days off” or going weeks on end without a sit-down. No team can afford to let .280-OBP hitters play for weeks on end, even if they play good defense. That’s why Ryan doesn’t play seven days per week. Anyhow, no need to go into this further. The logic should be self-explanatory.
This next item wasn’t a point that Brian Cashman issued to Ichiro, but an observation by Yankees scouts that led to New York taking a chance on Ichiro.
But the consensus among Yankees scouts was that Ichiro was “bored” playing for the last-place Mariners and was “playing down to his surroundings.” The Yankees hope this situation will reverse itself with the 38-year-old Ichiro suddenly shifted to a first-place team with a legitimate hope of reaching the World Series.
In Seattle, the common consensus was that Ichiro was the consummate pro, playing to the utmost of his abilities no matter how bad the talent around him. Among the pro scouts for the Yankees, however, the view was of a guy going through the motions to some degree. They may be right, or may be wrong. For me, it’s somewhat disconcerting that a guy making $18 million ($17 million in salary, $1 million pro-rated signing bonus) could be mailing it in on some nights. But I’ve had the “bored” suspicions about Felix Hernandez at times and shrugged it off as part of the human condition. I won’t blame Ichiro for that, I’ll blame the Mariners. But still, it’s interesting to note the difference in how he was viewed in the Big Apple compared to here.
Let’s face it, the only reason the Yankees got Ichiro was for his defense. The Yankees have enough hitting that they can afford the liability of a sub-.290 OBP guy at the bottom of their order. What they didn’t want to risk was taking a defensive hit after the loss of Brett Gardner — who is a plus-outfield defender. Gardner is also a much better hitter than Ichiro at this stage of their careers, but as I said, the Yanks have hitting to spare. The value they got here was replacing Gardner’s defense overnight without having to give up anything of value to do so.
In that respect, this was a great move for them. And an equally great move for a Mariners team that no longer has to force itself for non-baseball reasons to treat a part-time player like the superstar he once was.

Ichiro at his best was a Hall of Fame player, as I’ve mentioned several times already. But even as such — a guy headed to Cooperstown — he was always going to be a complementary player in the M’s quest to build a champion.
Some people get offended by the term “complementary” player, wrongly thinking it refers only to part-time role guys.
That’s not it. Part-time role guys don’t go to the Hall of Fame.
When you read this piece from NBCNewYork, it describes Ichiro as a complementary player, then spells out what that role entails.
Suzuki is here to be a complementary player for Alex Rodriguez (homer, two RBI) and Mark Teixeira (three hits over the shift and an RBI) to drive in, a role that fits him much better at this point in his career than the starring role the Mariners needed him to play.
Right now, that complementary role will indeed be part-time for Ichiro until he earns the everyday status again. But I think the descriptor of what “complementary” really means could be applied to Ichiro at any stage of his career. Even in 2004 when he set the MLB record for hits in one season.
Ichiro was a table-setter. And table-setters are almost never viewed by those who assemble MLB rosters as the absolute key ingredient to winning championships. How do we know this? By the salaries those roster-builders pay players.
Two years ago, in our Bottoming Out series on losing Seattle sports teams, our baseball component looked at the proportion of payroll the Mariners were devoting to two table-setters in Ichiro and Chone Figgins in 2010. We compared them to the payroll percentages other teams were spending on two-player combos and found that in every case, the others were giving similar money to their middle-of-the-order, home run hitters.
And with Figgins paid $9 million annually for similar leadoff skills, he and Ichiro earn a combined 29 percent of team payroll. Twins sluggers Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau take up 27 percent of payroll. Phillies stars Howard and Chase Utley take up 24 percent. Yankees hitters A-Rod and Mark Teixeira account for 25 percent.
There are logical reasons why teams value big middle-of-the-order hitters more than leadoff guys. You can have table-setters. But as good as they are, they won’t mean anything without guys to drive them in. And those middle-of-the-order guys have always been the best hitters in the game because they combine game-changing, one-swing pure power, with good batting average and on-base ability. Ichiro at his finest had the same on-base ability as the better guys in the game and his average was certainly among the best. But his slugging percentage was never close to the .500 mark that separates the good power hitters from the average ones. Especially not in the early part of last decade.
Back in 2001, when I (working in Toronto at the time) and other writers around the country voted for Ichiro as the American League MVP, a lot of it had to do with just how much of a multi-layered threat he was. For me, it was his turning every infield chopper into the equivalent of a double or triple by being able to get the infield hit and steal bases, or go from first-to-third on even a single to left field. Back then, I was able to overlook the sabermetric critics who wrote in to tell me Ichiro’s OPS wasn’t as high as Jason Giambi’s, or even Brett Boone’s. For me, the ability Ichiro had to “de-stabilize” an opposing pitcher was evident. The minute he stepped to the plate, opposing pitchers were afraid of giving up a ground ball. When Ichiro reached base, he rattled pitchers to a degree I’d never seen before, even when I watched the great Tim Raines daily as a fan in Montreal.
That de-stabilizing ability is usually reserved only for middle-of-the-order, big bat hitters.
And back in 2001, for me, that was enough of a difference-maker to vote Ichiro MVP over the other higher-OPS guys the new-stat, sabermetric devotees were imploring me to consider. I was also looking at Ichiro’s fantastic defense back then — compared to Giambi — at a time when glovework wasn’t in-vogue among the numbers-crowd like it is today, with our new abiity to measure it at advanced statistical levels. Did I make the right vote? I still think so. Part of it was the newness of Ichiro and his contrarian style compared to the walk, walk, home run strategy of the day.
So, maybe I got blinded by that.
Because history shows us that the hitters most valued by championship-level offenses are almost never the leadoff guys. Raines in Montreal — who should be a Hall of Famer in his own right — was the table-setter for Cooperstown inductees Andre Dawson and Gary Carter to drive in.
Rickey Henderson, a Hall of Famer, was the guy that Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire had to drive in.
Kenny Lofton had Albert Belle and Jim Thome to bring him around.
Johnny Damon was the guy David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez drove in.
Jimmy Rollins was the guy who Ryan Howard and Chase Utley drove in.
David Eckstein had Garrett Anderson and Tim Salmon to cash him in.
Not all of those leadoff guys are as good as or better than Ichiro. Some are. But the point is, even some of the best leadoff men the game has ever known had better power hitters to bring them home when they played on championship teams.
The leadoff hitters were never the centerpieces of their offenses. They were the complementary pieces. Some of them were Hall of Fame caliber complementary pieces, but complementary they were because they were never expected to be the best hitters on the team. They were never left to be the guy.
And if you aren’t the guy or one of two guys in the middle of the order (i.e. the best hitters) then you are complementary to them.
For me, the one recent exception to this might have been Derek Jeter on the 1998-2000 champion Yankees squads. Jeter was mostly a No. 2 hitter back then, but did bat leadoff as well and had skills suited for that role — namely, on-base ability and speed. But part of what made Jeter different had to do with his power-hitting ability. Anyone who watched him transform the 2000 World Series will know what I’m talking about. I was at Shea Stadium when his home runs in Games 4 and 5 completely swung the momentum of what should have been a much closer series.
But again, that was the big difference in Jeter’s game in his prime compared to Ichiro’s. That one-swing ability to change a game. Jeter has it. Ichiro does not. This isn’t about a love of “dingers” it’s realizing that there is a difference between one-swing game-changing ability and those who make a living off mostly singles. And it matters. Matters to the pitchers who have to face him that Jeter alone — with his .382 lifetime OBP — could change a game’s outcome with nobody on base. Ichiro, not so much. But these days? I’d never make the argument that Jeter is anything but a complementary piece to an offense driven by Robinson Cano, Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez.
For all of his leadership intangibles, Jeter hasn’t been the guy for the Yankees for quite a while. But back in 1998-2000, you can make the argument that he really was, even with Bernie Williams and Jorge Posada around to drive in runs from the middle of the order.
The Mariners expected Ichiro to be the guy in their offense for far too long with a skillset befitting that of a Hall of Fame caliber complementary player.
They made him the highest paid position player in the middle of 2007, then balked at adding the bigger bats the lineup so obviously needed. Their biggest free agent acquisition on the hitting side since has been another complementary player in Figgins.
And no matter how good those two complementary players performed, the team was never going to perform offensively without true mid-order, big bats.
From August 1 of 2010, through season’s end, Ichiro got on-base at a .352 clip and No. 2 hitter Figgins made it on at a .350 pace. It would be the best stretch of production those two players ever had simultaneously for the Mariners — at above average OBP rates. And yet, the Mariners as an offense averaged just 2.96 runs per game over that stretch.
That alone should have been the wake-up call to fans and analysts everywhere that Seattle’s projected 1-2 punch atop the order would not succeed without the bigger bats further down in the order. But when a team ties up a third of its payroll in hitting spots that successful teams tend to view as more complementary, this is what happens.
Yes, it takes a team of good players to win something in baseball. But the Mariners miscasting Ichiro — a leadoff man — as the guy in their offense, then leaving themselves no payroll room to bring in the types of players who typically drive a championship-level offense from the middle of the order was a strategy doomed to failure.
And it was exacerbated further by the team’s continued cutting of payroll in recent years and Ichiro’s own decline as a player.
This is why it’s so interesting now to look at how Ichiro is viewed by the Yankees, a championship-level team. In Seattle, there was no room for objective debate about Ichiro — either today, or five years ago. As I wrote last week, I do believe that Ichiro being Japanese led to some unfair criticism and resentment of him. But I also believe that there was a reverse factor of political correctness at play, where any legitimite baseball criticism of Ichiro’s limits and the team’s strategy with him was automatically dismissed as racism, or personal in nature.
And that type of simplistic analysis does nothing to serve Seattle baseball fans, which is why Ichiro moving on is the best thing that could have happened to the Mariners and those who still support the team.
There were still too many sentiments of fandom involving Ichiro that remained in Seattle for there ever to be an objective discussion of his role with the team.
We can see today — bright as day — what an objective review of his talents and limits has led to in New York. Here in Seattle, we were still wasting time as recently as last month foolishly debating whether Ichiro still deserved to be a leadoff hitter and playing every day. Whereas, once out of the protective Seattle bubble, those debates vanished immediately.
Going forward, if this team is ever going to advance anyplace that involves winning something, the debates have to be far less personal in nature, less about “big names”, less about individual stats viewed outside the overall team context, less about who you like or don’t like in the front office and more about results. More about whether this rebuiding plan and strategy is actually going someplace tangible.
And moving on from a Hall of Fame caliber, yet complementary player, who was made the highest paid position guy in Seattle for many unsuccessful years on end, is the first place to start that process. For the sake of this franchise, it had better not be the last.

Comments | Topics: Brendan Ryan, Chone Figgins


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