What’s Wrong With Ichiro?
Posted by Jason A. Churchill on May 7, 2006
The M's right fielder and leadoff hitter entered the 2006 season with a career .331 average, a .378 on-base percentage and a .438 slugging percentage.
Through the first 32 games, Ichiro is sitting at .263/.329/.346 and appears to be a different hitter than he was prior to the 2005 season.
Since he broke George Sisler's single-season hits record in 2004, Ichiro has hit just .293, which for 95 percent of the players in baseball would be a great mark.
But it's nearly 40 points lower than Ichiro's career average.
So what's wrong with the M's offensive catalyst?
There are a lot of statistical areas in which Ichiro has been vastly different since 2004, starting with the number of times that he's hitting the ball in the air.
Through his first three seasons, Ichiro hit about 2.5 ground balls for every fly ball. In 2004, he peaked at 3.29.
Last season, he dipped to just 2.06 and thus far in 2006, Ichiro is hitting 1.93 ground balls to every one fly ball.
It's no wonder why he's not hitting for a high average.
You often hear myself and many others talk about G/F ratio for pitchers and how it's an advantage for pitchers to post high rates in that area, especially for the M's since they have plus defenders at three key defensive positions.
But it's also an important statistic for hitters like Ichiro. Even though pitchers with terrible G/F ratios have a better chance to blow up because fly balls produce more damage, fly balls are also more likely to result in outs than are ground balls, which would explain why Jarrod Washburn is a successful pitcher.
But Ichiro's skills are centered around his speed, bat control and ability to spray the ball around the diamond.
Hitting more fly balls is highly detrimental to his overall offensive approach.
From Jayson Stark's latest piece at ESPN.com:
"I'd like to see his ground-ball/fly-ball ratio," said one scout. "It seems like he's hit a lot more balls in the air than he used to." Bingo. Once, this guy was Edgerrin James. Now he's Marvin Harrison. Two years ago, Ichiro hit 3.29 ground balls for every fly ball. Last year, he was down to 2.06. This year, he's at 1.68 — or roughly half of where he was as recently as 2004.
"In the past, he wanted to be an on-base machine," the scout said. "Now it's almost like he's decided to try to hit some balls out of the park, and he's pulling the ball more. I feel like he can do anything he wants. He could hit 25 homers. He could hit .350. Whatever he feels like doing, he can do."
Well, he must feel like hitting well under .300 and hurting his team's chances to score enough runs to win, because that's what he's doing.
The difference between a 2.5 G/F rate and one around two even may seem somewhat insignificant, but it's approximately 35 ground balls per season for Ichiro.
In Ichiro's career, 40.2% of his ground balls have gone for hits. At that rate, those 35 extra ground balls would turn into about 15 hits, or 20 percentage points on Ichiro's batting average.
This would explain quite a bit.
Ichiro's line drive percentage is also down, about three percent. He's currently hitting line drives at an 18% clip, down from his career mark of 21.9.
A near 4% differential. Clearly, hitting line drives results in hits more often than any other type of hit. Four percent is equal to 28 at-bats for Ichiro in a typical season.
Combining those 28 fewer at-bats with the 35 fewer ground balls per season, Ichiro is giving away far too many at-bats in which he's hitting a pop-up or fly ball. He really isn't striking out at a higher rate, so fly balls are the result in question.
Some have pondered, 'is Ichiro swinging too early in the count?' He's really not, but maybe he should. His career average is .393 when swinging at the first pitch and it's currently .357 in the same situation this season.
He's seeing 3.9 pitches per plate appearance, which is up from about 3.5 for Ichiro's career. Ichiro has never posted a mark above the 3.58 he put up a year ago.
So maybe, on top of hitting too many fly balls and too few ground balls and line drives, Ichiro is being a tad too patient and is having to swing too often at the pitcher's pitch.
I don't think there is any maybe about it.
Ichiro has lost a step. He's not quite as fast as he was in years past, but the difference is negligible. Ichiro is not, however, using his speed like he once did.
One AL front-office man says: "I don't think necessarily that teams have adjusted to him. He's just changed a little bit, and I don't know what it is. The one thing I do see is, he doesn't bunt at all anymore."
He's attempted three bunts this season. He has just seven infield hits. 'Nuff said.
He's also pulling the ball a lot more often than in the past. Of his 272 hits in 2004, 66% went to left or center field and 67% of his non fly-ball outs went to left or center field. 81% of his fly ball outs went to left or center field.
In 2005, only 54% of his hits went to left or center, and 59% of his total outs went to those areas, not including fly ball outs which tend to be an overwhelming number hit to the opposite field for most hitters.
This season, just 51% of his hits have gone to left or center field. This is a trend Ichiro probably needs to turn around.
Blaming Ichiro entirely for his so-called slump isn't wise. The club did ask him to take more pitches last year and Hargrove is a big proponent of working the count, which Ichiro is doing. He's walked 10 times in 32 games, which paces him for 50 walks, which he's topped just once in his career.
But the key stat there is that only three of his bases on balls are intentional, a pace for 15, down from 23 a year ago and 19 in 2004.
What have we learned from all of this mumbo-jumbo data?
1. Ichiro is hitting the ball in the air too often
2. He's not bunting
3. He's pulling the ball too much
4. He's going deeper into counts than before
Maybe the solutions are;
1. Hargrove should call for him to bunt more, or just suggest it to him. It's a weapon that was overused in the past, but it can't be ignored. He must use his best attribute, his speed, to the fullest.
2. Let him swing at the first pitch if he wants to; .393 average is a good reason why. He's hitting just .239 this season when he doesn't swing at the first offering. If it's a pitch he likes, he should be swinging.
3. As far as his fly ball issues and his lack of spraying the ball to all fields like he used to? Maybe that's a result of Ichiro trying to win games for the M's by doing things that the rest of the lineup as a whole is not doing.
Can you blame him for trying?
Ichiro is still the best defensive right fielder in the last 30 years and is 9-for-12 in stolen base attempts, so his results at the plate are the only concerns.
Sounds like the mantra for the entire ball club right now, doesn't it?
Getting Ichiro back on the right track would be the best start to turning around the 2006 Seattle Mariners.
Photo Credits –
Ichiro: Associated Press