Monday, May 14, 2012

Ichiro and the dreaded leadoff spot


It was all Mariner fans heard about this offseason: Manager Eric Wedge was finally putting Ichiro in his place. One of the most famous Seattle Mariners in franchise history, one of the most prolific hitters the sport of baseball has ever seen, was being relegated from his legendary leadoff spot to the three hole, because the manager wanted to prove a point. It was his clubhouse, not Ichiro's, and he was going to change the tone of things in Seattle. Ichiro wasn't a "prototypical leadoff hitter," whatever the hell that meant, and it was time to move him out of his notorious slot and put someone else, someone more "traditional" (see: OBP), in his place. It started out well, with Chone Figgins battling pitchers and Ichiro "driving the ball more," another phrase the manager was tossing around that doesn't actually mean anything. But anytime you start a point with Chone Figgins, you know it's headed for trouble.

Ichiro now has 36 games under his belt in the 2012 season. The Mariners are obviously hitting the ball better as a unit, although their team on-base-percentage is horrific and they're striking out at near-historic rates, but what has the impact been on the future Hall of Fame right fielder? After leading the team in most meaningful offensive categories last year, in what was a painfully down year for Ichiro, the manager pointed the finger at him and said he needed to produce. Ichiro has responded this year, leading the team in batting average, on-base-percentage, hits, triples, BB/K ratio, etc etc., but the manager continues to constipate himself with the numbers that don't matter: Ichiro's lack of RBI production, something that's essentially out of his hands and dependent on the runners in front of him getting on base (which they aren't).

Wedge called Ichiro out to the media yesterday, along with the rest of his veterans, and has once-again called Ichiro's role into question, the very one that Wedge put him in, mind you. Instead of being an atypical-but-insanely-productive leadoff hitter, Wedge moved him to third in the lineup and is now bitching to the media about his "atypicalilty" in that role, too. But Wedge made that bed. He put a player who has, historically, collected more infield hits than anyone else on the team each year, and moved him to a spot where his infield singles would suddenly turn into fielder's choice outs and double plays. It's no surprise that Ichiro is tied for the team lead in GIDP (with a measly four, so let's not go overboard here). Ichiro is on pace to have more than double his previous career worst in GIDP. It's not rocket science. He hits a lot of ground balls and turns a lot of those ground balls into hits with his approach and foot speed. Now? Those are outs. And outs are bad, mmkay?

It's also no surprise that Ichiro's baserunning prowess has been reduced to practically nothing this season (we can debate the importance of stolen bases another day). Ichiro is on pace to pull in 13-14 stolen bases this year, ~50% lower than his previous career low. By putting him in the third position, Wedge is limiting one of Ichiro's greatest skills, his speed, as the power hitters immediately behind him swing away early in the count (Jesus Montero is second-lowest on the team in pitches seen/PA, behind Ichiro, of course). Wedge is limiting Ichiro's potential to get hits, he's reducing the number of plate appearances that his best hitter gets, he's reducing the number of available baserunning chances for his best baserunner ... the list goes on and on.

And none of it seems to be working in the Mariners' favor. Is that Ichiro's fault? Should he be adjusting his approach, the way the manager said he needed to this winter? Of course not. Ichiro, just like every other Mariner on the roster, should be put into a position by his manager to be as successful as possible based on his skillset. I read a book called Strengths Finder 2.0, one of those "take this arbitrary survey and we'll tell you what you're good at" books they latch onto in the business world. While the methodology wasn't perfect, Strengths Finder brought up a really interesting point: Too often we spend our lives worried about correcting our flaws, about neutralizing our negatives and trying to become a part of the common denominator, but in the process of doing that, we reduce the power and importance of our strengths, of the tools that we have that make us uniquely effective.

By moving Ichiro out of the leadoff role (which doesn't mean anything but it reduces his PAs over the season, hopefully puts runners on base ahead of him, and puts quick-swinging power hitters behind him), he's not only limiting Ichiro's success, but the success of the rest of the lineup. He's not highlighting Ichiro's strengths, but trying to minimize his flaws, and in turn, it's negatively effecting the potential of the Mariners lineup.

Meanwhile, Ichiro has been accused by the manager of not being "productive" from the third position. In the traditional sense, Ichiro hasn't been a "slugger." He's on pace for 5 HR and 59 RBI. Not the most awe-inspiring numbers for a spot in the batting order once owned by Ken Griffey, Jr. But Ichiro is second on the team in OPS (on-base-percentage plus slugging percentage), leads the team in total bases and hits, has limited his strikeouts and is on pace for a career low in Ks by ~33%, and he's second on the team in doubles and is on pace for a career high in that category. So what, exactly, is he not doing from a productivity standpoint that would prompt the manager to call him out to the media?

Ichiro has been excellent this year and should be applauded for the professional way he's handled the change and his hitting approach this season (not to mention his return to above-average defense in right field). He's been the best hitter on the team, despite being put in a position to fail and unnecessarily called out as a faux-scapegoat for his "lack of production" by the manager. It's time for Wedge to stop trying to send messages and puff his chest and put Ichiro back in a position where he, and the rest of the lineup, can be most-successful: The leadoff spot.

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