Just two weeks into the season, only one position player has vastly underperformed his offensive expectations: Ichiro. We are dealing with a sample size of 38 plate appearances, something that may not be harped upon if occurring at some arbitrary midpoint of the regular season. Analyzing sample sizes comes with risks, but I think there is something to be said about getting off to a good start. I’ve already written about not wanting Ichiro back, and it has become apparent that Brian Cashman didn’t either. There’s no way we can declare him done after hitting .176/.237/.265 in 38 plate appearances, but that type of performance certainly brings concern.
I could make this article short and sweet by pointing at his incredibly low .167 BABIP, and tell you that he should bounce back toward his .300 mark of last season. But in reality, there’s a lot more to this slump than bad luck. While it’s a contributing factor to his poor start, Ichiro is struggling to put good wood on the ball, and is making less contact than usual. Moreover, there is a mental aspect to baseball that is difficult if not impossible to understand. Ichiro is a career .322 hitter, so it’s plausible that seeing a .176 batting average on the jumbotron is unnerving and possibly causing him to press. It’s no surprise that Joe Girardi has benched him twice in the last six games, perhaps to help him clear his head.
Onto the stats: His batted ball profile is ugly: 9.7% line drives vs. 20.5% career. He’s still hitting a lot of grounders (51.6%), which is good for a guy with his speed, but otherwise he’s getting under the ball far more than his career norms (15% more fly balls and 14% more infield pop ups than career marks). Simply put, Ichiro isn’t squaring the ball up well at all, which is driving down his BABIP.
I would expect his line drive rate to regress toward his career mark as the season goes on, but there is further reason to be concerned with his swing that may indicate deeper issues. Ichiro is swinging and missing a lot more than we’ve grown accustomed to. It’s not that he’s striking out more (he’s not), but his contact rate decrease makes me wonder if perhaps he’s not seeing the ball well, which in turn is hurting his batted ball profile. PITCHf/x data shows that, compared to the data available since 2007, he’s making 8% less contact on pitches swung at inside the strike zone, and nearly 6% less on all swings. Furthermore, he’s taking fewer cuts: just a tick above 4% less than his career rate.
After gleaning this data, I was hoping to get a good view of Ichiro’s swing compared to previous seasons, but unfortunately there are no good video angles available via MLB.com. Nonetheless, Ichiro’s swing is pretty funky so it wouldn’t be the easiest to analyze. Ultimately, if Ichiro doesn’t get things straightened out, it won’t be difficult to choose the odd man out among him, Vernon Wells, and Brett Gardner upon Curtis Granderson‘s return.
Photo by Keith Allison on Flickr (Originally posted to Flickr as “Ichiro Suzuki”) [CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons