Ichiro looked different in 2011. His at-bats didn’t give us the confidence they did 10, 5 or even 2 years ago. It seems his approach has changed – so much, in fact, that it looks like he won’t be taking the first at-bat for the Mariners this year. Many have speculated for months (and even years) about moving Ichiro down in the batting order and Eric Wedge has all but confirmed the shift. What happened, though, in 2011 that changed one of the greatest players to ever wear a Mariner uniform?
When looking at Ichiro’s 2011 stats compared with his career norms, a couple of numbers jump out. No, not his RBIs, batting average or his on base percentage. A couple of lesser-discussed but extremely important numbers to judge a player by.
Throughout Ichiro’s career, he has seen 51.0% strikes. In 2010 that number fell to 45.1% and in 2011 it was 45.2%. The past two years have been the lowest amount of strikes by far that he has been thrown, which doesn’t tell us much by itself. When combined with some other numbers, however, we begin to see a clearer picture of what may be happening.
Ichiro’s career O-Swing% (how often a player swings at pitches outside the strike zone) is 27.4%, which would have easily put him in the better half of players (the league average for O-Swing% hovers around 30%). In 2011 he posted a career high 36.1% in the category – only 22 hitters swung at bad pitches more than he did. That should mean his strikeout rate is increasing too, right? Nope. He put up a 9.6% K rate, which was just about on par with his career rate of 9.3%.
So what does this all mean? We don’t know. There is no way to absolutely confirm that something has changed with Ichiro over the past year or so. What does it hint at, though? As Ichiro has aged, pitchers have finally caught up with his style. They are throwing him fewer strikes and Ichiro has responded by swinging at more balls. Could this be a lack of patience on Ichiro’s part – an instinct to swing at a wider range of pitches since he isn’t getting as many in the strike zone? We know that Ichiro can make contact with pitches outside of the zone, but a pitch that is a foot off the plate isn’t going to go for a hit as often as one in the zone. Could it be that Ichiro is simply losing his eye and his ability to judge the strike zone has worsened? It’s difficult to say, but Ichiro’s production in 2012 is going to be one of the most interesting storylines throughout the Mariners’ season.