On Ichiro’s relative silence

May 26, 2011, 9:33 AM | Updated: 12:58 pm

Ichiro
Ichiro is hitting .281 this season, almost 50 points below his career batting average. (AP)

By Jeff Sullivan

So often, as Mariners fans, we’ve seen the same thing play out: Ichiro has success out of the leadoff spot, the team struggles around him, and the Mariners lose. We’ve seen it happen in individual games, and we’ve seen it happen in full seasons, with a common refrain being that Ichiro deserves a playoff team around him. There’s been a sense over the past decade that Ichiro has been too good for the M’s.

So 2011 has been a different kind of year. The Mariners have played decent baseball, and they’ve been particularly excellent of late, but Ichiro has struggled. He has by no means been a disaster, but a Wednesday o’fer dropped his average to .281, and while the M’s have gone 16-10 over the past calendar month, Ichiro’s hit .255 over the same span of time. Ichiro hasn’t looked like himself, and he hasn’t played a huge role in the collective winning effort.

Now, struggles for Ichiro are no new thing. He isn’t slump-proof, as he seems to have a spell of light hitting once or twice a year. Slumps happen to everybody, and by now we’ve all been conditioned to believe that Ichiro will be fine in the end. That’s always been the case before.

But the Mariners’ success in climbing in the standings has placed a certain urgency on getting Ichiro straight again so the team can keep rolling, and for that reason I decided to dig into his numbers to see if anything under the hood is significantly different from where it normally is. Is this just a standard slump, or might it be something more sinister?

The first thing to understand is that Ichiro isn’t striking out any more than usual. His strikeout and contact numbers are actually at a career best. His walk rate is healthy as well, and while his groundball numbers are elevated, he hit more groundballs in 2004, when he broke the all-time single-season hits record. It doesn’t look like there’s anything in here.

The big number that really stands out is Ichiro’s batting average on balls in play, or BABIP. You’ve probably seen this stat referred to before, because lens-wearing losers like me are in love with it. Ichiro’s career BABIP is in the mid-.350s. Ichiro’s 2011 BABIP is a touch below .300. It’s pretty well established that big fluctuations in BABIP are generally unsustainable, so based on this, it seems like Ichiro’s just been a little unlucky so far.

But while I can buy that explanation, it leaves me a little unsatisfied, so I kept digging. I wound up staring at a strike zone plot of every pitch thrown to Ichiro this season, just because. I compared that plot to the same plot from a year ago, and to the eye it seemed like Ichiro’s been thrown a little more inside than usual in 2011. Never one to just trust my eyes, I went to the numbers, and indeed, we see a bit of a shift. The following numbers show the average horizontal location of every pitch thrown to Ichiro over the past four years:

2008: 4.4 inches to left of center of home plate (catcher’s perspective)
2009: 3.8
2010: 3.5
2011: 2.2

The average pitch thrown to Ichiro in 2011 has been about an inch and a half further inside than the average pitch thrown to Ichiro in 2010.

Okay, that’s all well and good. What about the data for pitches at which Ichiro swings?

2008: 2.9 inches to left of center of home plate
2009: 2.1
2010: 1.9
2011: 0.6

And, to take it even further, what about the data for pitches on which Ichiro makes contact and hits the ball fair?

2008: 3.0 inches to left of center of home plate
2009: 2.4
2010: 2.5
2011: 1.4

So far this season, the average pitch that Ichiro has hit fair has been more than an inch further inside than a year ago. Depending on your perspective, an inch is either a big deal or a small one, but it’s clearly a change.

Okay, so who cares if Ichiro’s been pitched a little further inside? Ichiro can hit anything and everything, right? Well, not quite. He can make contact with pretty much everything, but not all contact is created alike, and it turns out Ichiro has been the most vulnerable inside. Here’s his batting average by pitch location, using 2008-2011 data:

Inside: .294
Middle: .394
Outside: .338

Here, inside and outside are determined as being more than six inches from the center of the plate. Ichiro has had the most success hitting pitches over the plate, and the least success hitting pitches inside.

Keep that in mind as you look at the following split:

2008-2010: 14 percent balls hit fair on inside pitches
2011: 20 percent

Over the previous three years, roughly one out of every seven pitches Ichiro hit fair was located inside. So far in 2011, that fraction has jumped to one out of every five.

And now for what I promise will be our final splits of the day:

2008-2010, inside: .320 batting average
2011, inside: .132

2008-2010, non-inside: .369 batting average
2011, non-inside: .338

What this makes readily apparent is that Ichiro has not been struggling so much on pitches outside or over the plate in the early going. He’s been a bit below where he usually is, but his real problem has been on those inside pitches. Over the previous three years, Ichiro got hits on 32 percent of the inside pitches he hit fair. In 2011, that’s down to 13 percent.

So we have two things that we’re observing:

(1) Ichiro has been seeing and swinging at more inside pitches this season
(2) Ichiro has not been turning inside pitches into hits at anything close to his normal clip

That makes this slump out to be a little more concerning than one would instinctively think. Based on the numbers, it seems like pitchers are working Ichiro a little differently, and Ichiro, so far, hasn’t been able to adjust with much success. It isn’t simply a matter of everything being equal, and Ichiro’s balls in play just finding more gloves.

So we’ll see where this goes. To be honest, despite everything above, my assumption is still that Ichiro will be fine, or mostly fine. I don’t know how significant all this data really is, and I trust Ichiro to make the necessary adjustments when he has to. He’s earned that trust. But then, he is 37 years old. He hasn’t shown any power so far, and it’s possible that he’s having a physically tougher time hitting inside pitches with much authority. Everybody eventually declines, and Ichiro may be hitting his.

I don’t want to make too much of this. I never examined any of Ichiro’s previous slumps. Some of them might have shown similar splits to this one. Just because something seems suspicious doesn’t automatically make it super important. But this is just something to monitor. Ichiro, so far, has not had success hitting inside pitches, and it’s dragged down his overall line. Maybe he’ll turn it around tomorrow, or maybe he won’t. I’d sure like it if he would.

Editor’s note: Jeff Sullivan of Lookout Landing will be writing a column every other week during the baseball season for the Brock & Salk blog on 710Sports.com.

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