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It’s too hard hitting behind Ichiro Suzuki

Feb 10, 2012, 6:10 PM EDT

Ichiro Suzuki AP

It just can’t be done.

At least, that seems to be the basis for Ken Rosenthal’s latest column:

The truth, though no one dares say it around the Mariners, is that hitting behind Ichiro isn’t easy. Ichiro’s goal is not to get on base, but to get on base with a hit, collect 200 hits a season. He is unpredictable, playing at his own rhythm. And when he starts an inning with a quick at-bat — Ichiro ranked near the bottom in pitches per plate appearance among leadoff men last season — the No. 2 hitter is in a difficult spot.

At that point, a rival hitting coach explained, the No. 2 hitter is almost forced to be patient, or the pitcher will stand a good chance of breezing through the inning. Someone has to work counts, especially in the first inning when pitchers often are at their most vulnerable. And that task shouldn’t fall to the No. 3 hitter.

OK, most of that makes some sense, though it’s just worrying about the worst-case scenario. Sure, if you’re going to have a one-two-three first inning, it’d be better to have the pitcher throw 15-20 pitches than 8-10 pitches over the course of the frame. But the far more important issue is avoiding the one-two-three inning in the first place.

Really, this is a case of trying to make something out of next to nothing.

For all of his hacktastic ways, Ichiro averaged 3.51 pitches per plate appearance last season. Jose Reyes averaged 3.61, and no one seems to be complaining about hitting behind him. Chipper Jones, long considered one of the game’s most patient hitters, averaged 3.60 pitches per plate appearance. Albert Pujols was at 3.65.

So, Reyes saw one extra pitch every 10 plate appearances. Pujols saw one more pitch every seven.

Also, the 3.51 was a career low for Ichiro. He came in at 3.75 in 2009 and 3.74 in 2010.

The degree to which patient hitters work the count more than impatient hitters has always been overstated. We think of great hitters fouling off pitch after pitch until they get that one they can handle and lesser lights grounding out to short on the very first offering they see. In reality, every regular in the league averaged between 3.16 (Yuniesky Betancourt) and 4.44 (Curtis Granderson) pitches per plate appearance last year.

I already threw in my two cents on altering Ichiro’s lineup spot last month. My opinion is unchanged now. Rosenthal thinks it makes sense for the Mariners to go with Chone Figgins at the top of the order, followed by Dustin Ackley and then Ichiro hitting third. My belief is that the Mariners don’t have any quality alternatives to Ichiro in the leadoff spot and that Figgins should be on the bench in favor of Kyle Seager against righties. Of course, I do think Ichiro is going to bounce back somewhat. And if he continues playing like he did in 2011, then he’s not really worthy of a lineup spot at all.

  1. mdpickles - Feb 10, 2012 at 6:25 PM

    This is why I believe Chase Utley should be the Phillies leadoff hitters. Never swings at first pitches, works counts, fouls off pitches and is smart, not fast, on the base paths. A lineup needs to grind out a pitcher.

  2. cur68 - Feb 10, 2012 at 6:41 PM

    This is spinning the scenario to suit oneself from Rosenthal. Why, I have no idea. The point of fact is, you probably want a guy on 1st against a righty for the #2 guy. Pitcher has to throw from the stretch, has something else to worry about, and if the dude on 1st is fast, helloooo RBI if the #2 guy gets it to land somewhere in play. In every case, you want a guy on base ahead of you, and never mind how many pitches he had to see. That piece from Rosenthal is just blaming Ichiro for the failings of his teammates. Dude’s gotta stop thinking with his bow-tie.

  3. baseballisboring - Feb 10, 2012 at 6:49 PM

    I didn’t know Ichiro was so “patient”, I was kinda surprised to see those pitch per AB numbers, but still…your #2 hitter should be patient anyway. The top two guys gotta get on base, and aside from 2011 Ichiro has certainly done that over his career…he just gets to a .375 OBP a different way than most guys. Like you said, something out of next to nothing…

  4. Walk - Feb 10, 2012 at 7:26 PM

    Maybe they should trade for dan uggla, he starts at 0-2 and goes from there. Seriously though i always thought kelly johnson was a decent player to have, he almost always seemed have a long at bat. Maybe get a player like that stick them behind ichiro and you got nothing to complain about. The guy gets 200 hits or better on an average season,ichiro i mean, i really do not mind he misses some walks.

  5. alexo0 - Feb 10, 2012 at 8:08 PM

    Robothal is great at gossip, trade rumors, etc., but his actual baseball analysis is often flawed in some way.

    • paperlions - Feb 10, 2012 at 9:34 PM

      Exactly. He’s a lot like Olney or Gammons. They know everyone associated with baseball, they talk to everyone; but their grasp of analysis is tenuous at best. All excel at narrative.

  6. ireportyoudecide - Feb 10, 2012 at 9:02 PM

    The biggest problem with Ichiro is he’s a low walk guy with no power, not a good combo. He hardly has any power any more and for some with no power if you don’t take walks you just aren’t that valueable of an offensive weapon. He currently gets approx 1/5 of the Mariners payroll and the last 2 years he has basically been a replacement level player. Not good.

  7. aaronmoreno - Feb 10, 2012 at 10:06 PM

    See ball, hit ball.

  8. marinersnate - Feb 11, 2012 at 12:57 AM

    “My belief is that the Mariners don’t have any quality alternatives to Ichiro in the leadoff spot and that Figgins should be on the bench in favor of Kyle Seager against righties.”

    This is only partially correct. Figgins should be on the bench against righties, he should be on the bench against lefties, and he should be on the bench against an 11 year old girl pitching underhand with a whiffleball.

    • yahmule - Feb 11, 2012 at 12:41 PM

      How true. A slash line of .188/.241/.243 and a SB success rate under 65%. Adam Dunn has more left in the tank.

    • dlevalley - Feb 11, 2012 at 2:40 PM

      Seriously. Anyone who thinks that Figgins belongs anywhere in that lineup just didn’t watch any Mariners games last year.

  9. the Zonie - Feb 11, 2012 at 10:32 PM

    I’ve wanted to see Ichiro in the 3 spot for years. He puts the ball in play and can drive it (at least he used to) when he wants. I think he might have a second wind as situational hitter with runners on base ahead of him creating holes and distractions in the infield defense. And his speed could keep him out of a double play and/or moving runners. (assuming of course there are runners on ahead of him) Maybe his SB totals are overrated, and his speed could be more beneficial taking extra bases and scoring off the 4-6 hitters. (HA! Assuming they can get hits!)

  10. farvite - Feb 11, 2012 at 10:58 PM

    Most overrated player in any sport, maybe ever.

  11. schmidtfan - Feb 15, 2012 at 1:37 PM

    Out of 145 qualified MLB batters in 2011, Ichiro’s 3.51 pitches/PA ranked 133rd. All the comps listed in this article were also in the bottom 1/3. The reason you don’t hear people complaining about those players is that their OBPs were still above league average while Ichiro’s was .310, ranking 121st out of those 145 batters. I like to strip out intentional walks when looking at OBP to focus on plate appearances with a “true” pitcher/batter matchup. Ichiro’s adjusted OBP in 2011 was .297. For his career, it’s .356. That’s still a good career OBP but there are plenty of players that get on base more than that and hit for more power that haven’t gotten the level of recognition Ichiro has gotten because so many people still like AVG as a player evaluation tool. Because of his OBP and all his plate appearances, he actually made more outs than any other player in baseball last year. I don’t know if that’s because he’s too agressive at the plate or because he is just not as fast down the first base line as he used to be. Being more selective might help him get on base more or let him find better pitches to swing at, but maybe he’s just not wired that way. Good luck to him and the M’s, though.

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