What does Ichiro Suzuki have left?
To quote Aldous Huxley, author of "Brave New World," "Consistency is contrary to nature, contrary to life. The only completely consistent people are dead."
Don't tell that to Ichiro Suzuki.
Entering last season, Ichiro had batted at least .300 with 200 hits and 25 stolen bases for 10 consecutive years. Ten straight seasons with 200 hits is a major league record, and 10 straight years of a .300 batting average is tied with Albert Pujols for the longest streak among active players. His average stat line over those 10 campaigns amounted to a .331 batting average, 224 hits and 38 steals.
Here's a look at his year-to-year numbers between 2001-10:
As they say, all good things must come to end, and Ichiro's streak of consistency came to a screeching halt in 2011. Not only did he fail to bat .300 for the first time, but he hit a mere .272. He scored 80 runs, which was higher than his 2010 total (74), and stole 40 bases, so he still carried fantasy value, but he fell well short of being the consistent batting average producer he'd been in the past. Did you draft a Mark Reynolds or Carlos Pena only because you knew Ichiro would help compensate for their anchor-like batting averages? So much for that bit of strategic planning, huh?
Before we delve into the ramifications of Ichiro's poor 2011 season, let's get some housekeeping items out of the way. Seattle Mariners manager Eric Wedge recently announced that Ichiro will bat third this season, as opposed to the leadoff spot, where he's received all but 68 of his 7,456 career at-bats. Chone Figgins has been tagged as the new leadoff hitter, and Dustin Ackley will bat second. The only real takeaway here is that Ichiro likely will score slightly fewer runs but have slightly more RBI opportunities should this new lineup format stick. The common perception might be that moving from first to third in the batting order will lead to fewer stolen bases, but that's not necessarily true. Colleague Tristan H. Cockcroft actually did a study last year on whether a player's spot in the lineup affects his stolen base attempts, and the results came back negative. So if Ichiro's steals do decline this season, it won't be because of where he's hitting in the lineup.
The other question, of course, is whether moving to a more run-producing spot in the batting order will alter Ichiro's mentality at the plate. After all, some of you may recall that Ichiro claimed several years ago that he could hit 40 home runs in a season if he were "allowed to hit .220." As intriguing as that might be, Ichiro told MLB.com in February that batting third won't change his approach, so don't get your hopes up that the 170-pound speedster will start competing for home run titles.
All of that said, whether the Mariners stick with this lineup configuration all season is another story. Figgins holds a .289 career batting average and .367 career OBP in the leadoff spot, but he batted just .188 with a .241 OBP in 81 games with the Mariners last season. If Figgins doesn't bounce back to his previous form -- and quickly -- the new lineup experiment may not last long.
More pressing than the lineup question is how Ichiro will respond to last year's career-worst performance. The 10-time All-Star is now 38 years old, so it's fair to wonder whether his time is simply running out. There's certainly some credence to the viewpoint that last season was the beginning of the end, but there are plenty of indications that Seattle's right fielder is still the same hitter we saw a few seasons ago. First off, Ichiro's .295 batting average on balls in play in 2011 was significantly below his .351 career BABIP. While the baseline for a pitcher's BABIP generally falls in the .290-.300 range, a hitter sets his own baseline, so a BABIP that's 56 points below Ichiro's career average indicates that he was very unlucky last year. He also produced a 19.1 percent line-drive rate, which was higher than both 2009 (18.2 percent) and 2010 (17.3 percent). Of all types of batted balls, line drives are the most likely to go for hits, so the fact he hit more line drives last year than the previous two seasons, when he batted a combined .333 and was a borderline top-20 fantasy option, according to the ESPN Player Rater, is yet another indication that he was the victim of bad luck.
In 2011, Ichiro also produced his highest ground ball rate (59.9 percent) and lowest fly ball rate (21.1 percent) since 2004. This would be a concern for a power hitter, but not for a singles hitter like Ichiro. Ground balls are more likely go for hits than fly balls, so again, this doesn't necessarily correlate with his career-low batting average last year. One could argue that maybe, at age 38, he's lost a step, which might affect the number of ground balls he turns into hits. However, the fact he swiped 40 bags last year (while getting caught only seven times) says otherwise. Finally, Ichiro still sported an elite 90.4 contact rate in 2011, which is actually better than his 89.3 career mark, so there's no sign of decline on that front, either.
If there's one stat that pokes holes in the idea that Ichiro was simply unlucky last season, it's that he has been swinging at more and more pitches outside the strike zone as he's gotten older. Dating back to 2006, we see a growing trend of Ichiro expanding the strike zone.
2006: swung at 24.8 percent of pitches outside strike zone
2007: 27.1 percent
2008: 28.7 percent
2009: 32.1 percent
2010: 35.6 percent
2011: 36.1 percent
(Data courtesy of Fangraphs.com)
This is a clear indication that Ichiro's plate discipline is slipping. It's also noteworthy that he made contact with a career-high 85.5 percent of pitches he swung at outside the strike zone in 2011. Making contact is a good thing, and Ichiro has proved over his career that he can turn all types of pitches -- whether they're inside the strike zone or not -- into base hits. However, generally speaking, a hitter won't make as much solid contact with pitches outside the zone, so this could have contributed at least slightly to last year's poor batting average.
All told, the truth regarding whether Ichiro was unlucky in 2011 or started showing signs of decline probably lies somewhere in between. There's enough evidence that suggests his batting average will bounce back close to .300 this season, and it's certainly encouraging that his stolen base total stayed consistent last year despite his struggles, as that's where much of his fantasy value comes from. However, he's also nearing 40 years old, and he's not going to stay an elite hitter forever. Any hitter in his late 30s, whether he's shown signs of decline or not, carries some degree of risk. Ichiro is no exception. Therefore, it's OK to bet on a rebound in 2012, but you're better off not paying full price.