- Jim Caple, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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Earlier this summer, Seattle hosted a fake Ichiro, an actor from Japan who dressed in a full No. 51 Mariners uniform and posed for photos, to the delight of fans. Before he returned to Japan, Fake Ichiro briefly ranked with the Space Needle, the Pike Place Market fish throwers and the cheeseburgers at Dick's Drive-In as the city's top attractions.
Fake Ichiro also showed up at Mariners games and even got his glove on a baseball, lunging his body over the fence to scoop up the ball as it bounced toward the stands down the right-field line. There was just one problem: The ball was fair.
The question for Mariners fans, meanwhile, is whether the actual Ichiro they have seen at the plate and in the field this season was also an Ichiro impersonator or what the real Ichiro has become in his late 30s. (He'll turn 38 in October.)
For the past decade, Ichiro slapping a hit has been as reliable a part of the Seattle summer as sunsets over the Olympic mountains. After hitting a career .331 with two batting titles and at least 200 hits, a .300 average and an All-Star appearance every season in his first 10 years in the majors, Ichiro has plummeted to .275 with a .313 on-base percentage and a .652 OPS in 2011. He needs 32 hits in Seattle's remaining 16 games to reach the 200-hit mark with which he is obsessed. That was possible for the old Ichiro -- he had 40 in a 17-game stretch in 2004 -- but Fake Ichiro might have almost as good a chance of reaching it this year.
Meanwhile, after winning a Gold Glove in every previous season and covering as much ground as summer road construction, Ichiro's fielding has been subpar this summer. He has been prone to slow jumps, and his range appears reduced. His ultimate zone rating has gone negative to minus-7, further signs that Area 51 is shrinking in Seattle.
Why the drop-off? Ichiro declined to comment on his season other than saying, "Nothing I can share with you." There are several theories for his poor season, though.
He's getting slower with age. Ichiro's hitting game has long been bolstered by his speed to first base and his ability to beat out grounders. But it seems as though he has lost a step and is more frequently out -- and by a wider margin -- on grounders this season. We're not talking Edgar Martinez slow, but Ichiro currently has 34 infield singles and will probably finish with the second-fewest of his career and far below his career average of 51, or his totals of 59 the past two seasons.
A drop in speed also would help account for his reduced range in the outfield.
His vision is deteriorating: Some Japanese writers have speculated this is the case, basing it in part on the way they see him squinting at the TV in the clubhouse. The Mariners, however, say Ichiro's eye exams have been unchanged since he joined the team.
Bad luck: Rob Burckhard of Baseball Info Solutions made the case in a recent ESPN.com story that Ichiro's low average is largely due to great fielding against him. He cites a Baseball Info Solutions analysis that showed (as of Aug. 24) Ichiro as the victim of a league-leading 31 good fielding plays (GFP) and that if just half of those had been hits, he would be batting .301. Perhaps that accounts for some of it. But .301 still is well below his career average, and the GFP reasoning also fails the eye test. It may play a role, but having watched Ichiro for a decade, it doesn't seem as though he is being robbed of an unusually high number of base hits this season.
As Ichiro's total hits have declined, so have his extra-base hits. On the other hand, he's hit four of his five home runs in the past month. Mariners manager Eric Wedge said he thinks Ichiro has been more aggressive and squaring up the bat better in recent weeks, while hitting coach Chris Chambliss said he's also improved his pitch selection and is making better contact. "That's the main thing, hitting the ball on the nose real hard," Chambliss said.
Chambliss, the ninth hitting coach the Mariners have had since Ichiro joined the team, says he hasn't worked much with Ichiro and the player hasn't asked for help. He said this is "the first time I haven't had a rapport with somebody."
"He's been playing a long time, and he really knows his swing," Chambliss said. "But he's unique. He is what he is. He's been a special guy for a long time."
Ichiro will earn $17 million next season, the last year of the five-year, $90 million extension he signed in 2008. That's a lot of money for an aging player who ranks below Ryan Theriot in OPS (and 135th overall). Especially when Seattle has one of the worst offenses in the game. After next year, the Mariners must decide whether to re-sign him and what to offer.
That potentially will be a tricky situation if Ichiro doesn't regain his old stature. Absentee owner Hiroshi Yamauchi is a huge fan of Ichiro; one of the rare directives Yamauchi ever gave management was to sign Ichiro before the 2001 season. Yamauchi also has given Japanese players big contracts that seemed generous compared to their value to the team. It's safe to assume he would be reluctant to let his star go.
If Ichiro's decline this season hasn't been simply because of bad luck, he'll have to adjust his game. He's always focused on his hit total, seeing it as his primary job at the plate. But if he is slowing down, he will have to change his focus and strive for more walks to raise his on-base percentage as well as more power to justify his salary and his presence at the top of Seattle's order.
Otherwise, the Mariners' offense might struggle again next year, and worse -- Fake Ichiro might plummet on the TripAdvisor rankings of Seattle attractions.
Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
Follow Jim Caple on Twitter: @jimcaple