During his struggles at the plate last season, you could frequently hear the complaints from fans about Ichiro continuing to hit leadoff. Those concerns were legitimate and it looks as though the Mariners saw them, too, because according to Manager Eric Wedge, as of this morning, Chone Figgins is the Mariners new leadoff hitter. Ichiro Suzuki will be given a shot to hit third in the order initially with Dustin Ackley remaining in the second spot in the order.
This shift is interesting on a few levels, from franchise icon Ichiro being "stripped of his spot in the lineup", to Figgins being gifted the leadoff spot (when Kyle Seager looks like he could be a more logical choice as the starting third baseman at this point) to Ackley -- arguably the club's best hitter, and one with easily more extra-base power than Ichiro and Figgins -- remaining in the second spot and so on. For the purpose of this exercise, we are going to focus on what the lineup construction means for the Mariners offense in 2012.
Baseball statisticians Tom Tango, Mitchel Lichtman and Andrew Dolphin wrote a book, titled The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball, back in 2007. It is a great read if you are fanatically passionate about baseball and the statistical impact of every little move. It can get a little math-heavy at times and I don't agree with it all, but it is worth owning. In it, they put forth this little tidbit about lineup construction:
Your three best hitters should bat somewhere in the #1, #2 and #4 slots. Your fourth- and fifth-best hitters should occupy the #3 and #5 slots. The #1 and #2 slots will have players with more walks than those in the #4 and #5 slots. From slot #6 through #9, put the players in descending order of quality.
It seems that what the Mariners are doing here fits into that theory. While many (myself included) don't look at Ichiro -- specifically Ichiro coming off of the 2011 that he is -- and think, "3-hole hitter", it still could work. I'd think that most Mariners fans, as of right now, would say that Ichiro is no longer the club's top hitter. I'd venture a guess that many of those would in fact opine that Ackley is that player. Two of Justin Smoak, Mike Carp and Jesus Montero figure to hit in the four and five holes. So that would leave the M's with, arguably, their best 5 hitters (we'll get to Figgins in a moment) batting 1 through 5 in the order with this lineup change.
Is Ichiro still one of the Mariners five best hitters? If so, is he not the best option to continue to lead off? At the root of the problem here is that Ichiro, at 38, is getting older and it's clear that he's not going to be able to rely on his speed and quickness as much to get him on base. He did still have 42 infield base hits in 2011, but that was the 3rd lowest number of his career. And he actually had the 2nd highest number of infield ground balls hit in a season (359) last year and 2nd lowest batting average on those ground balls (.117) of his career. Pair that data with his SB/2B/3B numbers and what your naked eyes tell you and it is clear that Ichiro has lost at least a half a step at this point.
I have never bought for one minute that Ichiro could turn on the power stroke and hit 25-plus home runs whenever he wanted as many fans and even the late, great Dave Niehaus have claimed over the years. Not simply by flipping the switch in season. After all, if there ever was a season that flipping said switch would have been a great idea, 2011 was that season. And it didn't happen. Ichiro still led all Mariner regulars in groundball percentage in 2011 (59.9%) and he had a lower Isolated Power number (.064) than the notably punchless Brendan Ryan and Michael Saunders last year. But reports out of Spring Training, including this piece by Larry Stone, seem to indicate that the famous slap-hitter went into this past off-season with some changes in his approach in mind. Changes that could mean that Ichiro is looking to reinvent his game. That high leg-kick is all but gone. His hands are starting higher and further away from his body. And the swing doesn't look like the swing of old, they say. It has more purpose, more conviction, more, "extra base hit" in it.
In the Stone article, Ichiro says, "I've been working on that stance the whole offseason, so that's not temporary." He goes on to explain that the changes were made so that he could perform better. Perform in the 3-hole, perhaps? Again, I'm not suggesting that Ichiro is going to hit 25-plus home runs in 2012, but he did primarily hit 3rd in Japan before coming to the Mariners. But for a player with his history, it would be unwise to bet against his success.
The obvious choice to the average fan for the 3rd spot in the order would be Ackley. Figgins first, Ichiro second, Ackley third, right? After all, Dustin had 71 starts in that spot in the order last season as a rookie, more than twice as many as any other Mariner and nearly 80% of his starts as a big leaguer. But Ackley himself has said in the past that he is the most comfortable hitting 2nd (where he only got 1 start in 2011 for Seattle). And going back to that excerpt from The Book, Ackley doesn't belong in the 3-hole as he is better than that.
If Figgins can return to form -- no small task -- then Ackley should get ample opportunities to find the hole between 1st and 2nd, and Figgins should get ample opportunities to run. Ichiro, while he has piled up some impressive steal numbers over the years, has never been a true basestealer. And for all of his strengths, it doesn't seem that Ichiro ever fully took advantage of the hole with a runner on 1st. A look at his spray charts year-to-year will show you that. Ackley is that type of hitter with that type of approach. He saw 4.17 pitches-per-plate-appearance in 2011, a number that would've been Top-10 in the American League had he reached enough plate appearances to qualify. That patience helps give Figgins chances to run, but also Ackley could see a lot more quality pitches to hit with a basestealer on in front of him and a hitter of Ichiro's caliber hitting behind him.
And now we get to Chone Figgins. As terrible as he was in 2011 and as bad as the first half of 2010 went, Figgins has never really been in his comfort zone here in Seattle. First it was the move to second base that he admitted screwed him up, and in this Greg Johns article on MLB.com today, Figgins talks extensively about the reasons for his struggles batting in the 2nd spot in the order. One quote that speaks volumes in that piece is when Figgins says, "I've been thinking, 'I need to get hits, I need to get hits.' And that's not the way I've always played. I get hits when I'm making you work, because that's the way my mindset is." That is fine that Figgins thinks that way, but it is also important to note that Figgins thinks that way.
What I mean is, Figgins seems to be the kind of player that can let these types of issues affect his performance on the field. No knock on him, plenty of guys are the same way. But if the Mariners want to try and get the most out of Chone during the last two years of his $36 million contract, removing any of those issues is an excellent step to take. He does have a career .289/.367/.380 mark in 645 games batting leadoff in his career. He's also gone to a 3-ball count in an at bat in 15.2% of his career plate appearances and averages 4.03 pitches-per-plate-appearance for his career. Those figures are both far more than Ichiro's 11.1% and 3.60. For his part, Ichiro seems to be completely on board with this move. Sort of the opposite of Figgins the past few years. And that's great, too. Meaning that this move not only potentially works out from a lineup construction standpoint, but also from a personnel standpoint
It is also worth noting that while Ichiro holds a .370 to .352 career edge in OBP over FIggins, that gap is actually closed to .354/.350 over the last four seasons. Yes, even Figgins' two seasons in blue and teal.
And, hey, if it doesn't work with Figgins or Ichiro or even Ackley, the club has options. Options in the form of other players for third base and options in moving the batting order around with the others.
Not everyone likes the idea of this move. Many think Figgins is done, and some think Ichiro is, too. This lineup change doesn't conform to the mold of what most people think that your classic lineup look like. But looking into the player's tendencies, histories and preferences, you can see why the Mariners are moving in this direction. And if you squint just a little, you can see how it just might work.