The .400 mark is one of the rarest of professional baseball feats. The last time a .400 batting average was achieved was by Ted Williams in 1941, over 60 years ago, and though a few have pursued it since, many experts believe that Williams will be the last.
In an era where intense scouting and specialized relievers have made hitting increasingly difficult, Ichiro Suzuki was able to do the unthinkable, batting .429 in the second half of the 2004 season and ending the year at .372. An incredible achievement, to be sure, and had he not listened to managements requests to be more selective on his pitches the first few months of the season, he could have had a shot at .400.
That's all water under the bridge though as we look to the 2005 season, so what can we look forward to from Ichiro?
In many respects the 2005 season promises to emulate the off-season that preceded it; that is, a total shift in approach at the plate. The years of small ball are gone, as the revamped Mariner offense will focus on driving in runs not unlike during the Lou Pinella era; via the long ball.
As always, Ichiro will be the table setter, relying on Randy Winn or Jeremy Reed to put him in scoring position. After that it's a free-for-all of home runs and strikeouts, and where it leads is anyone's guess.
It can be assumed that Miguel Olivo and Jose Lopez should show significant improvement at the bottom of the order giving Ichiro the opportunity to drive in more runs later in the game, but here's the hitch. With runners on base more often, many of Ichiro's base hits will disappear.
A glance at Ichiro's game reveals that roughly 20 percent of his hits are infield hits. That's about 50 infield grounders, most of which are hit between second and third.
Assuming that Olivo and Lopez show some improvement in on base percentage, say 20 to 30 points, which is probably realistic if not probable, that means they will be on base 15-20 or so times more apiece, during the season.
Last year Ichiro struck out three times more often in his first at bat vs. later AB's in the game, in contrast to previous years where his first at-bat strikeout rate was eight times that of his third at-bat. This tells us that last season, he was being much less selective at the plate later on in the game.
If Ichiro gets a base hit via infield single 50 times a season, and Olivo and Lopez are on base a combined 30-40 more times a year we can expect that he will lose 8-10 hits because they will become a fielder's choice. Should Olivo and Lopez show more significant improvement, say 30 to 40 points, which wouldn't be a stretch considering how bad their OBP's were last year, Ichiro's hit totals will drop further. Of course the intangible in all of this is how Ichiro adjusts his approach at the plate with runners in scoring position.
As traditional statistical measures shift from batting average to on base and slugging percentages as the best way to guage a players contribution, many of baseball's more illustrious marks become less desirable.
Ichiro, at his most devastating, is hell in spikes for opposing pitchers, keeping them utterly off guard as he uses his speed to confound his opponents and make them pay more attention to him then the batter at the plate. As a slap singles hitter he is simply a nuisance.
In a nutshell, Ichiro's 2004 season was more than likely a product of fewer base runners to restrict his free swinging approach and the lack of any pressure since the season was a lost cause. With the Mariners expected to be more competitive this season, batting average is a poor measure of Ichiro's performance. Ichiro's performance, moreso than any other player in baseball, can only be measured by the team's success.
Statically his best season was actually the Mariners worst during his tenure. So for Ichiro to truly be productive fans should actually want a lower batting average and more runs scored, RBI and stolen bases. That means that he's helping the players behind him do their jobs. Let's let Ichiro worry about scoring runs and not worry about a mythical outdated statistic that doesn't impact the team's success.
Aaron Beach is a life-long Mariners fan and one of the main contributing writers at InsidethePark.com.
Ichiro hitting .400 in 2005... No Thanks
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