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August 30, 2004

Breaking Balls

The Great Ichiro

by Derek Zumsteg

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Ichiro Suzuki is the coolest player in baseball. After Sunday's game, his batting average .366, and his season line playing in pitcher-friendly Safeco Field is .366/.407/.458.

That's .366. In Safeco. Translated, that's an .800 batting average in a neutral park. OK, maybe not, but you get the idea.

It's interesting too that Ichiro fits into a role we don't see much anymore: He's a pure leadoff hitter. It's hard to find a guy with a .400 OBP that you're not tempted to bat third, fourth or fifth. But Ichiro offers single-slapping, occasionally walk-taking hitting, mixed with traditional leadoff skills like stealing bases and first-to-third-on-a-single baserunning.

He's gone insane after a lackluster June, hitting .432/.460/.500 in July and .446/.479/.607 as we close out the month of August. It's one of the longest sustained hot streaks we've ever seen. Yes, I know there's technically no such thing as a hot streak...but what a hot streak he's on.

Heading into Sunday's game (2-3, HR) he was 16th in the American League in EqA. He's the fifth-most valuable right-fielder in the majors considering offense alone. It would be hard for him to be less like Gary Sheffield in terms of playing style, yet the two players are not ranked all that far apart.

Twelve days ago, Ichiro got beaned in the head in Kansas City. It put him down in the dirt, not moving for minutes, before he came out of the game. The Mariners claimed that it wasn't a concussion. The Mariner Moose could run his ATV into a wall and explode between innings in front of 20,000 people and they'd announce he'd suffered a mild ankle strain. After the game where Ichiro returned to the lineup, he said through a translator that "In the first inning when I ran down the line, I was really dizzy and didn't know if I could even run straight. To me, it felt like having four beers, for me. The next time it was three beers, the next time it was two beers. It didn't go to zero beers. Maybe the last time was one beer."

He went 3-for-4 that night.

Part of Ichiro's appeal is the speculation that even as good as he is, it's not all he could be. It's the Ty Cobb argument: He could hit home runs if he wanted. Ichiro ropes pitches to the shallow right field stands over and over in batting practice. There are other single-happy players who could put on displays like that, given slower pitching to turn on, and the ball right where they want it--Wade Boggs and Tracy Jones back in the day come to mind. It's useless to speculate on what a player might do if he changed his approach. If Ichiro is comfortable and productive with the approach he favors, let him be. We don't know that change would necessarily be for the better.

There's evidence that it can work out for the worse. Ichiro's cold opening this year was attributable in part to the instruction of Paul Molitor, Hall of Fame hitter and (from all available evidence) lousy hitting coach. Molitor wanted to get the hacktastic Ichiro to wait on more pitches, then try and drive them farther. It didn't work out. Correlation doesn't necessarily equal causation, but Ichiro's abandonment of Molitor's advice coincided with his recent hot streak.

Another part of his draw is his apparent ability to impose his will on the park, whether it's crushing a home run to right for his 200th hit (first ever to get 200 or more hits in their first four seasons), or his selection of other suitably dramatic moments. To a fan, it's as if Ichiro selects these moments. Parcels them out for dramatic effect, like an actor afraid to over-emote, or a magician unwilling to do the same trick over and over for fear the secret will be revealed. "We're down by one, the rest of this team stinks...I guess it's time to show them how it's done..." Four-hundred feet over the wall in right-center.

It's probably all perception, but it works. When Ichiro is up late in a game and you're straining for that hit, jaw clenched, goosebumps rising, there's a mixture of hope and faith that he'll decide to take control of the game and bring it home for you. It's a feeling I hadn't had since I watched Will Clark in his best-player-in-baseball years.

Ichiro has an outside shot at hitting .400. To get there, he wouldn't just have to keep up the pace of the last few months, he'd have to pick it up. He'd need to hit about .540 in his remaining at-bats to make it, and while anything can happen in such a limited amount of time, it's unlikely that he'll make it. But watching Ichiro play like this has been one of the few reasons to drag yourself to a game in Seattle this year. If you get the chance to catch his traveling show at a ballpark near you, I highly recommend it.

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