Earlier, I was a few minutes late meeting somebody, and I explained to him that it was because there was bignews I wanted to write about before getting in the car. It felt weird to refer to this stuff as "big Mariners news" since we and you have come to understand that lineup construction doesn't make that much of a difference, but there's no denying that the Mariners moving Ichiro down to #3 feels big. It at least feels not small. Ichiro has been the Mariners' leadoff hitter for as long as I've been able to watch them on a daily basis. He was the Mariners' leadoff hitter for years before that, too.
This is a change in Ichiro's identity, and this is a change in the Mariners' identity. Ichiro is no longer the Mariners' leadoff hitter and right fielder. Now Ichiro is the Mariners' right fielder. What he is beyond that, we'll see, but the #3 slot doesn't have a neat word attached to it like "leadoff" or "cleanup".
The first thing that probably crossed most of our minds when we learned about the switch was, is Ichiro going to hit for power now? Is he going to change his approach to correspond to the drop in the order? I know I have a strong desire to see the Ichiro mythology put to the test. I know I also have a strong desire to see the Ichiro mythology not put to the test, so, via Greg Johns:
"The situation of hitting third won't change my approach in my hitting style," Ichiro said. "It'll only change the situation with runners on base."
That disappoints me, and it doesn't. I'd like to see of what Ichiro is capable, but I'd also like for some things to be left to the imagination. It's not like Ichiro's regular approach hasn't allowed him to be a productive player before.
But if you're thirsting for change, Ichiro has made one adjustment. He's spent the entire offseason working on a new stance. It's a little more than just a new stance, yet a little less than a whole new swing. After the jump, you'll see what I'm talking about.
Here's Ichiro from last year:
And here's Ichiro now, courtesy of Larry Stone:
You'll notice that Ichiro's feet are now wider apart. You'll notice that he doesn't lift his right leg. There's less movement now than there used to be. I can't tell you what this is going to mean. I'm a lot more comfortable with pitching mechanics than with hitting mechanics. Maybe this won't mean anything at all. Lots of things are possible. But, Ichiro finished last season thinking he needed to make an adjustment, and he elected to make this adjustment. As a rule of thumb, I trust that Ichiro knows what's best for Ichiro.
So, batting third. When you hear that Ichiro'll be batting third, you figure that he'll be batting with men on base more often. Last year, the bases were empty for 66 percent of his plate appearances. For his career, he comes in at 65 percent. Last year, Dustin Ackley spent most of his time batting third. The bases were empty for 59 percent of his plate appearances. Ichiro will most definitely bat more often with runners on base, if only because he'll no longer be guaranteed one plate appearance with the bases empty each game. But the difference won't be huge. The percentages in this paragraph are influenced by the Mariners' offenses, but they're reasonably representative.
One notes that Ichiro is a career .327 hitter with men on. That's quite good! One also notes that Ichiro is a career .325 hitter with no men on. And his respective isolated sluggings are .085 and .101. We don't have great evidence to suggest that Ichiro ups his game in run-scoring situations. Nor do we have great evidence to suggest that he does the opposite. He's just been Ichiro.
I'm not sure where to go from here. I had a thought, but I lost it. I wish one of you would find it. Realistically, as much as some might prefer that Ichiro try to change his approach, being the leadoff batter or not being the leadoff batter only matters in the first inning. After that, it all gets jumbled. So why should Ichiro try to overhaul his game? He's still on the same team, in the same stadium, in the same lineup. He's just moving in the lineup two spots. It sounds so insignificant. The difference between the #1 slot and the #3 slot for the Mariners last year was 23 plate appearances.
It's not insignificant, because, mentally, this is weird. Ichiro's had a role for so long. That role is changing. But it's not changing by a ton. I'm less interested in how Ichiro adjusts to batting third, and more interested in how Ichiro adjusts to his new swing mechanics. I guess the two are inextricably tied.
Ichiro batting third. Big news, small news, and all types of news in between. As for Figgins? He sure as hell hasn't done well leading off innings the last couple years. He did fine batting second for thebefore coming over. But, whatever, one more shot. Maybe it'll work. Maybe it'll get those right neurons firing. I'm willing to give it time, so long as the team doesn't give it too much time. This had better be Figgins' last chance.