Ichiro in a Nosedive

Ichiro at bat

Last Friday, I went around the office and gave seven random people a simple prompt: “Name a player on the Mariners.” The responses:

1 – “Ichiro.”
2 – “Ichiro!”
3 – “Ichiro.”
4 – “Does Erik Bedard still pitch for the Mariners? I was purposefully not saying Ichiro.”
5 – “Alex Rodriguez? The Mariner Moose?”
6 – “Isn’t there some guy named Felix Hernandez?”
7 – “Ichiro.”

For most Seattleites–and especially for casual fans–Ichiro is the Mariners. Certainly he has been one of the few seaworthy salts on the ship, with enough Gold Gloves and Silver Sluggers in his 11-year Mariner career to turn a pirate green. Or a Pirate. This season, though, Ichiro has been titanic. I mean, Titanic.

After an Ichiro-like April, the hit king’s production has plummeted. Coming into the season, Ichiro had a career .331 batting average–that is, non-sports-fans, he got a hit in 33 percent of his at bats. This year, Ichiro’s batting average is just .262. More ominously, he doesn’t have a single home run.

Power comes from bat speed, and Ichiro’s homerlessness indicates that his bat may be slowing. A slower bat doesn’t just keep your fly balls in the park, it also sucks the sting from your line drives. Which brings us to another troubling stat: Ichiro’s batting average on balls in play (BABIP). This stat tells us how well a hitter does when he hits the ball at fielders (that is, when he doesn’t hit a home run or strike out). Ichiro, because of his speed and scorching line drives, is usually near the top of the league. This year he’s sixty points below his career average.

Sometimes, cratering BABIP indicates a player is just having bad luck. (As Kevin Costner’s Crash Davis put it in Bull Durham: “Baseball is a lot like life. The line drives are caught, the squibblers go for base hits.”) But other times, as in the case of former Mariner Richie Sexson, it indicates a toxic loss of bat speed. And for Ichiro, who gets many hits by beating the tardy throws of infielders, it may indicate that his foot speed is declining as well.

Enough tacking, let’s get down to it: Is Ichiro finished? Of course, there’s no way to tell.

In July of 1995, the 38-year-old future Hall-of-Famer Paul Molitor was hitting just .224, more than 80 points below his career average. Molitor was openly considering retirement. The next year, after signing with his hometown Minnesota Twins for what was expected to be a one-year farewell tour, Molitor batted .341 and smacked 225 hits, the most in his MLB career.

At age 36, future Hall-of-Famer (and former Walla Walla Padre!) Tony Gwynn hit just 3 home runs, his worst output in 13 seasons. The next year a 37-year-old Gwynn pounded 17 home runs, a career-high. He then totaled double-digit homers at age 38 and 39.

Then again, there’s Pete Rose, who suffered his power outage at age 38. Rose went into a slow decline from there, holding a job mostly because of reputation and his ongoing (ultimately successful) chase of Ty Cobb’s all-time hits record.

I think Ichiro is going to pull out of this slump. He’s in terrific shape, and we’ve seen players like that last longer and longer in baseball. He seems to be heating up, with two hits in each of the past four games. Still, there’s no Doppler radar for the rough seas of the baseball world. We’ll all just have wait and see what’s over the next wave.