Ichiro Suzuki is still racking up hits in the Pacific Northwest, but the Ichiro we know of is effectively retired. This season’s .276/.304/.378 line may indicate the persistence of last year’s struggles. However, an analysis of Ichiro’s batted ball data in 2012 shows a sad truth for Seattle Mariners fans and baseball fans who appreciate his style of play. Ichiro is now a different hitter from the slap-and-dash nonpareil who terrorized opposing inflelds on two continents for two decades.
In 2012, batted ball data indicate a dramatic change in Ichiro’s approach to hitting. His line drive rate is a career-high 26.3 percent and, for the first time in his career, he is hitting ground balls less than half of the time (47.0 percent). He is only reaching base via infield hit in 5.2 percent of his plate appearances, a career low. Ichiro does have a 43-point increase in slugging percentage to show for these changes, though. More worryingly, he still has a low, for him, .289 batting average on balls in play.
The BABIP sticks out as a particular red flag considering Ichiro’s previous level of performance in this area. Coming into the 2011 season, Ichiro carried with him a career BABIP of .357. However, his BABIP in 2011 slumped from .357 all the way to .295, leading to his cringeworthy .272/.310/.335 line for the season. While a .300 BABIP is the typical rule of thumb for what to expect from a hitter, speedy slap hitters can hit for a higher BABIP by turning groundouts into base hits. As any baseball fan knows, Ichiro is (was) just such a hitter.
Through 2010, 593 of his 2,244 career hits—over one-quarter of them—stayed in the infleld. Expressed another way, Ichiro had a career average of one infield hit every 12.5 plate appearances entering 2011, or about eight percent. In 2011, his rate of infield hits fell by 20 percent from his previous career average. If you held his infield hit rate to his previous career average, Ichiro would have had another 12 singles. This may not seem like much, but it would have been enough to raise his slash line to .290/.327/.353 and his BABIP by about 20 points.
Upon further inspection, a similar analysis shows that the seeds of Ichiro’s decline may have started to sprout in 2010. The .315/.359/.394 line (.353 BABIP) for his campaign may have looked like vintage Ichiro in a lower run context, but that performance was buoyed by a particularly good season in infield hits. In 732 plate appearances, he had a career-high 71 infield hits. Nearly 10 percent of his trips to the plate ended with him reaching base via this route. Normalizing his infield hit rate to that career average of eight percent takes 12 singles off the board. His seasonal line declines to .297/.343/.376. All of a sudden, his 2010 and 2011 performance look very similar.
Is this decline in infield hits for real or perhaps some artifact of random variation? Ichiro still looks like the trim greyhound who snares everything in right field, makes fools of advancing baserunners, and swipes bags by the handful. Appearances can be deceiving, though. An aging speedster can rely on his knowledge to pick his spots for stealing bases or make defensive plays through superior positioning, but he cannot trick his way to first base if his legs are not entirely what they once were. Indeed, we might actually expect infield hits to be the canary in the coal mine for a speedster’s decline.
Furthermore, Ichiro is a smart player, so it is probably reasonable to assume that his batted ball profile this year is indicative of an intended change in approach. If that is the case, not only is Ichiro much less of a slap-and-dash threat than he was even two years ago, but there is little reason to think he will bounce back to his previous form. His emphasis on hitting the ball in the air makes a return to the Ichiro of old, fueled by positive regression to a .350 BABIP mean, unlikely. A moderate regression to a .300 BABIP may be in the offing, but that is hardly the stuff of batting titles.
There is a certain sad irony in this. Now that Ichiro is hitting like everybody else, we can only expect him to … hit like everybody else.
For a unique player, that might be the greatest indignity of aging.