The decision might have been difficult from an IR (Ichiro Relations) perspective, but it was a no-brainer on the baseball side. Eric Wedge announced earlier this week that he is moving Ichiro Suzuki out of the leadoff spot and into the No. 3 hole. And now that this precedent has been set, if Ichiro's 2012 season starts to resemble 2011 (in which he finished 137th out of 145 Major League qualifiers in OPS), Wedge should have the leeway to drop Ichiro further down the list.More
Dealing with a likely Hall of Famer on the decline can be prickly at best, inflammatory at worst. Wedge and the Mariners handled this situation very well, with Wedge hinting at a move last year at season's end and getting Ichiro on board with it over the course of multiple conversations. The Yankees would be wise to take notes, because they're approaching (if not already in) a very similar situation with Derek Jeter. But more on that in a bit. For now, let's focus on Ichiro. Now that his days of batting in the leadoff spot are supposedly done (and I do mean "supposedly," because who knows how the Chone Figgins experiment pans out or if the M's have any other realistic options for that spot if it doesn't), what can we say about Ichiro as a leadoff hitter? From my vantage point, we can say two completely conflicting things: 1. He was the prototypical leadoff hitter. 2. He was the atypical leadoff hitter. If we simply state the job of a leadoff hitter, it is to get on base and generate runs. From 2001 through 2010 (before his 2011 decline), Ichiro did a fine job of both, posting a .376 on-base percentage and scoring 1,047 runs -- fifth most in baseball in that span. He did this, of course, by racking up hits at a historic rate, becoming the first player in history to bang out at least 200 hits in 10 consecutive seasons. And he did this somewhat controversially, considering about 80 percent of those hits were singles. But as a leadoff hitter, doubles power never had to be Ichiro's specialty. He just had to get on base. And he did so in electric fashion, turning even what seemed to be routine grounders into singles. So for 10 years, Ichiro routinely got on base, and he scored a ton of runs. He was, in that sense, the prototypical leadoff hitter. Yet Ichiro was also atypical. That .376 on-base percentage was primarily the result of a .331 batting average. Ichiro simply did not augment his influence by drawing walks. In that 10-year span, he contributed what is considered an above-average walk rate just once, in 2002 (9.3 percent). So while his OBP was very good, the paltry walk totals prevented it from being truly great. Only once did Ichiro rank in the top five in the AL in OBP -- the '04 season, when he banged out a single-season record 262 hits. Only three times did he rank in the top 10 -- '02, '04 and '07. So if we broaden that definition of a leadoff hitter to include working counts so that your teammates get a feel for the opposing pitcher, well, that wasn't Ichiro. He just hit and hit and hit. In 2011, the hits stopped coming at their usual rate. Ichiro batted a career-worst .272, falling short of the 200-hit plateau for the first time, and contributing a career-low .310 OBP. For the first time, he wasn't prototypical or atypical. He was just sort of ... blah. The Mariners recognized this, of course, but for them to act on it even without an obvious solution to their newfound leadoff hole is interesting. Figgins was once an excellent leadoff hitter, and perhaps he will be again. But given his age (34) and his numbers in Seattle (a .595 OPS over two seasons), it's probably best not to hold your breath. And while Dustin Ackley likely has the speed and discipline to handle the role, moving him would just create another dilemma in the No. 2 position. All that said, Wedge made the right move and handled it in the right way. Ichiro's batting-practice power has long been touted, and perhaps now, with a new swing he's unveiled in these early days of camp and less reliance on the slash-and-dash style that made him famous, he'll turn it loose in the three-hole. Again, though, by moving Ichiro now, Wedge has bought himself the breathing room to move him again later, should his struggles continue. Because while you don't want to put too much emphasis on the first noticeably "down" year of Ichiro's career, you can't overlook the simple fact that he's 38 and probably won't ever be quite the dynamic presence he once was. Which brings us to Jeter. The Yankees' captain is on the verge of turning 38 and is also not the same presence he once was. Now, give Jeter credit. After a difficult 2010 gave way to an abysmal start to 2011, he turned it on in the second half. Starting with his 5-for-5 game on the day he joined the 3,000 hit club, he hit .338 with an .843 OPS through season's end. It was an impressive turnaround. Jeter, though, benefited in some measure from an abnormally high batting average on balls in play. Whereas the average BABIP is somewhere in the neighborhood of .300, Jeter's in that span was exactly .400. Opposing defenses did not turn his batted balls into outs at what is considered the expected rate, and his stats benefited accordingly. More to the point, Jeter's performance against right-handed pitching has to be a concern for Yankees manager Joe Girardi when assessing his leadoff situation. Jeter had a .946 OPS (.423 OBP) against lefties last year, but just a .666 mark (.329 OBP) against right-handers. That split was also pretty drastic in 2010 (.872 against lefties, .633 against righties), so this is not a small sample, by any means. And unlike the Mariners, the Yankees have an obvious contender for their leadoff duties in Brett Gardner, who has speed, plate discipline and a .354 OBP against right-handers in his career. For the Yanks, the leadoff dilemma doesn't have to be quite as dramatic as this Seattle situation. Girardi can still bat Jeter leadoff against lefties with ease. But Jeter hit in the No. 2 spot 35 times last season (batting .348 with a .408 OBP) and hundreds more times over the course of his career. It would be a smart move on Girardi's part to make that Jeter's permanent position (with the eventual possibility of dropping Jeter even lower) when a right-hander is starting for the opposition -- about two-thirds of the season. For Girardi, that might be a difficult decision and a difficult conversation with a star like Jeter. But as Wedge has demonstrated with Ichiro, you can make it work.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less