Originally written April 22, 2013 on Bronx Pinstripes:
Photo: Creative Commons License Ichiro Suzuki has been a great player for a long time. He was the gold standard of leadoff hitters with his combination of contact skills and speed. He wasn’t your prototypical right fielder, as that’s where most teams like to stash guys who have a bit of power and a good arm, but Ichiro didn’t disappoint after winning the Rookie of the Year, MVP, Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards in his first season stateside. He was a ridiculous, once-in-a-generation type player, and sadly Yankees fans will only get to see glimpses of that over the next two years. In 2012 after a July trade that brought the superstar over to the Bronx, he rewarded the Yankees with a .322/.340/.454  (114 wRC+) abbreviated campaign. That came on the heels of hitting just .261/.288/.353 (77 wRC+) with the Mariners earlier that season. He looked all but done with Seattle. His resurgence in the Bronx during the season and then into the playoffs (.275/.310/.400 slash line) led to Brian Cashman and Co. extending him a two-year, $13 million contract. If Ichiro kept producing like he did with the Yankees in 2012, this was most definitely a steal. With Nick Swisher following the cash to Cleveland, the Yankees — under their new low self-imposed budget — sought to fill the hole cheaply by rounding up older talent who have past their prime, but can still give some production. The days of overpaying fringe talent looks to be over, at least for the near future. At this point, while still early, Ichiro just looks spent. Take for instance in yesterday’s game against the Toronto Blue Jays, where Jays pitcher, Josh Johnson, walked in two runs with the bases loaded and two outs. Before Ichiro stepped to the plate, Johnson threw seven consecutive balls to Eduardo Nunez and Lyle Overbay. However, the first pitch Ichiro sees he grounds weakly to the right side and ends the inning. That at-bat is a microcosm of how his season has gone so far, he’s rolled over on so many pitches and really hasn’t hit anything hard. With that, let’s take a look at his batted ball profile. When one of your key attributes is speed, hitting flyballs aren’t helpful. Take for instance, over his career ~24% of balls he puts into play are hit in the air. So basically, for every four ABs, he’s hitting a flyball. Again, in ~54% of the balls he puts into play are hit on the ground. So nearly half of his ABs he’s smacking the ball on the floor and high-tailing it to first. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, in ~20% of his ABs he nails a line drive somewhere. So, in every fifth AB he’s hitting a laser. In case you don’t know, line drives have the best chance to turn into hits, and when that percentage drops, so does the player’s production. Photo: Creative Commons License If we compare his career totals to what he has accomplished in 61 plate appearances this year, it’s not pretty. In short, he is hitting more flyballs (31.3%) and fewer line drives (14.6%), while his groundball-to-flyball ratio has dropped from his career mark of 2.33 to 1.73 in 2013 thus far. If you want to get even more in-depth we can look at his plate discipline numbers. His O-Swing% (the percentage a batter swings at pitches outside the strike zone) is in line with his career marks (34.5% in 2013 compared to 34% in his career). However, it’s the pitches in the zone he’s not swinging at. Over his career his Z-Swing% (the percentage a batter swings at pitches in the zone) clocked in the 61% range. In 2013, that percentage has dropped to 53.9%. That might not seem like a ton, but if that keeps up over the course of the year he’ll likely see a huge drop in production. All in all, Ichiro is swinging at and connecting with fewer pitches out of the zone (which is a good thing, as swinging at bad pitches yields bad results), but he’s also connecting with fewer pitches in the zone. Again, it’s much too early to draw definitive conclusions on how a player’s season will pan out. Players can have a bad month and then turn around have a spectacular season. Saying that, the warning signs are there. Signing Ichiro to a two-year pact was a risky proposition to begin with, but at the time the Yankees really didn’t want to break the bank* re-signing Swisher, or had the prospects to go after Justin Upton. The way Vernon Wells is playing and with Curtis Granderson likely coming back in mid-to-late May, Ichiro might be watching more games than playing in them as the calendar turns to June. * Never thought I would write “didn’t want to break the bank” and “Yankees” in the same sentence Stats courtesy of Fangraphs Follow Jimmy Kraft on Twitter @jkra0512
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