And now for a blogger staple. Head on over to Google and enter "Ichiro" + "home run derby". If you're like me, you end up with more than 78,000 results, and you're relieved that the images aren't as disturbing as they could've been. Maybe you're seeing a different number of results. It isn't the specific number of results that's important, here. What's important is that there's a really high number of results. Higher than you'd expect for a hitter with 96 home runs in more than 11 full seasons.
But Ichiro isn't just any hitter with 96 home runs. Ichiro is Ichiro, and you're already familiar with the rumors. Everybody's familiar with the rumors. There aren't a whole lot of things pertaining to Mariners baseball that become known on a national scale, but most everybody knows about the shows Ichiro puts on in batting practice. Most everybody knows about the long-standing rumor that Ichiro could become a power hitter if he wanted to. That's why people want to see him in the Home Run Derby. They want to see a slap hitter miraculously look like anything but.
Ichiro, for his part, has never deviated from his aggressive, slap-hitting approach. The approach he had as a Mariner in 2011 was more or less the approach he had as a Mariner in 2001, with a few minor tweaks. For 11 years, people wondered if Ichiro was actually capable of what other people said. For 11 years, Ichiro declined to provide an answer, probably because he was having so much success with his normal approach.
Then Ichiro slumped in 2011. He slumped bad, at the age of 37. Prior to 2011, Ichiro's worst single-season batting average was .303. After 2011, Ichiro's worst single-season batting average was .272. For the first time in his life, Ichiro couldn't do what Ichiro had always done.
Enter the offseason. Manager Eric Wedge wanted to get Ichiro going, and he wanted to get Chone Figgins going. Wedge moved Figgins to the leadoff spot, and he bumped Ichiro down to third. Ichiro had always hit leadoff. Now he was being put in the spot of a run producer. Would Ichiro change his style? Would Ichiro's down season, and his subsequent drop in the lineup, finally convince him to try something new?
Ichiro denied that he would change his game. He said he'd make some small adjustments based on what he learned in 2011, but he's always made small adjustments. It didn't look like Ichiro would try to be Ichiro v2.0. However, based on the early evidence, what we're seeing is Ichiro v2.0.
Ichiro's moved back in the batter's box. He's changed his swing a little bit, and he's driving the ball more than he used to. I think Ichiro's groundball rate is the most convincing evidence that something is up. Between 2002 - 2011, Ichiro hit 56 percent groundballs, according to FanGraphs. So far in 2012, he's hit 40 percent groundballs, or 25 grounders out of 63 balls in play. Based on his old rate, we would've expected 35 grounders by now.
A hitter's groundball rate is one of those numbers that stabilizes pretty quick. Which is to say, it's rare that someone flukes a really high or a really low groundball rate. Prior to this season, Ichiro was among the most extreme groundball hitters in baseball. He had approximately the same groundball rate as speedsters Elvis Andrus and Juan Pierre. Grounders were a big part of Ichiro's skillset; a grounder to the shortstop's right was almost an automatic single. A 40-foot grounder was also almost an automatic single.
This year, Ichiro has the same approximate groundball rate as Carlos Lee and David Ortiz. I know that a hitter's groundball rate isn't one of those things you just know off the top of your head, but neither Lee nor Ortiz are groundball hitters. This is new company.
And one notes that Ichiro's grounders are down, and his line drives are way up. I'm always wary of using line-drive rate as a serious statistic, since line drives are uncomfortably subjective, but Ichiro's line-drive rate is hovering at 29 percent, against a career average of 20 percent and a league average of about 21 percent. I've watched almost every single Ichiro plate appearance so far this season, and these numbers back up my observation. It feels like Ichiro's been hitting the ball a lot harder.
Of course, there haven't been apparent changes only to Ichiro's swing and stance. There's also the matter of the pitches he's swinging at. Last season, I observed that Ichiro was having trouble producing on inside pitches. Now check out his swing breakdowns for 2011 and 2012:
Outside: 39% swing rate
This concerns only horizontal pitch location, where "Outside" is defined as more than six inches outside from the center of the plate, and "Inside" is defined as more than six inches inside from the center of the plate. Ichiro's swung at a few more outside pitches, and a great deal fewer inside pitches.
If numbers don't do it for you, maybe pictures will, from Texas Leaguers. Here are Ichiro's swings through April 22 last year:
And here are Ichiro's swings through April 22 this year:
Ichiro's standing on the right side of these images. Look at the swings at inside pitches in 2011, and then in 2012. There's no nearly so much. There have still been swings at inside pitches, and there have still been swings at generally bad pitches, but the discipline has changed.
Ichiro is 38 years old, and while there exists some chance that this is all nothing and that he'll return to normal in time, there exists a greater chance that this is all something, and that this is more or less his new normal now. Ichiro might have changed into a more patient, line-drive hitting lefty at an age where a lot of players are thinking about hanging them up, if they haven't hung them up already. The false part of the rumor is that Ichiro can hit home runs whenever he wants. So far this year, Ichiro has one home run. He's slugging .391. The part of the rumor that looks to be true, though, is that Ichiro has indeed been capable of driving the ball a lot more often.
Ichiro's a number-three hitter, now, and he's driving the ball. His transformation has not been as amazing as it might've been in a movie. Few things are as amazing as they are in movies. Yet his transformation might be amazing still. At an advanced age, Ichiro has quietly but dramatically changed the way that he hits, and there's reason to believe that Ichiro v2.0 could be productive. Maybe you thought that Ichiro was done wowing you. Maybe you were wrong.