Eric Wedge is talking tough about Ichiro Suzuki according to an Associated Press piece reported on ESPN.com. Wedge is quoted in the report as saying, "Ultimately it's not just about Ichiro, it's about our club and his 24 other teammates." Those are some pretty strong words. If you read between the lines there, Wedge is saying that he can't be worried about what Ichiro thinks. Does that statement also hint that what Ichiro thinks is a problem? Could be. The bigger question isn't whether Wedge has a problem or not with Ichiro's pride. The question is whether Ichiro should be the Mariners' lead off batter.
It is very easy to believe the sky is falling concerning Ichiro Suzuki. He is entering the 2012 season as a 38 year old who showed major signs that time caught up with him last year. He failed for the first time to reach 200 hits and his final slash line of, .273/.310/.337 really exacerbates the reality that Suzuki doesn't walk enough for a lead off batter if he fails to hit. The outfielder walked only 26 non-intentional times in 721 plate appearances (he was intentionally walked 13 times). His low walk rate has always been his reality (6.2 percent lifetime), but his ability to hit safely better than most humans made that somewhat acceptable. When the batting average falls to .272, the low walk rate becomes more of an issue.
And it's not as if Ichiro just had a bad half of a season in 2011. Both his first half and second half were very similar. But there is a glimmer of hope that Ichiro Suzuki could rebound a little bit. A lot of Ichiro's metrics remained static in 2011. His line drive, ground ball and fly ball rates were all within his career norms. So were his strikeouts. The only real difference was the number of his batted balls that fell safely in play. Ichiro has a career BABIP of .354. The three years prior to 2011 included these BABIP rates respectively: .334, .384, .353. Last year his BABIP was .294, easily the lowest of his career. Without knowing the quality of that contact (MPH off the bat), the assumption could be made that there is room for some bounce back.
There is this myth that the lead off position is this haven of on-base heaven in baseball. That is more wish than reality. Lead off batters in all of baseball last year had a slash line of .267/.328/.398. In 2010 it was, .264/.329/.384. Lead off batters who have a high on-base percentage are more the exception than the rule (market inefficiency?). Ichiro's average was above the average while his on-base percentage and slugging were lower than league average.
But what if he were to recover some? Three different projections systems were consulted for this post. Ichiro's projected slash lines in the three: .303/.347/.377, .291/.332/.359 and .303/.344/.382. All three of those projections see some bounce back and put Ichiro's average and on-base well above league average.
To see what Eric Wedge is looking at in the big picture, some discussion needs to take place about other lead off options the manager might have. Dustin Ackley's name comes to mind immediately. In Ackley's debut season in 2011, his on-base percentage was .348--well above Ichiro's. Ackley finished his minor league career with an on-base percentage of .381. Projections from three different systems put Ackley's on-base percentage in 2012 anywhere from .341 to .373. If Ackley can do that, he becomes just slightly more effective as a lead off batter than Ichiro's projections. Is there anyone else?
Justin Smoak has very good patience at the plate, but he's the power hitter you want in the middle of the line up. The same goes for Jesus Montero. Franklin Gutierrez has a .310 lifetime on-base percentage. That doesn't work. Mike Carp is counted on for power. Brendan Ryan doesn't hit enough.
The bottom line is that Ichiro and Ackley are the only two on the team that make sense in the line up position. They are, in fact, interchangeable in their ability to get on base. Since Ackley has more ability to get extra base hits, it seems to make more sense to bat him second behind Ichiro rather than in front of him. Perhaps Eric Wedge is trying to motivate Ichiro Suzuki. In the last season of his contract, if Ichiro wants to continue playing beyond 2012, he will have enough motivation to improve on what was a lost 2011. The Mariners should start the season with Ichiro Suzuki as their lead off batter and give it fifty games to see what happens.