Home of the Ichiro Power Swing

A renewal of vows between Ichiro Suzuki and the Yankees is beginning to take on an air of inevitability. I don’t know what the Yankees thought they were getting when they first brought Ichiro in, but he had good success down the stretch, and he expressed a willingness to re-sign. The Yankees need an outfielder, and they’re trying to avoid multi-year contracts. Weeks ago, Ichiro’s agent all but declared that Ichiro just wanted to stay where he was, and now Ken Rosenthal reports that a contract agreement is just about reached. Barring a complete surprise, Ichiro will play for the Yankees during the 2013 season. Which, of course, just a few months ago, would’ve been a complete surprise. You’re not even aware of how quickly the things around you are changing. Ichiro is on the Yankees. Michael Young is on the Phillies. Kevin Youkilis is on the Yankees too. Consider this reality.

Had Ichiro performed poorly with New York, it stands to reason he wouldn’t be re-signing, because it stands to reason they wouldn’t want him. It would’ve been fascinating to see if a market would’ve developed had Ichiro struggled. He didn’t, though, batting well north of .300 with the Yankees, so of course they like him on a small contract. They’ll add a right-handed outfielder and then they’ll see how that goes come summertime. Ichiro’s stretch run added a good amount of value to his name, after a year and a half of hard times in Seattle.

Ichiro and the Yankees seems to me like a good fit, given where both parties presently find themselves. Ichiro seemed to be a little rejuvenated, overwhelmed by the notion of actually playing for something, and the Yankees seem content to avoid big splashes. They saw Ichiro succeed, and they saw Ichiro blend into the clubhouse. The Yankees have reason to believe Ichiro’s still got something left in the tank.

Yet what I find most interesting is how Ichiro’s numbers break down. Ichiro, in 2011, posted a 79 wRC+. Ichiro, with the Mariners in 2012, posted a 77 wRC+. With the Yankees in 2012, he posted a 114 wRC+, excluding the playoffs. He did that over 240 plate appearances, and it just so happens his career wRC+ is 110. Ichiro didn’t bounce back a little with the Yankees; he bounced back all the way, just about.

As Ichiro aged, he tried to make adjustments, and there were indications early on in 2012 that he was trying to hit for more power. Through three months, he was less of a groundball hitter than ever before. This taps into a bit of Ichiro mythology — people who’ve seen his batting practice sessions swear that he can hit dingers on a whim. People always wondered if Ichiro had the potential to be a power hitter if he wanted. Ichiro always said he wouldn’t change his game.

But it looked like he was kind of trying to change his game, and it wasn’t working. Ichiro homered four times last year as a Mariner, just once at home and twice in the U.S. Cellular bandbox. Things suddenly picked up after the trade. Ichiro homered five times as a Yankee down the stretch, and once more in the playoffs before the team was eliminated. I want to show you .gifs of all six of those home runs. I am now going to do that.

These .gifs are ordered in the order in which they are presented. Does anything in particular stand out to you, about all of them? Let me know. I’ll also just tell you. You’ll notice that all six of the .gifs feature Ichiro pulling a dinger at home. After becoming a Yankee, Ichiro hit six dingers in Yankee Stadium, and zero dingers in not-Yankee Stadium.

The home/road split, playoffs included this time:

Home: .913 OPS, 151 plate appearances
Road: .636 OPS, 132 plate appearances

We know enough not to take samples that small too seriously. One of them has to be regressed down, one of them has to be regressed up, yada yada, small samples, we’re all math experts. This is basic stuff, but it also highlights something of potential interest. From Texas Leaguers, here’s Ichiro’s 2012 ball-in-play spray chart:

Any and all of Ichiro’s power is pull power. As Ichiro’s skills have partially deteriorated, it would really help him to be able to hit for power going forward. He hit for power in Yankee Stadium, and that might be just the perfect stadium for a guy like Ichiro, at Ichiro’s age.

This is the FanGraphs park factor guts page. Sort by “HR as L”. Your winner: Yankee Stadium, at 116. StatCorner shares this mathematical opinion. Not that you needed to be told how easy it is — relatively speaking — to hit a homer to right in New York. But it’s really really easy, relatively speaking. The short porch beckons, and it makes home runs not only of doubles and triples, but also of would-be routine outs.

Yankee Stadium was not built with extending Ichiro’s major-league career in mind, but it could very well serve that purpose, along with all of the other purposes it serves. Ichiro does not have and never has had a power swing capable of launching the baseball 450 feet. He has a power swing capable of launching the baseball 350-400 feet, and Yankee Stadium’s right field is well within reach. In Seattle, maybe it wouldn’t have helped Ichiro very much to try to hit for more power. In New York, there are total bases to be claimed. That ballpark could keep Ichiro productive, and while Ichiro’s used to being productive on his own, I doubt he’d turn down a little help. God knows he was given pretty much zero help in any respect over much of the previous decade.

Ichiro probably can’t just turn himself into a power hitter. In Yankee Stadium, though, he can get the closest, and while that means Ichiro just has to rely on Ichiro on the road, he might be in position to take unique advantage of the home environment. That’s a friendly porch, and now Ichiro knows it. There’s good sense behind this relationship. I don’t know how much Ichiro has left to give to some other ballclub. He might have plenty yet to give to the Yankees.

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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