Ichiro to Hit Third, Try to Slug in 2012?

For the last 11 seasons, Ichiro Suzuki at the top of the order has been the one constant in Seattle. Ichiro isn’t leaving Seattle, but as Eric Wedge announced today, he won’t be leading off for the Mariners any more:

For most of his career, Ichiro has been the prototypical leadoff hitter. Even without taking a bunch of walks, Ichiro has managed to post good-to-great on-base percentages and set the table for the rest of the Mariners’ lineups. But the third hitter’s job isn’t just to get on base, it’s also to move runners around to score. Can Ichiro — especially an Ichiro feeling the effects of aging at 38 — adapt his game to fit this new role?

At the very least, if he fails it won’t be for a lack of trying:

Ostensibly, the move to a wider base is in an attempt to generate more power as opposed to his former contact-oriented narrow stance. Ichiro once famously said, “If I’m allowed to hit .220, I could probably hit 40 [home runs], but nobody wants that.” It appears we may finally get to test this brash statement.

Although Ichiro has never once posted an isolated power score above the league average, that’s more because he hits too many singles (elevating his batting average) than about his ability to hit for extra bases. Even in a down year in 2011, Ichiro kept his streak of 20-double seasons — all 11 of his MLB seasons — alive. But Ichiro’s career high in home runs is just 15, and the last time he hit double digits was in 2009, when he hit 11. He then proceeded to hit 11 total in the last two seasons.

Compounding all of this: Ichiro is small. We have him listed at 5-feet 11-inches tall and 172 pounds of mass. Can Ichiro even break his own record of 15 home runs? According to Baseball-Reference’s Play Index, just 18 players under six feet tall and weighing less than 175 pounds have hit 15 home runs since the 1996 season, and none of them have done it after their age 36 season. And honestly, I’m not sure some of these guys should qualify. You be the judge:

Rk Yrs From To Age
1 Jose Valentin 9 1996 2006 26-36 Ind. Seasons
2 Jose Guillen 6 2003 2010 27-34 Ind. Seasons
3 Jacque Jones 6 2000 2006 25-31 Ind. Seasons
4 Ray Durham 6 1998 2006 26-34 Ind. Seasons
5 Todd Hundley 5 1996 2002 27-33 Ind. Seasons
6 Jimmy Rollins 4 2006 2011 27-32 Ind. Seasons
7 Jose Vidro 4 2000 2003 25-28 Ind. Seasons
8 David Bell 4 1999 2004 26-31 Ind. Seasons
9 Damion Easley 3 1997 1999 27-29 Ind. Seasons
10 Brian Roberts 2 2005 2009 27-31 Ind. Seasons
11 Rob Mackowiak 2 2002 2004 26-28 Ind. Seasons
12 Chuck Knoblauch 2 1998 1999 29-30 Ind. Seasons
13 Ichiro Suzuki 1 2005 2005 31-31 Ind. Seasons
14 Bill Mueller 1 2003 2003 32-32 Ind. Seasons
15 Damon Buford 1 2000 2000 30-30 Ind. Seasons
16 Mike Bordick 1 2000 2000 34-34 Ind. Seasons
17 Tony Phillips 1 1999 1999 40-40 Ind. Seasons
18 Chad Curtis 1 1997 1997 28-28 Ind. Seasons
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 2/21/2012.

Forget 40 home runs — of this list, only Todd Hundley’s 1996 season managed to hit that mark. Even 25 could be trouble, as the list whittles down to just seven players.

It’s not like Ichiro has to become a slugger to be successful in the third spot in the lineup. It definitely helps — the infield single is far better leading off the inning than it is with two outs and nobody on. Still, if Ichiro were to return to even his 2010 form where he hit .315/.359/.394 it would be a boon regardless of where it appears in the lineup. But everything we’ve seen with this story indicates Ichiro is going to alter his approach to become a power hitter — or at least more of one.

History says he’s probably going to have some trouble doing so. But Ichiro is as tremendous a talent — both in terms of his production on the field and the spectacle he creates — as baseball has to offer. Even if Ichiro fails to hit for more power, or even if he continues to decline after a poor 2011 season, one thing is for sure: he will make it very, very fun to watch.

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Bobby Ayala

Awesome, Ichiro has his chance to cement his greatness! If he can hit .300 with 30 doubles and 20 home runs in the 3-hole at age 39…wow.

However, I don’t think the height argument is that compelling, since your numbers don’t seem to back up your point. 18 guys have hit 15 HR 59 times in the last 15 years? That seems like an awful lot, considering that the total number of guys <6ft, 175lbs who have played a full season in the last 15 years.