It just can’t be done.
The truth, though no one dares say it around the Mariners, is that hitting behind Ichiro isn’t easy. Ichiro’s goal is not to get on base, but to get on base with a hit, collect 200 hits a season. He is unpredictable, playing at his own rhythm. And when he starts an inning with a quick at-bat — Ichiro ranked near the bottom in pitches per plate appearance among leadoff men last season — the No. 2 hitter is in a difficult spot.
At that point, a rival hitting coach explained, the No. 2 hitter is almost forced to be patient, or the pitcher will stand a good chance of breezing through the inning. Someone has to work counts, especially in the first inning when pitchers often are at their most vulnerable. And that task shouldn’t fall to the No. 3 hitter.
OK, most of that makes some sense, though it’s just worrying about the worst-case scenario. Sure, if you’re going to have a one-two-three first inning, it’d be better to have the pitcher throw 15-20 pitches than 8-10 pitches over the course of the frame. But the far more important issue is avoiding the one-two-three inning in the first place.
Really, this is a case of trying to make something out of next to nothing.
For all of his hacktastic ways, Ichiro averaged 3.51 pitches per plate appearance last season. Jose Reyes averaged 3.61, and no one seems to be complaining about hitting behind him. Chipper Jones, long considered one of the game’s most patient hitters, averaged 3.60 pitches per plate appearance. Albert Pujols was at 3.65.
So, Reyes saw one extra pitch every 10 plate appearances. Pujols saw one more pitch every seven.
Also, the 3.51 was a career low for Ichiro. He came in at 3.75 in 2009 and 3.74 in 2010.
The degree to which patient hitters work the count more than impatient hitters has always been overstated. We think of great hitters fouling off pitch after pitch until they get that one they can handle and lesser lights grounding out to short on the very first offering they see. In reality, every regular in the league averaged between 3.16 (Yuniesky Betancourt) and 4.44 (Curtis Granderson) pitches per plate appearance last year.
I already threw in my two cents on altering Ichiro’s lineup spot last month. My opinion is unchanged now. Rosenthal thinks it makes sense for the Mariners to go with Chone Figgins at the top of the order, followed by Dustin Ackley and then Ichiro hitting third. My belief is that the Mariners don’t have any quality alternatives to Ichiro in the leadoff spot and that Figgins should be on the bench in favor of Kyle Seager against righties. Of course, I do think Ichiro is going to bounce back somewhat. And if he continues playing like he did in 2011, then he’s not really worthy of a lineup spot at all.