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« Jacob Turner's Fastball Identity Crisis | Main | Trout Killing Pitchers Softly »
Tuesday
Jul242012

For Ichiro, More Fly Balls Don't Pay Off

After 12 years, 10 All-Star appearances and 2,533 stateside hits, Ichiro Suzuki is changing coasts: The Yankees acquired him from the Mariners for D.J. Mitchell, Danny Farquhar and cash. Ichiro still looks like the same lithe, speedy strike zone Jedi of years past. But he's batting just .261 this season (61 points below his career average) and has an 82 OPS+ (113 career), both personal worsts. The now-38-year-old has become more of a fly ball hitter. That new approach isn't paying off.

For years, Ichiro slapped the ball on the ground and used his top-notch wheels to leg out hits. He hit a collective .294 on ground balls from 2008-10, nearly 50 points above the MLB average for qualified hitters. Those hits on grounders started to vanish last season, however:

YearGround Ball Pct.Avg. on Ground Balls
2008 57.1 .297
2009 55.9 .359
2010 57.1 .300
2011 59.8 .264
MLB Avg., 2008-11 44.2 .247

 

Ichiro's decline on grounders has continued in 2012, as he has just a .220 average when smacking the ball on the grass. Perhaps in an effort to compensate for his lack of ground ball hits, Ichiro has taken to the air more often. Check out his fly ball rate by pitch location from 2008-2011, and then 2012:

2008-11

 

 2012

 

Ichiro has a 29.3 percent fly ball rate this year, compared to 22.5 percent from 2008-11. His ground ball rate is 47.8 percent, down from 57.5 percent over 2008-11. Those extra fly balls are leading to little more than weakly-hit cans of corn. Ichiro has never been a slugger, but his ability to drive pitches he hits skyward has really bottomed out in 2012. Here's his slugging percentage on fly balls from 2008-11, and then 2012:

2008-11

 

2012

 

Ichiro slugged .489 on fly balls from 2008-11, a far cry from the .759 average for qualified hitters. This year, though? He's outslugging only Flash Gordon's waif-thin progeny on fly balls hit:

Lowest slugging percentage on fly balls, 2012

BatterSlugging Pct.
Dee Gordon .265
Ichiro Suzuki .274
Michael Young .278
Marco Scutaro .292
Jamey Carroll .327
Cliff Pennington .329
Jemile Weeks .333
Alexei Ramirez .338
Willie Bloomquist .383
Darwin Barney .388

 

Ichiro's slap-and-dash skill set held up remarkably well into his late thirties. But time has seemingly caught up with -- and passed -- him down the first base line. While many players make concessions to age by trying to change their approach, Ichiro's altered plate approach doesn't appear to be for the better. He was an ultra-quick ground ball hitter with very modest pop. Now that the grounders aren't leading to infield hits, he's trying to make up for it with more fly balls and extra-base knocks. When your outfield drives only impress Dee Gordon, that's a problem.

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