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The inside story on Ichiro's decline

For 10 years, Ichiro Suzuki has been a hitting machine for the Seattle Mariners, but even the best machines start wearing down and that's exactly what seems to be happening to the 37-year old in season number 11.

It was only two years ago, in 2009, that Ichiro hit .352 with 225 hits. 

This is what the heat zone looks like for a .352 hitter:

Look at the plate coverage exhibited by Ichiro particularly from the outside in towards the middle. On pitches on the outside portion of the plate, Ichiro hit .321. Pitches in the middle, he hit a Rogers Hornsby-like .416. And pitches on the inside, he hit .325 as he sprayed hits all over the field.

That was then, this is now:

Here is Ichiro the .267 hitter. Visually, it's hard to envision the same batter. Even the middle, where we still see the heat of success, he's only hitting .324, a drop of over 90 points, but still a more than respectable success rate.

Let's remove the middle of the plate:

Inside and outside in 2011

If I were a pulmonologist and I looked at this I would be concerned, but if I were a pitcher, I would be pretty comfortable knowing where to pitch Suzuki.

On pitches on the outside of the plate, Ichiro is hitting an ordinary .255. But the inside story is that the real place to get Ichiro out is on the inside of the plate where he is hitting a really weak .195, with a slugging pct. of .248.

Pitchers are aware of the weakness in Ichiro now. In 2009, Ichiro saw 680 inside pitches over 139 at bats covering 150 plate appearances. He fouled off 48.6% of those pitches.

In 2011, entering play Saturday night (8/13), he has already had 133 inside-pitch at bats and seen just 555 pitches, swinging at 44.1%, missing 13.5%, putting 47.3% in play (compared to 41.1% in 2009), and fouling off 39.2%.

On pitches and in the inside and the ouside of the plate in 2009, Ichiro hit .322. This year, it's .232. Those aren't Adam Dunn numbers, but they are certainly not what we have come to expect from Ichiro.


Put-Away Pitchers

Top 15 Pitchers with Two Strikes by K%

Chicago White Sox closer Sergio Santos has been deadly in two strike counts. With a 65.0% K-rate, he's the best put away pitcher so far in 2011. In 103 plate appearances with two strikes, Santos has yielded only 8 hits and 10 walks while striking out 67 batters.

While Kameron Loe's 41.5% K-rate in two strike counts ranks only 97th among qualified pitchers, his .102 weighted on base average is tops in all of baseball. He's given up just 8 base hits with two strikes, none for extra bases. One reason for the lack of opposing power has been his ability to keep the ball out of the air. With two strikes, Loe has given up all of 6 fly balls out of 57 balls put in play, compared to 41 grounders.


Down the Wells

Vernon Wells of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim own the lowest OBP in the major leagues among hitters with at least 350 plate appearances.  Looking over various numbers for Vernon over the last four seasons, you can see the deterioration:


Vernon WellsOBPK%BB%Strk%Ball%
2008 Season 0.343 0.10 0.06 0.629 0.371
2009 Season 0.311 0.13 0.07 0.621 0.379
2010 Season 0.331 0.13 0.08 0.625 0.375
2011 Season 0.241 0.17 0.04 0.658 0.342
Vernon WellsOBPBABIPSwng%InPl%Miss%Chas%Line%
2008 Season 0.343 0.293 0.467 0.526 0.160 0.321 0.165
2009 Season 0.311 0.279 0.461 0.506 0.173 0.311 0.162
2010 Season 0.331 0.272 0.498 0.488 0.208 0.313 0.177
2011 Season 0.241 0.207 0.510 0.457 0.218 0.345 0.126


In the three previous seasons, Wells did not post a great OBP, but it wasn't terrible, either.  They varied from a bit above average to a bit below average.  Both his strikeout and walk rates were rising slowing over the three previous seasons, but in 2011 the K rate sky rocketed while the walk rate fell in half.    That's not surprising given that his strike and ball rates went in the same direction.

More strikeouts mean fewer balls in play, so Wells would need more of those finding holes for hits to make up for the Ks.  Instead, his batting average on balls in play (BABIP) dropped 65 points.  Vernon suffers the double whammy, fewer balls in play, and a much lower percentage going for hits.

Why?  His approach at the plate is off.  He's swinging at more pitches, and missing on more of those swings.  Part of that comes from chasing more balls out of the strike zone.  When he does make contact, few of those balls result in line drives, the type of ball in play most likely to result in a hit.

Often times, a low BABIP is indicative of bad luck.  Given all the statistics that deteriorated for Wells this year, this looks more like a drop in skill level than a fluke bad season.