The Future Of Ichiro

Pretty good article from U.S.S. Mariner today got me to thinking about Ichiro going forward.  Particularly, this notion about Ichiro closing out his career as a DH:

This is a bit of a non-traditional option, but it might be an interesting way to handle Ichiro, as long as he’s not in the process of completely falling off a cliff. Ichiro has always been viewed as a kind of savant when it comes to hitting, with the notion that he could just keep doing much of the same stuff all the way to the end like a late-career Tony Gwynn. The biggest worry is about a loss of speed, and that may have factored in this year, but then again he’s still stealing bases as well as before. In trying to move from “he’s in a slump” to actual analysis, everybody has a theory, nobody has proof. His defense has definitely declined, though, and I wonder if playing the field isn’t dragging down his performance at the plate. Considering that he hits well when he does DH, perhaps that should be given more serious consideration to see if this is a good way to extend his career.

Ichiro is a career .327 hitter in the Major Leagues.  In every season, he’s batted over .300 and he’s gotten over 200 hits; he looks to do neither in 2011, unless he gets hotter than he’s ever been before.  As such, until I’m proven wrong, I’d say that means he’s nearing the end of things.  Now, what the definition of “near” is is up to debate.  If he were a career Yankee (like, say, Derek Jeter), they could afford his albatross of a contract while they extended him out to the last possible at-bat until he reaches 3,000 hits.  He would certainly have enough pop around him in the lineup to overcome whatever type of hitter Ichiro is destined to become in his decline (like, say, a .269 hitter like he is this year).

But, I don’t think the Mariners can necessarily afford an Ichiro luxury.  Therefore, after his contract expires next season, he’s going to have to take a significant pay cut to stay on this team.  Assuming he’s unwilling to do that, then I can just stop writing right here, because either that means he’s going to walk and forever be an ex-Mariner, or it means we’re going to cave and overpay for a .250 singles-hitting right fielder whose defense is in great decline.  The former would be a shame, the latter would be an outright travesty and I’d be forced to band together with my fellow bloggers with pitchforks and torches and burn that motherfuckin’ stadium down!

So, for the sake of this argument here, let’s say he re-signs at a reasonable couple/few million.  Nothing bank-breaking, but enough to keep him happy so he retires a Mariner.  The question I pose is:  what is his value as a designated hitter?

Mike Snow (from above) is right, we can no longer overlook the fact that Ichiro’s defense has taken a tumble.  That’s the kind of thing where, as you age, it sure as shit isn’t going to get any better.

But, while Ichiro is a .327 career hitter, he’s a career .379 hitter as the DH.  Now, who knows if that’s purely coincidence (brought on by the small sample size of only 140 at bats), but his numbers across the board are better when he’s a DH.  His OBP is .409 (overall career .372), and his slugging is .493 (overall career .422).

While I tire of the jokes people always trot out (“oh, if he wanted, Ichiro could hit 30 homers a year, yeah right!”), there might be something to the fact that if Ichiro only focused on hitting and nothing else, he’d likely be able to hit for substantially more power.  I’m not saying he’s going to become Prince Fielder or anything – he’s still going to go for his share of infield singles to boost his hits total – but I think there’s something to this “resting his legs” whenever they give him a “day off” as DH.

Even this year, if you break down his stats, he’s hitting .423 as a DH over the course of 26 at bats.  Again, not a lot of opportunity to work with (and, unfortunately for my power argument, he’s yet to hit an extra-base hit as a DH – but then again, even 1 extra base hit would probably send his slugging percentage through the roof), but I bet you Ichiro could hang on as a fairly productive hitter for a few more seasons if he just gave up playing defense after his contract expires.

Of course, that’s all well and good, but even if he improves his power numbers a tick, he’s still not going to be the kind of David Ortiz type everyone wants as their DH.  He likely wouldn’t even be anywhere near an Edgar Martinez doubles type.  Tony Gwynn is an excellent example of what he’d likely become, and is that something we’d want as our DH?  I have a feeling we’d be screaming “Shades of Jose Vidro!” at the tops of our lungs.

Likely, it wouldn’t be worth it to have Ichiro as our DH of the future.  But, you never know (especially with Ichiro).  The guy takes a lot of pride in everything he does.  And, in spite of what everyone believes, he’s been pretty adaptable in his career.  Everyone wondered how his bat would react when he shifted over to Centerfield and look at how well that turned out.  I wouldn’t put it past him to refocus all of his energy into hitting should he be reduced to a utility outfielder/designated hitter.  Who’s to say he wouldn’t be exactly what we need?

I guess that would all depend on who goes out there to replace him.  If we’re stuck with more outfield singles hitters, then putting Ichiro at DH would probably be the dumbest move this side of signing Chone Figgins.  But, if we found some sluggers to fill out both outfield corner positions … who the hell knows?

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