Geoff Baker of the Seattle Times reports that Ichiro Suzuki will not be in the Mariners' starting lineup tonight for the first time since Aug. 31, 2009. For a player who prides himself on playing every day -- he's played 161 or 162 games in six of the past seven seasons, missing only time at the start of the 2009 season with a bleeding ulcer -- it couldn't have an easy conversation for manager Eric Wedge.
In Seattle, Ichiro's slow start -- he's hitting .252 and just .162 since May 12 -- has been the buzz of sports radio all day: At 37, is this the beginning of the end? Has he finally lost a step? Has the artistry gone awry?
First, the analysis: Ichiro has a career .354 average on balls in play; in 2011, that number is .273. He's actually striking out less -- 8 percent of the time compared to 12.6 percent last year -- so contact itself isn't an issue. But he's hitting for even less power than normal (which, of course, wasn't much to begin with) with just nine doubles, one triple and no home runs. So what's going on? His line-drive rate is actually the same as last season -- 17.6 percent in 2011, versus 17.3 percent in 2010 -- although last season was below his career rate of 20 percent. To me, that suggests his bat speed (or in his case, bat control) dropped a bit last season. He's hitting more groundballs this year -- 3.10 for every flyball, compared to 2.20 in 2010 and a career rate of 2.35. But he's done this before: 2004, his record-setting 262-hit season, produced the highest groundball rate of his career at 3.55. The big difference: He's not beating out as many of those infield grounders, with just 10.7 percent going for hits, compared to a career rate of 12.7.
Now, Ichiro's game has always relied to some extent on luck. His batting averages have fluctuated from .303 in 2005 to .372 in 2004, largely based on the randomness of his little dribblers, bleeders and choppers. For example, he actually hit more line drives in 2005 than in 2004 -- but he had 57 infield hits in 2004, just 31 in 2005. This season, he has just 16 infield hits after recording 53 last year. That could be the result of bad luck ... or the result of him losing a step.
Based on personal observation and other Mariners fans I've talked to, I think he has lost a step. He hasn't looked his usual stellar self in right field -- an observation backed up by the fielding metrics. (Both FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference rate him below-average in the field this season). He's not going first-to-third as often as he usually does. Hey, he's 37 years old. No matter what kind of shape you keep yourself in, you're going to lose speed at some point.
I do think the numbers indicate Ichiro's batting average will rebound somewhat. More of those line drives will fall. Whether that means he's a .275 hitter or .290 hitter or .310 hitter, I can't say with any certainty. Maybe he'll start beating out a few more infield hits. But a day off every now and then seems like the smart call. Last season, he became one of just 11 36-year-olds to play 160-plus games. The only players to do it at 37 or older were Pete Rose, Cal Ripken, Steve Finley, Paul Molitor and Don Baylor.
Ichiro has been a fixture in the Seattle lineup since that magical 2001 season. Considering the state of the rest of the Mariners lineup (Chone Figgins, with numbers so putrid I don't even want to list them, will hit leadoff tonight), any hopes Seattle has of staying in contention will need a productive Ichiro. And a day of rest of now and then should help.
(Hitting data from FanGraphs.com. For more on the Mariners, check out Pro Ball NW, our SweetSpot affiliate.)