They say baseball is a game of adjustments. Over time, hitters must adjust to pitchers. Veterans must adjust to rookies.
And fans must adjust their impressions of them all.
Ever since his spectacular 2001 debut, when he flashed through baseball's sky like a comet and won the American League MVP award, the name "Ichiro Suzuki" has connoted batting titles, fibrillating sprints for doubles and triples, and altogether game-changing speed that gives opponents the shakes. Suzuki's sensation begat the David Ecksteins and Juan Pierres who have caffeinated the last two World Series-winning lineups. Those who saw Suzuki electrify Seattle that year still have that image burned into their retinas, as if looking into the sun too long.
The thing is, over the past two seasons, pitchers have adjusted to Suzuki by exploiting his aggressiveness and persistently busting him inside -- to the point where his less effective adjustment in return gives us no choice but to do some tweaking ourselves.
People aware that Suzuki has rebounded from a poor April to mount a 15-game hitting streak and raise his batting average to his more customary .317 might think all is back to normal. But above that batting average lies a transparently thin layer of other offensive contributions -- one that has slimmed every year since that magical 2001.
While his job is not to hit for outright power, Suzuki still has just six extra-base hits in 37 games this season -- four doubles, one triple and one homer -- alarmingly paltry output for someone with his speed. (For the sabermetricians among readership, his .054 isolated power, a.k.a. extra bases per at-bat, ranks 183rd among 188 qualifying major league batters.) Given that he's Seattle's leadoff man with the primary charge of setting the table for others, he doesn't do that particularly well anymore, either. Thanks to just 12 walks his on-base percentage is just .363.
These are just another step in Suzuki's downward trend since his rookie year, and even his strong sophomore follow-up. A look at his percentages:
Suzuki does enough other things well -- stealing bases effectively, playing a spectacular right field -- that he remains a valuable player, an entertaining player. But at the plate he has regressed into a one-dimensional singles hitter. Even during his current hitting streak, in which he's batting an average-boosting .400, 24 of his 28 hits have been singles. In those 15 games he has drawn just two unintentional walks, which is simply shocking for a leadoff man.
Pair the statistics with the impressions of Paul Molitor, the Mariners' batting coach, and this pile of singles could be no accident.
"Naturally, you want to have a little bit more weaponry in terms of ways you can score, not just getting on first," Molitor said. "He's consumed with getting hits. He knows that the 200-hit seasons the first three seasons, that's something that weighs heavily on him. He doesn't get a hit for seven, eight at-bats, there's an urgency in him. Everyone wants to get hits. But with him, the strike zone expands, and it's, 'I want to get a hit right now.' Instead of just trusting his game and letting it come to him."
Suzuki, who claims he is using the same approach as always, refutes any suggestion that pitchers have figured out some of his weaknesses, particularly after he took everyone by surprise three years ago. "It's different every game for me. Every pitch," he said through an interpreter. "For me, every pitcher pitches different. You can never know what the pitchers are thinking or trying to do. Pitchers might be throwing more inside, but not to the point where I'm uncomfortable."
Suzuki did acknowledge, however, that circumstances have indeed changed since his debut season. "They're both very difficult -- your first year and this year," he said. "There's difficult things in all points of the game. Sometimes when you don't know something, maybe you can achieve something. But when you know it, sometimes you can't." Further translation: Acclimating himself to the big leagues presented fewer problems than after pitchers had acclimated to him.
"I don't think he'll have another year like 2001, because people know him," Angels hitting coach Mickey Hatcher said. "It's known you can expand the zone and he'll swing at the first pitch. It becomes a tougher scenario for him." Even Suzuki's Mariner teammates, while retaining utmost regard for Suzuki's talent and work ethic, have readjusted their expectations. Said Bret Boone, "Once you've set a certain standard, you're held to that standard. My first full year in the big leagues I hit .320. That doesn't mean I'm a .320 hitter. I just had one of those years where everything went good."
How must fans readjust their impression of Suzuki as an offensive threat? There are two primary groups against which to compare him: leadoff men and right fielders. The following is a look at how he has ranked among his contemporaries at those spots during his career. First, the table-setters:
Quite clearly, Suzuki has slipped this season, but it's still early. He very well could return to his well-above-average level.
The problem for the Mariners comes when you consider how they are getting vastly lower production from their right-field spot than their opponents:
Yes, Suzuki steals bases better than many right fielders. Yes, Seattle compensates with Boone's strong bat at second base. But it's hard to rate Suzuki a superstar when players at his position produce far more than he does. Even if he were to take his great glove to center field, where players of his skills usually roam, Suzuki would still be about average offensively.
Suzuki's regression since his rookie year is surprising to some extent -- most hitters improve after breaking in -- but of course, Suzuki was not a normal rookie. He was already 27. Now 30, 12 years after breaking into the Japanese majors, he could be experiencing a perfectly normal decline after age 29.
The aging issue is particularly relevant when examining the Mariners offense as a whole. Seattle's lineup has been abysmal, in significant part because Edgar Martinez (41) and John Olerud (35) are decelerating like they just saw a cop in the woods. Almost everyone else, from outfielders Randy Winn and Raul Ibanez to infielders Rich Aurilia and the aching Boone, is underperforming, too. The 13-24 Mariners have scored just 154 runs this year, ranking No. 28 in baseball and ahead of only Tampa Bay and Montreal. "In my opinion," Boone said, "no one on this team, with the exception of Dan Wilson, has done their job consistently."
Ichiro's job, to remind people of the player who blew them away in 2001, is probably impossible. The element of surprise is gone, and he has slipped, at least for now, into a lower echelon of performance. "He's going to make the adjustment," Boone said. "I truly think he is." If he doesn't -- and soon -- we all will have to make it for him.
Alan Schwarz is the senior writer of Baseball America and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. His first book, "The Numbers Game: Baseball's Lifelong Fascination With Statistics," will be published by St. Martin's Press in July.