Ichiro Suzuki and the Infield Hit: Selfish Stat-Padding Or Revolutionary Tactic?
You don't have to be a fan of the Seattle Mariners to be a fan of Ichiro Suzuki. After all, Ichiro is approaching his record tenth 200-hit season, and also his 10th season leading the league in singles. No one else has more than four.
He's even been known to toss out the occasional funny quote.
“Chicks who dig home runs aren’t the ones who appeal to me,” he said. “I think there’s sexiness in infield hits because they require technique. I’d rather impress the chicks with my technique than with my brute strength. Then, every now and then, just to show I can do that, too, I might flirt a little by hitting one out.”
However, the appeal of Ichiro, and of the infield hit, has not been universally felt. Some, including former teammates, have called Ichiro "selfish." After all, he's been known to reach out of the zone for plenty of pitches, slapping them the other way for infield singles.
So, is Ichiro's slap-and-dash style really a matter of selfishness, or has he simply found a new way to fuel an offense?
First, the basic stats.
Ichiro has done some pretty unorthodox stuff. Just look at his BABIP on different types of batted balls:
Ground Balls: .305 (League Average: .242)
Fly Balls: .119 (.139)
Line Drives: .705 (.720)
Bunts: .663 (.441)
By beating out an extreme number of base hits and bunts, Ichiro more than makes up for his average on line drives (probably a slight aberration) and fly balls (due to his aversion from power).
He also bucks the set in stone trend of looking for a pitch right down the heart of the plate. Instead, he waits for a pitch that may be a good foot out of the zone, and slaps it down the third base line. By the time the third baseman reaches the ball, the speedy Ichiro is already two-thirds of the way to first.
So, it's obvious that Ichiro has been successful at something very few, if any, have ever really succeeded at before.
But the question remains, is his style of play selfish?
It's not a stupid question.
When he was chasing George Sisler's single-season hit record in 2004, he laid down a bunt with man on second and two out, with the Mariners trailing late. He was credited with a single, but the runner did not score. With Ichiro being the best contact hitter on the team (and arguably the best in baseball), the team needed him to drive in the run.
Apparently, there are also complaints that Ichiro doesn't reach for balls out of his defensive zone for fear that he will get injured and prevent him from piling up hits.
Poppycock, I say.
After all, any notion of Ichiro's defense being anything other than amazing is simply preposterous.
For instance, Ichiro is 12th in Zone Runs among right fielders, and in the top 30 all time. So that claim can be dismissed.
As for Ichiro's play to finish the 2004 season, when he was laying down every sort of bunt and infield hit to reach the all-time record, can anyone tell me they wouldn't do the same thing?
Playing for a last-place team that had no shot at the playoffs, going for one of baseball's most famous records is much more historically relevant than trying for a few more wins down the stretch.
In fact, Ichiro's "selfishness" probably helped the Mariners, as it gave fans a reason to come to the ballpark. Despite losing 99 games, the Mariners drew 2,940,731 fans in '04, third in the league. Without Ichiro's chase at the record, less fans turn out for Seattle games, which in turn means less profit for the Mariners.
There's a pretty good possibility that Mariners management encouraged Ichiro to sacrifice wins for the record's sake.
So, to the critics who question Ichiro's ethic, take a step back and look at the facts. Ichiro is a revolutionary. Like most revolutionaries, he will not be fully appreciated until his war on slugging is won.
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