Everyone in the Pacific Northwest saw it coming, but nobody fully believed it would happen. Manager Eric Wedge implemented a change in the Seattle Mariners lineup that seemed like it would never occur.
In nearly every game Seattle has played in the past 10 years away from Safeco Field, the first man strolling to the batter's box was Ichiro Suzuki. However, when the Mariners opened the 2012 season in his home country of Japan, Ichiro had to wait two at-bats before striding to the plate.
Seattle has opened the 2012 season 7-6, and for each of those 13 games, Ichiro has been hitting third in the Mariners order behind Chone Figgins and Dustin Ackley. Ichiro hasn't seen that many at-bats outside the leadoff spot since he hit third 37 times in 2004. All of his at-bats since 2006 have been atop the Mariners order.
Wedge made the tough call of sliding Ichiro out of his usual home in favor of Figgins during spring training. After just a couple of weeks, the jury is definitely still out.
Ichiro entered April 19th hitting .283 with a homer and seven RBI. His OBP stands at .316.
This decision doesn't just concern the 38-year-old right fielder. Wedge and upper management also realize just how much money is owed to Figgins over the next couple of years.
Figgins signed a big contract with Seattle, but his play has dropped off severely from his time in Los Angeles. Inserting him into Ichiro's old role is a gamble that Figgins can return to his prior form.
In his lone All-Star season (2009), Figgins hit .298 with an OBP just south of .400. He also stole 42 bases and scored 114 runs. If Wedge can get near that production, this move will prove to be the right one.
Prior to last year, Ichiro had never completed an MLB season with less than 200 hits or a sub-.300 batting average. In 2011, both numbers hit all-time lows for him. He hit just .272, and his OBP dropped a worrisome 67 points from his career average.
Those numbers made him one of the least productive leadoff men in baseball. It was pretty clear the time had come to make a change for the Mariners.
His move to third may seem strange at first, since he is not a power hitter, but a contact hitter still with considerable speed (40 steals in 2011). Ichiro has never knocked in more than 69 runs or slugged over .465. However, upon examining his clutch-hitting numbers, we find that with runners in scoring position over his career, Ichiro hits .333.
While still not your prototypical 3-hole hitter, Ichiro could prove to be invaluable in that role. Particularly if Figgins can come around and the highly touted Ackley can get on base ahead of him.
It has often been thought inside baseball circles that Ichiro could actually hit any way he wanted. Fans have seen his power in batting practice and hope he can switch his game up a little bit. If that is still true this late in his career remains to be seen, but Ichiro is one of the most intelligent and loyal players out there.
According to Larry Stone of the Seattle Times, Ichiro has shown a much wider stance than in previous seasons. He has also lowered his hands and remained planted in the box in an effort to put more power behind his contact. At his age, the infield hits are not going to continue; he needs to put the ball into gaps and over the fence more often.
In an Associated Press report, Wedge told the media that he had been planning this move for some time and that he wanted to extend the Mariners order.
That statement makes a lot of sense when moving Ichiro to third.
In terms of speed and OBP, it gives the Mariners a formidable top three who can still wreak havoc on the basepaths from time to time. Much further down in the order, Ichiro's production would possibly get nullified by the weakness stuck at the bottom of Seattle's lineup.
The move should give Figgins and Ackley more protection, as pitchers know what Ichiro can still do. With speedy runners on base in front of him, it will give them another thing to think about while pitching to him. A single doesn't just mean a man on first now—it will mean earned runs, and as Mariners fans hope, more losses.
It has already started to show dividends.
In 2011, Seattle started an abysmal 1-12. Through 13 games this season, the Mariners are 7-6, and Ichiro has driven in seven runs, on pace for nearly 90 RBI. King Felix and the pitching staff are a happier men, that is for sure, as Seattle is in the middle of the pack offensively instead of dead last, where it finished last season.
Wedge's move has not harmed the team at all. It has revived the offense a little bit and gives the Mariners more production throughout.
So far, it has translated to wins, and with Ichiro at 38, that is all the Mariners can ask for.