Thursday, September 02, 2004

To Pitch to Him or Not to Pitch to Him

Just as I posted my thoughts about why it is stupid to intentionally walk Ichiro!, the Blue Jays did exactly that in the 7th inning last night. I stand by my comments, though; the Blue Jays faced a situation that I explained was rare -- facing Ichiro with a runner on third base (and two outs, even rarer).

I should have clarified my comments, though. YES, the fact that runners hitting behind Ichiro! aren't doing much (collectively, the #2 hitters are .262/.337/.409, the #3 hitters are .287/.378/.502, and the #4 hitters are .258/.337/.478 on the season, which actually isn't all that bad and much better than it was not long ago) would make it more likely that an opposing manager would walk Ichiro! under any circumstances, but particularly if one or more of the 7-8-9 hitters are on base ahead of him. But the fact that Ichiro is almost exclusively a singles hitter, and even in his best stretch will make an out 40-50% of the time, has to give a manager pause before giving him first base for free -- particularly since Ichiro! is also a threat to steal. Sure you would rather face Randy Winn, Bret Boone, or Raul Ibanez than Ichiro!, but if there is nobody in scoring position (which is true for Ichiro! more than 80% of the time) and he is a threat to be on second shortly after you put him on, is that a situation in which you want to put your pitcher? I don't think so. Also, Winn has hit .298/.356/.431, Boone .279/.335/.464, and Ibanez .302/.360/.426 after the All-Star Break. It is a far riskier proposition to put Ichiro! on than it would appear at first glance.

Also, since it seems Jack is in the Ichiro!-doubter camp, I'll explain why I also don't think the quality of pitching the Mariners are going to face down the stretch will necessarily slow Ichiro! down (or at least not enough to prevent him from a good shot at the hit record). Jack's reasoning is sound -- it's based on opponents batting average against the teams the Mariners will face -- but like all arguments based on team averages, is vulnerable to the vagaries of individual performance and variation.

The next three pitchers the Mariners face are right-handers Justin Miller (5.26 ERA, .310 BAA), Jon Garland (4.91 ERA, .266 BAA; Ichiro is 5-14 against), and Mark Buehrle (4.13 ERA, .287 BAA; Ichiro is 5-16 against). After that, they will likely face either Freddy Garcia (against whom Ichiro! is 2-3 and we all know can be either very good or very bad), or one of two right-handed rookies who haven't faced Ichiro! but have ERAs well over 7.00 and BAAs over.325. Jack's assumption that Ichiro! can average two hits a game against the likes of these guys seems reasonable to me given who he is facing and the groove he's in.

Next comes Cleveland. I don't know who the probables are for that series, but Ichiro is a collective 17-42 (.405) against Cleveland's top four pitchers. He should be able to knock them about for 2 hits a game, too. Four games against the BoSox will be a bit of a chore. Ichiro! hits their starters to the tune of .289 collectively -- though he loves to hit Derek Lowe (7-14). Anaheim pitchers, who he'll face seven more times, are a mixed bag. Ichiro! hits them collectively at .282, but he mashes Bartolo Colon (.375, 9-24) and Aaron Sele (.588, 10-17) while struggling against Kelvim Escobar (.174, 4-23) and John Lackey (.200, 5-25). My guess is he'll move toward the mean some against the latter two, and continue to mash the former two.

Ichiro! has hit surprisingly well against Oakland's starters. He's 33-79 (.418) career against Mulder and Zito combined. He's hit Mark Redman well (8-21, .381). He's only struggled against Tim Hudson (2-11, .208) and Rich Harden (0-4) in relatively few ABs. I don't think the seven games against Oakland will be as big an issue as you would guess, and I doubt that the Oakland brain trust will be much into giving away bases to avoid him, either. That leaves only Texas for three games. With all their injuries, it is hard to know who they will throw at the Mariners, but none of them except Kenny Rogers (6-24, .250) and Chan Ho Park (3-15, .200) has had much success against Ichiro!, who has hit Ryan Drese and R. A. Dickey to the tune of .500, John Wasdin .444, and Colby Lewis .421. These guys don't seem likely to slow Ichiro! either.

Ichiro! is a career .338 hitter who has hit .466 since the All-Star Break. His current pace suggests he'll get 136 more ABs in which to get the 44 hits he needs to break the record. That's only .324, well within what I would expect him to do. Even if you think he'll lose 16 of those ABs to fewer ABs and/or intentional or semi-intentional walks -- which I think is unlikely -- he still would need only to hit slightly worse than his seasonal pace (.367) to get the record.

I'm not going to come out and say Ichiro! is going to set the record. There are too many things that could happen to prevent that, and I don't want to jinx him. I will say this, though: I wouldn't bet against him.

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