The sad decline of Ichiro

It was the running start that always fascinated me.

Ichiro came to Seattle in 2001, the year after Kazuhiro Sasaki had won the AL Rookie of the Year and the Mariners had taken the New York Yankees to six games in the ALCS. If it were not for Arthur Rhodes’ chronic inability to get David Justice out, Seattle would have made the World Series that year. It remains the closest they’ve ever been to the Fall Classic.

Ichiro arrived the year after A-Roid left. Rodriguez decided to take his talents and needles to Arlington, Texas. Since Randy had left in the middle of 1998 and Griffey had departed after the ’99 season, Rodriguez’s departure seemed like a death blow to the franchise.

But it allowed them the money to afford the first Japanese position player in the history of major league baseball. He was a man who went by only his first name, like Elvis, like Pele. He was already a legend in Japan, but would his game translate to America?

The answer was yes.

Opening Night, 2001, I’m sitting in the left field bleachers with my family. As someone who was taking Japanese in middle school (I was 13 at the time), Ichiro was the player I was there to see. My expectations for the Mariners as a whole were modest. I had no idea Bret “most likely juiced to the gills” Boone was about to unleash one of the great offensive seasons by a second baseman of all time and Paul Abbott (Who? Exactly.) was going to win 17 games (insert disclaimer about wins being a meaningless stat.) Boone, in fact, had a career total WAR of 3.1 over nine seasons. That’s terrible. In 2001, he posted a WAR of 9.3. To give you an idea of how insane that is, Jose Lopez, the man who replaced Boone after the *probable use of* steroids finally wore off, has a career WAR of 6.4 over eight seasons.

So a lot of weird stuff happened in 2001 that allowed the Mariners to win 116 games and lose to choke against the Yankees in the ALCS. But Ichiro’s batting style was the weirdest thing I’d ever seen in the game of baseball. No one would teach their child to hit that way. You’re supposed to keep a solid base, weight back, etc. Ichiro did none of that. He was more a slap hitter in softball than a baseball player and I mean that as a sincere compliment. No one made a slow roller to short seem more dangerous than Ichiro. In fact in that Opening Night game against the Oakland A’s and their genius overrated GM Brad Pitt, Ichiro’s speed caused a late throwing error that cost Oakland dearly as the Mariners went on to win the first of 116.

Lots of players are fast. But very few incorporate their speed into their hitting style. Ichiro knew that all he had to do was pound the ball into the ground and he could beat it out. In an era of juiced up sluggers and hitter friendly ballparks, Ichiro’s style was refreshing, to say the least. But what was amazing was that his teammates swore he could win the All Star Home Run Derby if he chose to participate. Yes, Ichiro, the master of the infield single, was legendary for the shows he would put on in batting practice. Ichiro’s power though is entirely to right field so in order to be a more complete player, he mastered the art of the single. Two batting titles, the all-time single season hit record, over 3000 career professional hits, his accomplishments at the plate are undeniably Hall of Fame worthy by themselves.

But then you factor in the stolen bases and the defense and he rises to a whole different level. By at least one advanced metric, Ichiro is the 13th best defensive outfielder…ever. Now granted, defensive metrics are highly flawed (some bro named Paul Blair ranks ahead of him…who the hell is that?). But the eye test agrees with the metrics in Ichiro’s case, and then some.

He introduced us to his spectacular defense with the throw (against Brad Pitt’s Oakland A’s no less) and didn’t stop wowing us for 10 years.

Well, now he’s stopped wowing us. In fact, in 2011, he’s become a liability. At the age of 37, he finally failed to make the All Star team. He may not get to 200 hits for the first time in his career. And from a purely objective standpoint, his WAR in 2011 is -1. A replacement level player would be better than Ichiro. Even Chone “disgrace to the game of baseball and America” Figgins is having a “better” year (-0.5 WAR).

I could tell something was wrong early in the season when Ichiro dropped/badly misplayed a few routine fly balls. The man has always had his critics; there are some people in Seattle who have never liked the guy. (He is seen as aloof, arrogant, and lacking in hustle. There is a running joke that he has something against getting his jersey dirty.) Normally my response to these people was the same response I would give to people who think 9/11 was an inside job or that Barack Obama was born in Kenya. (Meaning, I ignored them and wrote them off as lunatics, and possibly a little bit racist.)

This year though the haters have had a field day and for good reason. Perhaps a decade of losing (they haven’t made the playoffs since his “rookie” year) has finally worn him down. I just fail to understand how someone who was still so good at age 36 can all of a sudden be terrible at age 37. Normally declines are slower in the game of baseball.

I hope this year is an anomaly.

However, I think this is the end of the road for one of the most unique superstars the game of baseball has ever seen.

It’s sad, but the man known for his running start…has crashed into a wall.