Ichiro Suzuki hitting third? I am eager to wrap my arms around the thought, except my arms aren’t long enough.
Given the eternity of spring training, maybe that day will arrive when I can fathom a Mariners lineup card listing Ichiro at No. 3. Until then, Ichiro’s newfangled spot in the batting order seems as surreal as a Presidential Medal of Freedom bestowed upon Pee Wee Herman, or Mitt Romney serving as host for the Grammy Awards, or Mike Krzyzewski crashing a frat party and opening a beer bottle with his teeth.
Yes, I know, Ichiro has some experience batting third for the Mariners. In 2002, Lou Piniella put the leadoff hitter in the No. 3 slot for three games. Piniella’s successor, Bob Melvin, extended the experiment to 10 games in 2004.
But that was eight years ago, when Ichiro still could drive the ball to all fields. The Ichiro who turned 38 in October doesn’t drive the ball to all fields anymore.
And yes, I know, Ichiro batted third on occasion in Japan, where he hit a career-high 25 homers for the 1995 Orix Blue Wave. While his RBI total increased from 54 to 80, his batting average plummeted from .385 to .342.
You can imagine how thrilled he was about that.
“It was very tough to bat third,” Ichiro later would recall in a conversation with Japanese journalist Narumi Komatsu. “Batting leadoff was the perfect spot for me. I could totally focus on hitting when I was first. It feels great to be the leadoff batter and get a hit. Batting third, it’s a completely different feeling you get standing there in the batter’s box.
“So, what I ended up doing then was going back to batting first. My batting average had gone way down, too, and I was really doing poorly.”
In other words, Ichiro would rather share deep-dish pizza with sportswriters than bat third – although, to be fair, he did add during that same interview: “Nowadays it doesn’t matter where I am in the lineup; I just go out and bat the way I want to.”
The ideal No. 3 batter is a high-average power hitter who drives in runs. Until last season, Ichiro more than complied with the high-average requirement, but his dink-and-dash game produces neither power nor runs. (Since his 2001 transition to the major leagues, he’s averaged nine home runs and 56 RBI per season.)
Now, for some good news: Ichiro, who’s always a threat to make baseball history, doesn’t figure to make history as the least appropriate No. 3 hitter of all time.
That distinction belongs to, well, a whole bunch of guys you might remember from the 1980s.
Mickey Hatcher, who during his 12-year career never hit more than nine homers in a season – he retired with 38 – batted third for the 1981 Twins.
Garry Templeton never hit more than eight homers in a season, but the shortstop batted third for the 1982 Padres.
Second baseman Johnny Ray had no pop, either. And yet in 1987, around a Pirates lineup that included Bobby Bonilla, Andy Van Slyke, Sid Bream and an emerging, conspicuously thin superstar named Barry Bonds, Ray batted third most of the time.
Shortstop Dave Concepcion retired with credentials worthy of Hall-of-Fame consideration, but not because of his accomplishments as the Reds’ third-hole hitter in 1983. Over the 87 games Concepcion batted third, he hit .221, with one homer.
Ichiro can hit .221 in his sleep. The sleep wouldn’t be fulfilling – a spiders-and-snakes nightmare would be more pleasant to Ichiro than any dream reducing him to a .221 hitter – but you get the idea: Whatever goes wrong with Ichiro batting third for the 2012 Mariners, it won’t go as wrong as it did with Concepcion batting third for the 1983 Reds.
Despite the oddity of his revamped batting order, I understand manager Eric Wedge’s motivation. He wants to solve the head-case issues that have plagued the underachieving Chone Figgins – best of luck on that score, E-Dub – and has all but appointed Figgins the new leadoff man, without officially appointing anything.
“The one-two spots,” Wedge said Tuesday, “are not set in stone.”
Still, if Figgins’ Cactus League work recalls his happier days with the Angels, the spot at the top is set. And if the spot at the top is set, where does Ichiro fit in?
Based on his 2011 season, when he hit .272, with an abysmal .335 slugging percentage, Ichiro should consider himself fortunate to hold down any spot in a batting order. But a manager doesn’t demote a future Hall-of-Famer in the final year of his contract – a franchise cornerstone – to the eighth or ninth bat in the lineup. He just doesn’t.
One thought was to bat Ichiro second, where he’d have to take some pitches if Figgins is able to put the potential for a stolen base in play. An effective No. 2 hitter has to be selfless that way: Hits matter, but the immediate objective is to advance the runner.
Ichiro embracing a role demanding selflessness? That wasn’t going to happen, so Wedge was left with his only other option: A slap-hitting 38-year old, with no power, batting third.
There’s no way it’ll work, but if a manager can’t cling to crazy ideas hatched from a sense of desperation in spring training, when can he?