(Yes, I’m back. Vacation in Colorado was awesome, thanks for asking. I’m still traveling, but I’m working while I travel rather than last week’s enjoy-the-snow trip. We’ll resume normalcy next week, at least until I head down to Arizona on March 8th, at which point I might disappear for a few days again.)
So, we’ve known something like this was coming for a while, but yesterday, Eric Wedge made it official – Ichiro is not going to begin the season as the team’s leadoff hitter. In the current iteration of the plan, in fact, he’s being moved to the #3 spot in the batting order. This move has several ramifications, so let’s deal with each of them in order.
What This Means For Ichiro
He’s going to come up to bat less often. Seriously, that’s about the only thing we can really know right now. By dropping down two spots in the batting order, Ichiro will hit about 35 fewer times than he would have if he was still leading off. If we think that Ichiro is still one of the best hitters on the team, that’s bad, because now we’re giving fewer at-bats to one of the team’s better offensive players. If we think that 2011 was the beginning of the end of Ichiro as a good hitter, though, that’s good, as the team is now going to give fewer at-bats to a guy who is headed for the end of his career and was pretty lousy last year.
But, the Mariners aren’t making this move to give Ichiro fewer at-bats. That’s a byproduct of the decision, not the motivation behind it. The M’s are doing this for a couple of reasons – some that have nothing to do with Ichiro specifically – including the need for teams to make changes when things aren’t going well. And let’s be honest, the offense hasn’t gone very well the last few years. Two years ago, it was pretty easy to say that wasn’t Ichiro’s fault, as he was just playing with awful teammates. Last year, though, Ichiro was part of the problem, and the team is hoping that moving him from first to third in the order can help bring about some change that will improve his production.
Will it work? I have no idea, and neither does anyone else. Yes, the change has resulted in Ichiro adopting a new stance at the plate, in which he spreads his feet further apart and barely lifts his leg off the ground. It’s possible that he’s also going to take a new approach and attempt to drive the ball more to the outfield now, rather than relying on beating the ball into the ground as often as he has in the past. Maybe these changes will make him better. Maybe they’ll make him worse. There’s no way to know. Different doesn’t always mean better, and of course, there’s the very real possibility that Ichiro would have just performed better than he did last year even if the team sent him back out there to do the exact same thing he’s always done.
That’s the thing about baseball – the old cliche about the definition of insanity being an expectation of a different result from doing the same thing over and over again doesn’t apply. In baseball, you absolutely can do the same thing over and over again and expect different results. In fact, in many cases that’s exactly the right thing to do when you get bad results – just keep plugging away until the results change. Players regularly get themselves in trouble when they let a slump convince them that they need to tinker with the things that got them success in the first place. In baseball, randomness happens, and good processes won’t always lead to good results. The right approach is often to continue right along with the good process, knowing that the results that are out of your control will eventually change.
But, then, we dont’ know if Ichiro’s old process is still a good process. He’s older now, so it would make sense that the approach he took as a 27-year-old won’t be as effective now that he’s 38. He very may well need a new process in order to adapt to his new physical skills. If he’s not as capable of beating out grounders as he used to be, maybe he should look into hitting fewer ground balls. And maybe he will. And maybe it will work. But now we’re just down the speculative rabbit hole so far that we can’t even see facts anymore, and we’re just living in the land of guess work.
This is, for all intents and purposes, what the Mariners are doing with Ichiro. They’re guessing (and hoping) that by moving him down in the order, it will have some kind of positive impact on his results. It might, it might not. No one’s really seen Ichiro do things any differently than he’s always done them, so there’s no way to know if that Ichiro will actually be better or worse. He’ll be different, but whether that’s a positive or a negative, we’ll just have to wait and find out. For now, the Mariners are essentially just doing something because they had nothing to lose. If it doesn’t work, well, he’s a free agent at the end of the year and at least they can say they tried. If it does work, huzzah, they “fixed” Ichiro. This is why managers tinker with the line-up; you’re a genius if the results change, but it’s the player’s fault if they don’t. So, we’ll try Ichiro as the #3 hitter, at least for a while. Eric Wedge has nothing to lose by doing things this way.
What This Means For Chone Figgins
In reality, the bigger news isn’t that Ichiro is now the #3 hitter, it’s that the team was willing to proclaim Figgins the lead-off hitter – a role he can only fill if he’s playing everyday. And, really, the only spot for him to play everyday is at third base, so the de facto result of this announcement is that Chone Figgins has come to camp as the team’s starting third baseman. If he hits .150 during March, they’ll probably abandon the experiment, but right now, we should probably assume that third base belongs to Figgins, and Kyle Seager is going to head back to Triple-A to form the world’s biggest positional logjam.
This is the part of the news that you probably shouldn’t be thrilled with. The team tried to move Figgins all winter and couldn’t find any takers – not surprising, considering just how bad he’s been the last few years and that he’s still due $18 million over the next two seasons. So, rather than have him just serve as the team’s 25th man, they’re opting to give him the start of the 2012 season to try and rejuvenate himself as a leadoff hitter again, and hopefully convince a scout or two that he’s got something left in the tank so the Mariners can ship him somewhere else and save a few million dollars in the process.
Make no mistake about it – this move is more about Figgins than it is about Ichiro. He has no real chance of finishing his contract as a Mariner; the only question is whether he relocates because someone else decides they want him or the Mariners just get tired of him taking up a roster spot. By opening up the leadoff spot in the order again, the team is hoping to take advantage of the fact that people still believe that part of his struggles in Seattle are due to being moved to the #2 spot in the batting order after succeeding as a lead-off hitter in Anaheim.
Now, let’s be honest, there’s no real reason to believe this is true. Last year, Figgins led off an inning 55 times, and he hit .173/.218/.231. In 2010, he led off an inning 119 times, and he hit .233/.336/.272. Despite all the talk about different mindsets and approaches that come with hitting first rather than second, we’ve seen Figgins be the first guy to walk up to the plate in Seattle a lot, and he’s been just as terrible in those situations as in any other. The idea that just naming him the “leadoff hitter” will cause him to become good again is just wish-casting. It has no basis in fact. It’s just as likely that Figgins would benefit from rubbing Felix’s left toe in between at-bats. There’s just no real evidence that batting position has any real tangible effects on a player’s ability to hit a baseball.
But, from the Mariners perspective, that doesn’t really matter. What matters is what they can sell to other teams, and there are still enough people in decision making positions in Major League Baseball who do believe that batting position matters that the M’s can sell a good start to the season as being the result of having Figgins back at the top of the order. Actual causation here is irrelevant – if the team puts Figgins back in the first batting position and he hits better, there will be other teams who believe that A and B occurring simultaneously must mean that A caused B, and will believe that Figgins could continue to hit well for them as long as they let him hit leadoff for them too.
The Mariners don’t need to peddle the truth here. If May rolls along and Figgins is hitting .300 and drawing walks again, they are under no obligation to try and explain to potential suitors that correlation does not equal causation, and that Figgins may very well revert back to pumpkin form at any minute. The fact that other teams might make the causation leap themselves means that a good start to the season does present the M’s with some chance to actually trade him without assuming the entirety of the remainder of his deal.
They’re never going to get anyone to take the whole contract. But, if they just ate the contract now, they’d be out roughly $17 million of the remaining $18 million on the deal (someone would sign him as a free agent for the league minimum, and then they’d be on the hook for that part of his contract). If Figgins hits well in April and May, they’ll have paid down about $2.5 million of the contract already, and might be able to convince someone that taking $5 or $6 million of the remaining $15.5 million is an okay investment for a rejuvenated leadoff hitter.
Maybe you don’t care if the team lowers their 2013 expenses by $5 million, but if it gives them the budget room to bring in a player who better fits into the future of the team, then it’s a decent reward for pushing forward with this experiment. That’s essentially the best case scenario here – Figgins plays well enough to generate a modicum of trade value and the team dumps him in the early summer for some cash savings for 2013.
There’s also a pretty good chance that he’s still pretty lousy and spends the first few weeks of the season just making a ton of outs at the top of the batting order. In that scenario, he’s probably DFA’d by May 15th, and the team can say they gave him every opportunity to succeed here. They tried him at second base and he failed at that. They tried him at third base and he failed at that. They tried him at leadoff and he failed at that. At that point, Figgins will be out of excuses, and the team will just dump him and move on to Plan B.
Either way, I don’t see Chone Figgins on this team much past June. He’ll either be good and traded or bad and cut. No matter how you look at it, Figgins-as-Mariner-leadoff-hitter is a short term thing.
What This Means For Everyone Else
We mentioned this briefly, but the biggest ramification of this announcement is that Kyle Seager is probably ticketed for Tacoma. The team probably won’t want him sitting around not playing, and if Figgins is going to be the regular third baseman, then they’d likely rather give Carlos Guillen the backup 3B/1B job and let Seager play regularly in Triple-A. Of course, that creates a problem, because the working assumption before this news was that Francisco Martinez was going to be the Rainiers third baseman, a decision that had already pushed them to move Alex Liddi to first base for this year. Sending Seager down means that Martinez could be headed back to Double-A to repeat a level. They could also have Seager play second base down in Tacoma if they want Martinez to still be able to play third, but having Seager get reps at second with Dustin Ackley entrenched at the spot in Seattle isn’t all that useful to the team. As weird as it sounds, the team doesn’t really have room for Seager back in Tacoma. Sending him down creates some problems, and even if it’s just for 6-8 weeks, the sooner they can end the Figgins-as-starting-3B experiment, the better off the guys with an actual future in this organization will be.
In terms of the line-up, Figgins at #1 and Ichiro at #3 means that Ackley is almost guaranteed to be slotted into the #2 spot in the order, followed by some mix of Smoak-Montero-Carp as the 4/5/6, and then Olivo-Gutierrez-Ryan as the 7/8/9. It also means that the line-up isn’t likely to very much from day to day, as Wedge is opting for more “set roles” than “platoon advantages”. Rather than taking advantage of left-right match-ups, the team is putting their faith in the magical power of players knowing what they’re going to hit everyday, and hoping that brings them out of their multi-year doldrums. Wedge is an old-school guy and this is old school thinking. It’s something we’ll just have to deal with as long as he’s in charge.
What happens to the line-up once Figgins is traded/dumped? It depends a bit on everyone else, but my best guess is that Ackley will get bumped up from #1 to #2, and then his spot will be filled by either Franklin Gutierrez (if he’s hitting well) or Kyle Seager (if Guti’s not). They’re the guys who most fit the mold of a typical #2 hitter besides Ackley, and neither one runs well enough to convince a traditional manager like Wedge to hit them leadoff. So, my guess is that come June, the line-up is Ackley-Guti-Ichiro or Ackley-Seager-Ichiro, whether Figgins-as-leadoff-hitter was a success or not.
And that’s why, in the end, this Big News isn’t really big news. It’s one last chance for redemption for Figgins. It’s an experiment with Ichiro. And it’s a chance for the team to try and dump some portion of the money that Figgins is still due for 2013 on someone else. Given that the cost isn’t super high – yes, Seager’s probably a better player and the team is probably making themselves a bit worse with this move, but the gap between them over 200 PA is small and the team probably isn’t contending this year anyway – it’s not that hard to see why the Mariners are going in this direction. I don’t think it will work, but it’s a move without a ton of downside and at least a little bit of upside if you squint hard enough.
So, Figgins is the leadoff guy, Ichiro is the #3 guy, and Seager is the Triple-A guy. Don’t get too used to this arrangement – it won’t last long.