Sports : Tuesday, May 22, 2001
Ichiro's hot streak has only just begun
By Bob Sherwin
Seattle Times staff reporter
It's confession time for most of us. How many really believed that Ichiro
would have the kind of impact he has had on American baseball in such a
Perhaps it was just big-league arrogance that prevented us from
projecting great things. At least we had an excuse. We couldn't judge
because we never saw him play in those seven seasons in Japan, but what
does it say about all those major-league scouts who couldn't or wouldn't
prod their teams into bidding for him last winter?
What the Mariners got is a bargain as Ichiro takes his place
among the most exciting rookies in the 100-plus-year history of the
game, although some might quarrel with his "rookie" status.
He's third in the league in hitting (.365), first in hits (73), first in
steals (15), first in runs (40) and first in hitting with runners in
scoring position (.571).
As impressive as those stats are, he may just be getting warmed up.
He answered the biggest question coming into the season: would this
seven-time Japan League batting champion lose in the transition stepping
up to a new level? Now after his first 200 at-bats in the major leagues,
it appears the conversion rate is one-to-one.
A look at Ichiro's accumulative monthly stats in his seven years in
Japan fits into his pattern here. He averaged .345 in April (191 for
554) for seven seasons in Japan. In his first month with the Mariners,
he hit .336, a bit less but reasonable considering he was facing
virtually all the pitchers for the first time.
In his seven Mays in Japan, he batted .371 (227 for 611). With nine
games remaining this month, Ichiro is hitting .405 (34 for 84)
for Seattle. For his career in Japan, he hit .359 in April-May combined.
In nearly two months here, he's hitting .365.
"In Japan, I already had my position on the team," Ichiro
said through interpreter Hide Sueyoshi, "so I didn't have to be in
top condition on the first day of the season. If I was in top condition
on the first day, I would be tired by the end of season. I pace myself
as the season goes on. By May and June, I get in a groove. That's my
Indeed, his three best hitting months in Japan were May (.371), June
(.392) and July (.373). He has hit .400 or better eight times in those
"The month of April is a month of preparation. Maybe that
doesn't sound good for the team," he said, "but it's the way I
prepare. Then as the season goes on, I get better."
Jim Colborn, the first-year Los Angeles Dodger pitching coach,
identified and helped sign Ichiro when he was Seattle's Pacific
Rim scout. He said that major-league pitching "is a little stronger
than in Japan and they're going to find the most effective way to pitch
to him. I'm not sure he's going to hit .360 or .370 all year, but he'll
be among the league leaders.
"He's the real deal. He's carving up the major leagues the same
way he did it over there. It's not the same to compare him to other
rookies because he has already done it. What no one wants to realize is
that baseball in Japan is close to baseball in America."
Ichiro, dubbed the "Sultan of Slap" by Seattle Times
baseball writer Larry Stone, is known for his slap-and-run style. But
Colborn said when Ichiro gets hot, he'll spray line drives all
over the field.
"He's going to continue to do what he's doing," Colborn
said. "It's now a matter of how the league adjusts to him."
It is a game of adjustments, and Ichiro plays it as well as
anyone. It's fundamental to his success, how he adjusts his stroke, his
stance, his bat speed from pitch to pitch, at-bat to at-bat and pitcher
What makes him remarkable is he does it without much video work. He
doesn't have a detailed book on every pitcher as Tony Gwynn does. It's
all in his head.
"It's hard to throw the same pitch twice to him. He has entered
that into his computer (mind)," Colborn said. "He's a lot like
Ichiro understands that "adjustments have to be
"When I get up, I feel and get a sense of the pitcher," he
said. "I analyze what he might throw me, then I trust my sense of
the pitcher and make the adjustment. I want to have the same pace and
pattern here (as in Japan). The more information I get on opposing
pitchers the better my performance may be. I can observe and use that.
"At the same time, opposing teams get more information on me.''
Yet no one has figured him out, which isn't surprising considering no
one could in Japan. The best counter-measure that Boston and New York
both tried was to hit him flush in the back with a fastball. That had no
discernible affect on his subsequent at-bats but the battering, the
wear-and-tear and the travel of a 162-game season might ultimately erode
The major-league season is 27 games longer than Japan's. Ichiro
slowed some in Japan late in the season. His career average for August
is .343 and .323 for September. But he also has been on the disabled
list three times in his career during those months, which may have
impacted his average.
Manager Lou Piniella can mitigate that concern by judiciously resting
him. Ichiro, John Olerud and Carlos Guillen are the only Mariners
to play in all 43 games.
Piniella is using off days (two this week) to give Ichiro
natural rest days but plans to give him days off sporadically as summer
Colborn, who has pitched batting practice many times to Ichiro
over the years and knows his swing well, said the Dodgers might be the
first team that can stop him when the Mariners go there July 6-8.
"Tell him I'm getting my arm in shape and when he comes down
here, I'm going to be activated just to face him," Colborn said in
jest. "Then it will be shobu (Japanese version of a showdown). I
know just how to pitch him out."