Is Ichiro's Bat Speed Slowing Down?

Us Yankee fans have grown used to watching older veteran players, and if we've learned anything, it's that patience is an important factor in baseball. In the not so distant past, we've written off players like Raul Ibanez, Derek Jeter, and Mike Mussina, only for them to rebound into extremely important pieces. Last year, the Yankees acquired the 38-year old Ichiro Suzuki after a year and a half of below average baseball. You'd think this was a big enough sample size to start coming to some conclusions, but there were some tidbits hidden in his advanced data. Ichiro was producing extremely high line drive rates, and for some reason the ball wasn't falling into play. After the trade to the Yankees, the outfielder flourished, and looked like he reverted back to his old self through 283 plate appearances.

In reality, neither his three months with the Yankees in 2012, nor his previous year and a half with the Mariners is a big enough sample size to justify calling him done. We watched Derek Jeter produce awful numbers for the same length of time, only to rebound in the matter of a month to a silver slugging short stop at the age of 37. Now that we're a little more than three weeks into the season, fans are starting to get restless over Ichiro Suzuki, and it's fair to worry about a player so close to 40.

After producing a career high 24.7% line drive rate in 2012, Ichiro is only hitting line drives at a 17.3% rate in 2013. One factor that we saw influence him both last year and thus far in 2013, are the amount of liners that are falling for hits. Not all line drives are created equally, but only 5 of his 9 line drives have landed for hits, and in 2012 he only hit .571 on those balls in play. Over his career, Ichiro has held a slightly below average batting average on line drives, .672, which is still significantly higher than what we've seen of late.

Much like his line drives, only one of Ichiro's 15 fly balls have fallen into play for a hit. While these two batted ball types can be influenced by age regression in hitting, the numbers have fallen so low that you'd have to think that they will normalize, even with just 3 weeks of baseball played. Fly balls and line drives make up more than 46% of his hits this year, and have been a huge influence on his .231 BABIP, which is .115 points lower than his career average, and around .070 points lower than last year's.

So the question is whether or not these batted ball rates will continue. There's no doubt that he'll increase the BABIP on fly balls, and likely his line drive hits as well, but it's very possible that Ichiro's age has caused his bat speed to slow down. Less bat speed would mean a poorer ability to hit the fastball, and thus we see poorer contact and more strike outs. So I gathered all the pitches that Ichiro has seen and hit, counted them, and averaged their velocity.

Pitches InPlay (C) Hit/Run (C) SwStr (C) CaStr (C) Ball (C) Foul (C)
FF 91.5 (20) 92.2 (5) 89.4 (4) 90.8 (18) 90.6 (21) 91.1 (21)
FT 92.3 (9) 91.7 (4) 94.3 (1) 92.4 (8) 89.4 (13) 92.5 (7)
SI 88.2 (2) 83.9 (1) 90.8 (3) 91.8 (2) 90.9 (1)
FS 85.5 (1) 79.2 (2) 79.7 (1) 82.7 (4)
FC 87.4 (3) 89.7 (1) 85.9 (3) 85.1 (5) 90.2 (1)
CH 83.4 (5) 83.6 (2) 85.1 (10) 83.3 (10) 93.1 (3)
CU 76.8 (7) 75.9 (3) 75.9 (3) 75.7 (8) 80 (1)
SL 81.5 (7) 83.2 (1) 79.5 (6) 78.9 (5) 81.1 (9) 83.8 (2)

This is far from scientific, and the sample size is obviously incredibly small, but it doesn't appear that Ichiro has any problem hitting the fastball. The average four-seam fastball he's put into play has been 91.5 mph, while the average four-seam that he's hit or earned a run on has been 92.2 mph. Meanwhile, he's making outs on the slower stuff, swinging and missing at four-seam fastballs that have averaged 89.4 mph, and taking called strikes at 90.8 mph. Although fastballs are the most thrown pitch in baseball, 74% of the balls in play have come on the fastball, (he's looking for it) and 73% of the hits have come on the fastball. Meanwhile, only 47% of his swinging strikes have come on the pitch, and an unsurprising 40% have come on the slider alone.

Obviously this could change very quickly, but it seems that Ichiro has no problem making contact with the fastball, and he's actually making better contact off the harder stuff. Perhaps his swing is actually a little ahead of where it should be, but it looks like the current batted ball issues have nothing to do with slower bat speed. If Ichiro is having a problem with any pitch, it's definitely the slider, which is to be expected from any hitter. Though it looks like he's making poorer contact, I'm chalking it all up to small sample size.