Explaining Ichiro's Hot Start

AP Images After a season where Ichiro Suzuki put up a 71 wRC+, expectations surrounding the outfielder weren't very high for Yankee fans. It's somewhat surprising that Ichiro has even remained in pinstripes thus far, as there was a decent amount of trade speculation the past offseason. The Yankees stuck with Ichiro, and so far he's played in 27 of 33 games, but earned just 53 plate appearances. During that time, he's hit a surprising .373/.396/.451 with a .463 BABIP.

When it comes to BABIP, most people assume it's the stat of luck, but there are a lot more stats that build this number. Ichiro's batting average on hits is surprisingly close to his career numbers, he's hitting .333 on ground balls, .000 on fly balls, and .750 on line drives. Perhaps the line drive and ground ball averages are slightly lucky, but the lack of a fly ball average counteracts the slightly above average numbers on his other batted balls. So how has Ichiro put together such a high BABIP and batting average without the help of good luck?

At the moment, the outfielder has an absurd 30.8% line drive rate, and he's increased his ground ball rate to 61.5% behind a minimal 7.7% fly ball rate. This contact is far off from what he's produced over his career, and even in 2012, when he had an extremely high line drive rate, the actual line drives were softer than earlier in his career. The numbers are so high that they indicate that he's been unsustainably red hot at the plate, and perhaps he's changed his approach at the plate. With more than 92% of his hits being line drives or ground balls, as well as a much higher K% (18.9% in 2014 to his 9.5% over his career), it looks like Ichiro may be substituting quantity of contact for quality of contact.

Compared to 2013, Ichiro is swinging at fewer pitches. At the moment, he owns a 30.1% swing rate at pitches outside the strike zone (37.5% in 2013), and a 62.6% swing rate inside the zone (66.8% in 2013). Other improvements at the plate include seeing more strikes inside the strike zone (45.0% in 2013 to 50.4% in 2014), and more willingness to take a first pitch strike (62.0% in 2013 to 67.9% in 2014). Overall, it looks like Ichiro is simply seeing the ball a bit better in the first 53 plate appearances of this season, and indeed, he's averaging 4.38 pitches per plate appearance this season compared to 3.70 in 2013.

While most will attribute this to luck, Ichiro has simply been more patient and selective at the plate so far. He's put higher quality contact on pitches as opposed to avoiding strikeouts. This of course could be Ichiro getting hot at the right time, and doesn't necessarily mean he's improved from the 2013 season. What we are seeing is a change of approach, and perhaps his new part-time role on the team has encouraged him to make that change. What the Yankees have gotten out of the outfielder is already more than they could have expected, and he's starting to earn some more playing time with his improved offense. Don't expect him to continue batting .373, but enjoy good-Ichiro while it lasts.