Apart from the Jesus Montero/Michael Pineda trade, the biggest news to come out of the Seattle Mariners camp this offseason was Tuesday's announcement that Ichiro Suzuki would be dropping to third in the batting order for the 2012 season, giving Chone Figgins the leadoff spot.
The belief is that the new lineup slots will have a positive effect on both players. Figgins has complained of his lack of a set spot in the batting order. The hope is that being given the role of the everyday leadoff hitter -- and staying healthy -- will bring consistency and focus. Ichiro, meanwhile, had his first sub-par season in 2011. His struggles were well-documented, as he posted career lows in batting average (.272), OBP (.310), slugging (.335) and OPS (.645), while finishing his first MLB season with fewer than 200 hits (184).
It's been pointed out that Ichiro spent quite a few seasons hitting primarily in the three-hole in Japan and managed to win seven batting titles while doing so. In fact, Ichiro has started 10 games as the number three hitter while in Seattle. While the familiar fixture of Ichiro-as-leadoff-hitter may be gone (or at least, that's the plan), perhaps the Mariners could benefit from his signature dependability further down the order. The third spot in the lineup has been home to many hitters since Ichiro has been a part of the team, but it has rarely been consistent.
Ichiro came to the Mariners, of course, in 2001. It may not seem like that long ago, but consider that just the year before, the leadoff hitter for the M's was Rickey Henderson, while the everyday number three hitter was by Alex Rodriguez.
In the 11 seasons that Ichiro has spent with the team, there have been seven different players getting the bulk of at-bats in the third spot in the lineup. While the iconic right fielder has been enshrined in the leadoff role, the three-hole has been anything but reliable. Let's take a look at the number three Mariners hitters in the Ichiro Era, year-by-year.
Splits Batting Third: .314/.434/.549/.982, 20 HR, 100 RBI
In Ichiro's historic first season with the team, Martinez started 100 games as the number three hitter. Later in the season, Bret Boone would slide into this slot, with Martinez dropping to cleanup. Martinez had 23 home runs and 116 RBI in 2001, while finishing with a slash line of .306/.423/.543/.966.
2002: Bret Boone, 2B
Splits Batting Third: .259/.304/.417/.722, 11 HR, 51 RBI
2002 was a bit of a reversal from the previous season. While Ichiro started 150 games in the leadoff spot, Boone started just 74 batting third. Martinez primarily batted cleanup this season (64 games), but now flip-flopped with Boone towards the end of the year and started 17 of the final 23 games in the three-hole. Looking at the splits batting third, it's easy to see the huge drop-off from Martinez in 2001 to Boone in 2002 in that slot. Boone's 2002 ultimately looked like this: 24 homers and 107 RBI, batting .278/.339/.462/.801.
2003: Bret Boone, 2B
Splits Batting Third: .304/.374/.563/.936, 33 HR, 109 RBI
In 2003, the third spot in the order quickly became Boone's. Although Martinez started the year as the number three hitter, he quickly moved to cleanup, which is where the lineup settled, with Boone starting 139 games in the third slot and Martinez starting 120 games at cleanup. Boone benefited from the positioning and finished the season with 35 home runs, 117 RBI and a slash line of .294/.366/.535/.902, the numbers actually dragged down by his games batting cleanup.
2004: Bret Boone, 2B
Splits Batting Third: .248/.306/.406/.712, 11 HR, 44 RBI
Although Boone had back-to-back seasons leading the M's at games started in the third spot in the order, there was once again inconsistency, as Martinez closed out the year once again taking over the role, with Boone getting dropped to fifth. 2004 also marks all 10 instances to date with Ichiro starting a Mariners game as the number three hitter. Boone's final 2004 tallies: .251/.317/.423/.740, 24 HR, 83 RBI. 2004 was Martinez' last season. Boone would be traded in mid-2005, which was his final year in the majors. This was the first season in the Ichiro Era where the team managed fewer than 90 wins. Actually, it was also the first losing season of the era, as the M's finished 63-99.
2005: Raul Ibanez, LF
Splits Batting Third: .277/.360/.423/.782, 10 HR, 53 RBI
With Martinez gone and Boone on the way out, this was the first big change during the Ichiro Era. Adrian Beltre arrived in town and new manager Mike Hargrove took over for Bob Melvin. Hargrove would become Ichiro's third Seattle manager. 2005 featured Raul Ibanez and Beltre nearly splitting the third slot in the order. Ibanez started 89 games batting third, while Beltre started 73. They were the only two hitters in that position for the entire year. Ibanez finished up 2005 with a line of .280/.355/.436/.792, with 20 homers and 89 RBI.
2006: Raul Ibanez, LF
Splits Batting Third: .268/.328/.450/.778, 7 HR, 35 RBI
Apart from Ichiro's 160 games at leadoff, the most consistent batting order slot in 2006 was the cleanup spot...which was held by Ibanez. Speaking to just how malleable the third slot in the order was, Ibanez started 55 games at number three to start the season before becoming the everyday cleanup hitter. Once Ibanez was moved down, the Mariners experimented with Jose Lopez in the spot for 43 games, Beltre for 41, Kenji Johjima for 14 and Yuniesky Betancourt for nine. Ibanez had a career year in 2006, but it mostly came at cleanup: 33 HR, 123 RBI, .289/.353/.516/.869. 2006 would mark the last time that a player would appear as the majority number-three hitter in back-to-back seasons.
2007: Jose Guillen, RF
Splits Batting Third: .270/.329/.433/.763, 12 HR, 51 RBI
The Mariners bounced back in 2007 with a winning season. Jose Guillen batted third in 75 games, swapping with Ibanez into the cleanup role to round out the year. Guillen's final line was 23 HR, 99 RBI, .290/.353/.460/.813.
2008: Raul Ibanez, LF
Splits Batting Third: .302/.359/.500/.859 19 HR, 84 RBI
The bounceback season was quickly forgotten in 2008, as John McLaren and Jim Riggleman became the fourth and fifth managers of the Ichiro Era and the team lost 101 games. Ibanez was back in the three-hole for 121 games, with Beltre taking over at cleanup. Ibanez played in all 162 games before becoming a member of the Philadelphia Phillies the following year. His 2008 with the Mariners was another solid season: 23 HR, 110 RBI, .293/.358/.479/.837.
2009: Jose Lopez, 2B
Splits Batting Third: .269/.303/.458/.761, 13 HR, 45 RBI
Lopez posted the lowest OBP for a number three hitter in the Ichiro Era, but new manager Don Wakamatsu and the returning Ken Griffey Jr. put together an 85-77 winning season, the last time that Seattle has been above .500. Lopez batted third in the order in 87 games, but also started four or more games in every batting position from second to seventh. His final line for 2009 was 25 HR, 96 RBI, .272/.303/.463/.766.
2010: Franklin Gutierrez, CF/DH
Splits Batting Third: .240/.316/.366/.682 6 HR, 39 RBI
The M's were once again 100-game losers in 2010, as Wakamatsu gave way to Daren Brown. Gutierrez started 83 games as the number three hitter for Seattle, finishing the year with 12 HR, 64 HR and a line of .245/.303/.363/.666. That .666 OPS, true to its negative connotation, is the worst mark put up by any player on this list by nearly 100 points. Just one signifier of a 100-loss team. Gutierrez managed the worst splits batting third by a player in the Ichiro Era in BA, SLG and OPS. Only Lopez and Boone (twice) had lower OBP.
2011: Dustin Ackley, 2B
Splits Batting Third: .270/.348/.394/.743, 3 HR, 28 RBI
Seattle threatened to lose 100 games in three of their last four seasons, but new manager Eric Wedge mustered a 67-95 record. Ackley got the bulk of the games as the number three hitter, becoming the second-half everyday three-hole hitter in 71 games. Justin Smoak spent some time at this spot in the order for 35 games in the middle of the season before Ackley settled into the role. Ackley finished with 6 HR, 36 RBI and a slash line of .273/.348/.417/.766, coming in sixth in the AL Rookie of the Year voting. Ackley gave Seattle fans a small glimmer of hope for the coming season, but will have to find another spot in the order in 2012.
So there you have it: seven players batting third under eight managers, with Ichiro in the leadoff spot being the only real constant over the past 11 years. That looks like it's all going to change this spring, but hopefully Seattle's favorite right fielder can find a way to be a rock as the number three hitter and anchor the team slightly lower down in the order. It seems as though a little consistency certainly could not hurt anything, but we will have to wait and see.
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