By Shannon Drayer
Warning: these are just thoughts, nothing too in depth, little research involved, more bloggy (remember what that was, before it turned into online newspaper?) than anything else. I am on vacation, after all. Thoughts to do with as you will. Respond if you like.
No, I am not doing anything fun. Just relaxing. Not traveling this year – I think I did enough of that during the season. I did, however, have to take a trip that required about eight hours in the car on Monday and I took my mother along with me. She had all sorts of questions about the season. One question she asked kind of helped me answer a second question and gave me a better outlook on something.
Her first question: what would you have done different this year if you were running the Mariners?
Kind of an unfair question once all is said and done, but there was one thing I told her I would have done. As I wrote and talked about earlier in the season, I would have sent Justin Smoak and Dustin Ackley down at some point before the All-Star Break. I felt strongly about that move then and I still do.
"So they would get more playing time?" mom asked.
Justin Smoak didn't make any radical changes to his swing until late in the season – after he had been sent down to Triple-A Tacoma. (AP photo)
No, I patiently explained. They had plenty of playing time at the big-league level. As I talked through it I began to understand more and more why this would have been a good idea. I had always believed that it would give them a chance to do more intense work, to work away from the pressures of trying to win at the big-league level. But as I talked about it I began to realize that the biggest thing it would have done was force them to do something different if they weren't getting results.
Until September, when Smoak went to a new bat and the two-handed approach from the left side, neither he nor Ackley did anything radically different to their swings. They battled through, either stubbornly or foolishly, and while Eric Wedge at times would say that both knew what they needed to do to get better, the results would suggest that neither took that path.
Whether they believed what they were doing was right and thought they'd eventually see positive results or if it was a matter of being afraid to change anything in case they actually got worse and were sent down, I don't know.
It was an organizational decision to keep them up. Jack Zduriencik and Wedge met and talked about these and other players frequently and I believe there was some debate as to whether or not it would be a good idea to send them down.
What would have happened if they were sent down? If they continued to have the same results – and Smoak did when he first arrived in Tacoma for his short stay – then they would be forced to do something different. If they didn't, they could be stuck. Once you are down, you are staying down until you show results or until there's an injury. You are willing to try different things, you are more open to change if you think it will get you back sooner. You really have nothing to lose. It is a wake-up call and one that I believe could have done more good than harm as it would have forced them to do something different much sooner.
Another question my mom asked was one that has been thrown out there a bunch lately: why is Ichiro hitting better with the Yankees?
For years the thought has been that he would fit better into a more established, better lineup. I tried to explain this as well as my theory that many players, elite players in particular, have another level they are not aware of. I have talked about this with Felix Hernandez – where he may be 120 percent every time he goes out there but situations bump him up higher. It is not a matter of slacking off at all. Ichiro and Felix do the same work, are as prepared and seem as focused, but when the stakes are higher a different level of play can come out.
This may be, but as I was talking I thought back to what I told my mom about Smoak and Ackley and realized that the same was true for Ichiro. Ichiro went about his business this year the same way and with the same dedication he has for as long as I have watched him. He struggled mightily this year at the plate and he may have made minor adjustments here and there, but nothing major. I don't know what kind of adjustments if any he has made in New York but I do know this: his feet were put to the fire for the first time in his career in Seattle and his numbers bounced back to what we are more accustomed to seeing.
Yes, it was Ichiro's decision to leave and he all but picked his club, giving the Mariners a list of four teams he would go to. Still, at the time I thought the move was risky. If he didn't perform then his career in the United States was most likely over. Zduriencik had admitted before the trade that they were looking into re-signing Ichiro in the offseason. When Ichiro left Seattle he no longer had any idea if he would play in the MLB the next year. If he flopped in New York, would another team pick him up?
He could have rolled along in Seattle doing what he was doing and then attempted to make an offseason change like he did the year before and come back next year hoping for the best. But instead he went to a team that was anything but accommodating. He was told that he would be given days off, that he would play left field, that he would most likely not hit at the top of the order. The first three weeks after the trade Ichiro hit .270 with an OPS of .700. After that he earned his way back into knowing his name would be in the order every day and closer to the top, hitting .344 with an OPS of .836 from the middle of August to the end of the season. His world was rocked and he responded.
Of course the spotlight and the chance for a ring most likely had something to do with the motivation to change as well – that cannot be underestimated. But I do believe that making things less comfortable for him and just flat-out change were also strong contributors to what we are seeing now.
Change in baseball is hard, but ironically, it is a game about adjustments. Regardless of how established a player is you cannot get comfortable. Sometimes as shakeup is what is needed to force a player to make change and push him to another level. I think we have seen this with Ichiro and wonder if we could have seen this with some of the younger players on the Mariners' roster.