By JORDAN IKEDA
Baseball is a game of adjustments, and making adjustments is more than just changing the plane of one’s swing or how one fields a hit up the middle or how many pitches one throws to warm up. While all of the physical aspects of change are important, the first and most crucial step is to adopt a new mindset. To adapt to the circumstances of one’s surroundings.
With the trade deadline now over a week in our rearview mirror, let’s take a look at several players who need to adapt quickly in order to: help their team to the playoffs; establish a semblance of job security; or carve out their place in the majors.
First up is the newest New Yawker, Ichiro Suzuki, who began his career in pinstripes with a 12-game hitting streak that ended Monday. Before we get too excited, his streak was as hollow as it was sleepy. Ichiro hit .260 over those dozen games, a far cry from the streaks of old that were accompanied with averages over 100 points higher. The worst part is the Yankees are 6-8 since acquiring the former Mariner, including a four-game losing streak. With a putrid .286 OBP (second worst on the team), it’s unlikely Ichiro will become the Yankees’ leadoff hitter.
However, the beauty of his situation is that he doesn’t need to be the leadoff or the best player, or even hit .330 (though the Yankees would love that). He needs to play his typical stellar defense, steal a few bases (or decoy as a base-stealer), and give the bottom of the lineup a bit more punch. If he can continue to do those things, and possibly improve on them as he gets more comfortable, the Yankees will have gotten exactly what they were expecting.
The Washington Nationals hope their newest acquisition lives up to their expectations as well. On Aug. 3, former Oakland Athletics catcher Kurt Suzuki was supplanted from a tight playoff race in the American League West to the frontrunner of the National League East.
Suzuki, who cleared waivers and was then traded by Oakland to Washington, must fully embrace the concept of “adaptation.” Not only must he adjust to a new league, but he must also adjust to an entirely new pitching staff (save for Gio Gonzalez, with whom he grew up with in the Oakland system). That’s 11-12 different guys, who each have their own wind-ups, paces, and pitches. To add to the difficult nature of his new job, Suzuki will be working with a staff that has been dreadful in giving up stolen bases.
Jesus Flores, the man Suzuki is replacing, had thrown out only five of 49 base-runners (10.2 percent) this season. Suzuki will be better because he’s an outstanding defensive catcher who led the American League at the time of his trade in caught-stealing percentage (38.3), runners caught stealing (23) and errors (fewest, with 2). But the pitching staff does make things tough. In Suzuki’s second game, the Astros stole four bases in four attempts despite strong throws to second.
To his credit, the Hawaiian native has hit the ground running (literally), already having worked with most of the staff over the course of his first two games (both ending in wins) and coming up with a clutch, if not unconventional, bunt attempt in the 11th inning of Monday night’s game that ended up scoring the winning run.
Not bad for a guy on the job less than 72 hours.
Then there’s the guy who has been on the job for nearly 72 weeks with little, and I mean very little, to show for it.
Up until a few days ago, Tsuyoshi Nishioka had spent the entire 2012 season working on his hitting, his defense, and his confidence in the minors. Monday, he finally made his MLB season debut.
On the first Twins defensive play of the game, Nishioka grossly misplayed a routine grounder for an error. He added another error in the bottom of the 8th to go along with zero hits in five chances. His second game on Tuesday night was a bit better. Though he remained hitless in four more at-bats, he did manage an RBI sacfly as well as a walk.
I’ve never been a big fan of Nishioka’s skill set. He is not great at any one area of the game, and the lone season in which he won the NPB batting crown continues to scream “fluke!” But I remained optimistic that he could find a modicum of success because he was just entering into his baseball prime at the age of 26 and was going to a small-market team that I thought would exercise patience.
The Twins, according to many of their fans, have been too patient. While I disagree, the reality of thesituation is that Nishioka was batting .245 with a .610 OPS at Triple-A Rochester with one homerun and only six steals. Those numbers are at best borderline playable at the major league level. At the minor league level? Those numbers are awful and certainly unworthy of being called up.
But with the Twins out of the playoff race, this call-up is a showcase. Nishioka is going to get a handful of games to prove he is an MLB-caliber player — either to solidify his spot on the Twins 2013 roster or become a tradable asset.
There’s plenty of other players I’d like to get to — Shane Victorino, who has struggled thus far as a Dodger, Hisashi Iwakuma, who is up and down and Hideo Nomo slow with his windup delivery, and Takashi Saito, who is back playing after sitting out all of the season with various injuries.
But, we’ll have to focus on them next time. Instead, I’m going to end with the guy who exploded out of the gate to begin this season.
Yu Darvish is a man trying to carve out his place in the MLB. Is he an all-star ace pitcher who went 10-5 with a 3.59 ERA before the break? Or is he the 1-3 pitcher with a 7.76 ERA and 21 walks in only 31 innings post-All-Star break?
Rangers CEO and President Nolan Ryan put in his two cents. “He has a good fastball. He can do a lot of things with a baseball, but he needs to get ahead with his fastball, establish his fastball and work off his other stuff … the key for him is the first inning or two just go out and establish his fastball and throw strikes, and I think he’ll be fine.”
Entering into the season, there were concerns about how Darvish would handle the summer months. He had never pitched in anything like Texas heat, having spent his entire career playing in an air-conditioned dome. But his home/road splits have shown he’s been mediocre everywhere, not just at Rangers Ballpark. He’s registered a 4.55 ERA and 1.32 WHIP at home, and a 4.59 ERA and 1.59 WHIP on the road.
And he’s been progressively getting worse since a couple weeks before the All-Star break. He started the season with a 2.18 ERA in April, but has slipped every month since going from a 4.50 ERA in May, to 5.74 in July, to over 10 so far this month. The good news is that his stuff doesn’t seem to have lost any juice. His main issue is control and maybe a slight lack of confidence.
Time for him to make the necessary adjustments.
Jordan Ikeda is a former Rafu Sports editor who writes from Torrance. He can be contacted at [email protected] Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.