Piniella talks about Ichiro
A couple of years ago, I did a lengthy question-and-answer session with longtime Yankees favorite Lou Piniella about Ichiro Suzuki. Lou was the manager of the Mariners when Ichiro came to the major leagues in 2001. Here are 10 questions from that interview that I think should give Yankees fans some insight into the career of their newest outfielder.
Q1. Can you remember your first impression of Ichiro?
A: Ichiro first came to the Mariners as an exchange player in the spring of 2000. He was with us during the pre-exhibition period because he was not allowed to play in games. Watching him work out, I could tell that he could run, he could throw and he had good bat control. But we didn’t see him under game conditions.
Q2. Before the 2001 season began, did you expect Ichiro to have as much success in the majors as he has had? Why?
A: I could not predict all that would happen, but no, it does not surprise me. He was a disciplined hitter with great physical tools. That spring with us in 2001, he put the ball in play, utilized his speed and didn’t strike out much. We got the feeling we had something special here. He was already a star player in Japan, so really the only question was how he would do in the 162-game schedule.
I remember our general manager, Pat Gillick, worked very hard to sign Ichiro. We thought it we got lucky that we might have a really good player for six or seven or maybe eight years. And look, he’s still playing at a high level in his 10th year in the big leagues.
Q3. I heard you were so worried about Ichiro’s power part because he hit only to the opposite field during preseason games in 2001 until you asked him to pull the ball. Is that a true story?
A: Yes. The first few games for us that spring Ichiro hit the ball to left field exclusively. I remember talking to his translator and asking him if Ichiro could try to pull the ball so we could get a better idea of what he could do. The next day, Ichiro led off and pulled the first pitch over the right field wall for a home run. I saw what I needed to see and left him alone after that.
Q4. Can you analyze the reasons why Ichiro was able to have 200 hits for 10 consecutive seasons? Which part of Ichiro’s hitting is impressive to you?
A: He has great hand-eye coordination, which is important for a hitter, and he keeps himself in great physical shape. He can expand the zone a bit by chasing the ball up, but he puts the fat part of the bat on the ball so consistently and gets out of the batter’s box so quickly that infielders have to cheat on him. He actually is moving to first base often when he hits the ball, but he keeps his upper body straight and follows through on his swing. You don’t see anyone else do that.
Q5. From the manager’s point of view, Ichiro should have selected more pitches to hit? Or he should have taken more walks?
A: He is not going to walk much, that’s true, but he won’t strike out that much, either. His on-base percentage is not as high as maybe it should be for someone with a high batting average, but look, he gets on base with hits, so why worry about walks? His eyesight is superb, so it is not a matter of pitch recognition. He is just so adept at putting the ball in play. He’ll foul off a lot of pitches, but he does not swing and miss very much. Pitchers don’t want to walk him because of his speed on the bases. So if they get behind in the count, he still may get something to hit.
Q6. Do you have any specific memory of Ichiro during your managing career with the Mariners?
A: It was during his first season, a game in Oakland. I don’t remember the hitter or runner, but I do know that the runner was very fast. He was on first base when the hitter drove the ball into the gap in right-center. Ichiro chased down the ball, and I was thinking I hope he throws the ball to second base to keep the hitter from advancing because I didn’t think he had a prayer of getting the other runner going from first to third. He made a perfect throw to third and got the guy. It surprised the runner, my third baseman, the coaches, me and even the umpire. It’s still one of the greatest fielding plays I have ever seen.
Q7. Do you think he can reach 3,000 hits in the majors?
A: The key is for him to stay healthy. He stays in great shape physically, which he will have to continue to do to get to 3,000 hits. I think it’s possible, but it won’t be easy. I figure it would take him at least four more years. When you get to his age , you start to deal with some injuries. If he can avoid that, he has a good shot at it.
Q8. Did you see any differences on Ichiro between now and the time when you were the manager?
A: The only thing I see is that he doesn’t score as many runs, but the Mariners are a much different team from the one I had when we had a strong offensive club. Put some good hitters around him, and he’ll score 100 runs again on a regular basis. He still runs very well, has great instincts in the outfield and plays with so much pride.
Q9. What do you think about how Ichiro’s speed helps his hit record?
A: It’s a great asset. As I said before, infielders have to be on their toes with him. You see them often hurrying their throws on what are otherwise routine ground balls for any other hitter.
Q10. Should Ichiro make it to Hall of Fame? Why?
A: Absolutely. He is one of the greatest leadoff hitters in the history of the major leagues. He has excelled at nearly every aspect of the game. Ichiro is not a power hitter, but he has still hit his share of home runs, almost 100, I think. He’s a great hitter, a great base runner, a great fielder with a great arm, a game breaker. All of those qualities add up to me as a Hall of Fame player.