Ichiro Suzuki began the 2014 season in an unfamiliar position: lacking a starting spot in the outfield, being dangled by the Yankees in trade talks, and seemingly on the outside looking in, unsure of what role he would play on his team. For a player as storied as Ichiro, this had to be frustrating. In spring training, reporters began asking him if he would retire soon. Ichiro rebuked the idea; instead, he wanted to play "many" more seasons. But how many people can honestly say they believe Ichiro will play many more seasons? Probably not a lot. Ichiro knows this, and perhaps this realization put a chip on his shoulder coming into the 2014 season. Perhaps, for the first time since being a rookie in Japan, Ichiro felt that he had something to prove.
Ichiro has always been expected to produce throughout his career. He experienced great success immediately upon being called up to the majors in Japan, hitting .385 in his first full season for the Orix BlueWave, winning the first of his seven consecutive batting titles and becoming the first player in the league to record more than 200 hits in a season. After arriving in Seattle, everyone expected great things of him, and Ichiro calmly exceeded expectations to the tune of a .350/.381/.457 triple slash with a 124 wRC+ and a 6.0 fWAR en route to winning the AL MVP (oh yeah, and he won the batting title and the Rookie of the Year as well). Even after a few years of decline, the Yankees still expected him to be a better option that either Andruw Jones or Raul Ibanez when they traded for him in 2012 (he was). After signing him a two-year, $12 million deal in the 2012 off-season, the Yankees clearly gave Ichiro a signal that they expected him to continue contributing for the foreseeable future.
But after last year's disaster - Ichiro posted an fWAR of just 1.1 and a wRC+ of 71 in 2013 - coupled with the hefty outfield investments the Yankees made in the offseason (which added to an already crowded outfield since they traded for Alfonso Soriano at the 2013 trade deadline), Ichiro became expendable. He clearly became a player the Yankees expected little productivity from this season. His name came up in trade rumors, not through his own wishes as in 2012, but because his own team thought he wasn't good enough to help them win anymore. This season, more so than any other in his major league career, no one expected much from Ichiro.
And so far this year, Ichiro has been proving his doubters wrong. While it's barely May and the sample size is still small (he only has about half as many at bats as regular starters), Ichiro is hitting .357/.386/.405 with a 120 wRC+. He's got a 2.2 UZR so far and has generally provided great defense in the outfield. While he's certainly not appearing in every game - and not even starting all of the ones he does show up in - Ichiro has not been the liability at the plate many expected at the beginning of this season. His ability to hit this year has meant that Joe Girardi can be much more flexible with his lineups, and can even sometimes field an outfield of Ichiro, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Brett Gardner (which would be one of the best defensive outfields in the league) without losing too much at the plate. This flexibility lets Girardi give Soriano and Carlos Beltran days off, which is vital to keeping them fresh over the long season. It also lets Girardi rest Ellsbury and Gardner every so often, or even get by if one of them (knock on wood) has to go on the DL for a short stint without a black hole in the lineup. Ichiro's ability to keep producing solidly at the plate is the key to making these different lineups respectable, as anyone he'd replace is a major offensive contributor. With their pitching staff dealing with so many injuries currently, the Yankees need all the offensive production they can get.
Yes, this could turn into a Travis Hafner/Vernon Wells situation from last year, where a player's strong start quickly turned into an awful season. However, Ichiro is a much better defensive player than either of those players, as well as much more valuable on the basepaths, so he doesn't have to be as dominant with the bat to mask other deficiencies. Just being average at the plate will make him valuable, and while some regression will no doubt happen (which is obvious to anyone anyway, but a .455 BAPIP makes it clear just how lucky Ichiro has been so far this year), a .280 average and a wRC+ around 100 does not seem completely out of the question. If Ichiro can manage this, he'll certainly be an asset to the Yankees all year long.
Either way, it's still nice to see Ichiro playing well again. While I've never cared much for the Mariners, Ichiro was always an exciting player to watch, and I was genuinely sad that he would waste away in obscurity on the Yankees, or someone else's, bench. While that fate may still await him in the future, Ichiro is showing the Yankees that he's still a productive player, even when everyone doubted him.
Maybe he just needed, for once in his career, something to prove.