— A: Regardless of the Mariners' offensive struggles in the last two seasons — which undoubtedly have cut into Ichiro's numbers — we're seeing the inevitable decline of a great player.
There was some dropoff in 2010 — not so much in batting average or stolen bases, but particularly in on-base and slugging percentage. But the decline is steeper and extending to more categories this season:
Ichiro has one season left on his five-year, $90 million contract, and heading into Tuesday's games, has accumulated 2,386 hits in 10-plus major league seasons. At his current pace, his 3,000th major league hit would come midway through the 2014 season — but that is jeopardized by the decline we're witnessing.
But whether he reaches 3,000 hits or not, the overall package makes him a future Hall of Famer in my mind: Rookie of the Year, Most Valuable Player, four top-10 MVP finishes, 10 All-Star games, 10 Gold Gloves, three Silver Sluggers, two batting titles, 10 200-hit seasons, 400-plus stolen bases.
A: That's a really tough call to make, but he's certainly in the conversation. There are many ways to look at this, and many different statistical measures you can use.
For instance, are you talking about just a power/batting average combination, or do you include the speed/stolen base element in the evaluation? Or, how highly do you value on-base percentage, as well as the all-encompassing WAR (Wins Above Replacement level) measure?
The title of best all-round hitter unofficially has belonged to Albert Pujols for much of the last decade, and even though he is having something of a "down" year (for him), he's a hot five weeks from climbing back into a discussion of the top five or so.
And here are a few others besides Cabrera who belong: Jose Bautista, Ryan Braun, Matt Kemp, Joey Votto.
Bautista's on-base and slugging percentages are off the charts. Through Monday, he leads the majors in both categories at .459 and .652 for a combined 1.111 OPS. Next in on-base percentage is Votto (.436) and only six others are .400-plus.
Amazingly, nobody else is over .600 in slugging percentage, as Curtis Granderson is second in the majors at .594. The second-best OPS is Lance Berkman's .982 mark — way off Bautista's pace.
When you include the speed/stolen base factor, you can make a strong argument for Braun as the game's best all-round offensive player, and at least for this year, Kemp.
Cabrera's homers (23) are down a bit, but he's the rare slugger who walks more than he strikes out (Bautista is another), which boosts his on-base percentage and protects his batting average.
So much also depends on who's surrounding a slugger in his lineup. What Kemp is doing for a punchless Dodgers offense is remarkable, for instance.
But the key part of measuring great hitters is yet to come: the stretch run and postseason.
A: Those three teams in particular have offensive philosophies that encourage lengthy at-bats and working counts — and just as importantly, the talent to pull it off. But there also is the issue of pitchers who purposely stall, dragging out innings.
There is a rule in place that would go a long way to ending that practice, and speeding up games — if only umpires would enforce it. Rule 8:04 states:
"When bases are unoccupied, the pitcher shall deliver the ball to the batter within 12 seconds after he receives the ball. Each time the pitcher delays the game by violating this rule, the umpire shall call 'ball'. The 12-second timing starts when the pitcher is in possession of the ball and the batter is in the box, alert to the pitch.
"The intent of this rule is to avoid unnecessary delays. The umpire shall insist that the catcher return the ball promptly to the pitcher, and that the pitcher take his position on the rubber promptly. Obvious delays by the pitcher should instantly be penalized by the umpire.''
Watch a game and see how many times this rule is violated.