Ichiro Suzuki Takes a Final Bow, Still Perfecting a New Craft

SEATTLE — Mike Redmond, the Colorado Rockies’ bench coach, laughed at the improbability of a member of the 3,000-hit club devoting himself to the unheralded role of throwing batting-practice pitches.

“I am sure he won’t settle for anything less than becoming the absolute best B.P. pitcher,” Redmond said, smiling in amazement at the newest pursuit of Ichiro Suzuki, whom he once managed with the Miami Marlins.

Suzuki’s career will be celebrated Saturday night in Seattle, the first formal acknowledgment of his retirement in the United States since he laid his bat to rest once and for all in March after the Mariners’ season-opening series at the Tokyo Dome.

The Mariners, Suzuki’s club from 2001 to 2012 and 2018-19, quickly bestowed on their longtime star the title of special assistant to the chairman. As with other future Hall of Famers who receive nebulous advisory roles from their longtime employers, eager to keep the icons around for marketing and overall cachet, Suzuki had leeway to decide how exactly he would specially assist the team and how often he would do it.

Suzuki, 45, has kept a home in the Seattle area and has taken on an instructor role at home games. It’s not uncommon to see him stretching, playing catch and, of course, giving advice to any player interested in tapping into his wealth of knowledge. But he has especially applied his trademark perfectionism in a surprising area: throwing batting practice.

“Not too many people can say they got to take B.P. off Ichiro. That’s pretty cool,” Mariners outfielder Mitch Haniger said. “But just like anything else he does, he approaches it with a lot of pride. I see him in the cage all the time practicing throwing batting practice. Few people practice that, but whatever he does, he wants to be really good at it.”

The notion of throwing batting practice developed out of Suzuki’s renowned training habits. He was signed by the Mariners during spring training in 2018 to add depth after an injury to another outfielder. Once the player returned in May, Suzuki was moved to the front office but continued to travel and work out with the team, harboring hope of making the club again in 2019.

League rules prohibited him from being in the dugout during games, so he found his comfort zone in the indoor batting cage — not hitting, but throwing. The perfectionist in him took over from there.

Imagining that he might be asked someday to be an emergency fill-in for a sore-armed batting practice pitcher, he did what he had done his entire career: prepared for the possibility. He started throwing every day to an available partner or, sometimes, just into the netting of the batting cage, up to 200 pitches a day.

A utility player saw Suzuki throwing and asked if he could hit off him. It became a regular session. Then one day in Houston last year, sure enough, Suzuki was asked if he could throw early batting practice. Three players participated, taking turns hitting more than 150 pitches total.

Suzuki continued to hone his approach, making adjustments like tinkering with the distance of the sloped board placed in front of the mound off which batting practice pitchers throw, just in case he was asked to do it again.

He was, and not for the novelty of hitting off a 3,000-hit batter, but because he had legitimately sharpened his ability to pitch batting practice, and players were noticing.

“First off, you have to be able to throw strikes consistently and have good tempo,” Haniger explained, adding: “Ichiro throws very straight, right over the top, very smooth, nice and easy. He doesn’t have a hitch in his arm or throw sidearm like some guys. His motion is so fluid, like his throws from the outfield, and it’s right in the strike zone every time.”

When the Mariners are on the road, Suzuki typically drives an hour south to the club’s Class AAA affiliate in Tacoma, where he throws on-field batting practice to the prospects. One popular story has it that he has maintained such arm strength that he was asked to take a little off his throws because they were coming in too hard.

At the major league level, the utility player Austin Nola found Suzuki’s live arm to be a unique advantage. While hitting in the batting cages, Nola observed that Suzuki often practiced by throwing a variety of pitches to a catcher in the cage. Wondering if he could turn that into a session of situational hitting for himself, he asked, and Suzuki was happy to oblige.

“He’s got a two-seamer, cutter, four-seam fastball up, a curveball, and a slider — and he can throw any of them for strikes,” Nola said. “Here’s a guy who was the best situational hitter of anybody I know, and he can throw all these pitches for strikes.”

Hearing such details of Suzuki’s newest quest for perfection, Redmond, his former manager, made an intriguing prediction. Convinced he possessed hidden power at the plate, many tried and failed to persuade Suzuki to enter the Home Run Derby during his playing career. But each derby participant gets to select any pitcher he wants to throw to him, and Redmond surmised that Suzuki’s newfound skill in retirement could persuade future participants to tap him.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s in the Home Run Derby after all,” Redmond said.