- Ben Lindbergh, Baseball Prospectus
Looking at leaderboards in April is a lot like looking at a familiar face reflected in a funhouse mirror: Some features are clearly recognizable, but others are badly distorted. Matt Kemp leads the league in almost everything, which makes sense. Look a little harder, though, and oddities start to appear. Jack Hannahan, a career .235 hitter, is batting .333. If Hannahan's still batting .333 at the All-Star break, we'll have to start paying attention (and possibly packing away survival supplies). Until then, it's safe to dismiss Hannahan's hot streak as a small-sample fluke.
But not all early-season statistics are illusions. Some stats stabilize more quickly than others, and the more innings and plate appearances players accrue, the more signals we start to see amid the statistical noise. It's even easier to spot a meaningful change when a player does something he's never done before, like learning a new pitch or adopting a different delivery or batting stance. As tempting as it is to dismiss anything that happens in April as the product of a small sample size, it's not too early to pinpoint a few players whose performance is attributable at least in part to a conscious change in approach.
Ichiro Suzuki, RF
Three things are true about Ichiro this season that haven't been true about Ichiro before: He's 38 years old, he's batting in the middle of the order and he's coming off a season in which he hit under .300. In response to one or more of those developments, Ichiro has altered his approach in 2012. As Jeff Sullivan observed earlier this month, Ichiro has moved back in the box. It's possible he's trying to compensate for slightly slowed reaction time, though he might also have done it to give himself a better chance to pull the ball with power. Sullivan subsequently noted that Ichiro is swinging far less often at pitches off the plate inside, the ones that gave him the most trouble last season. That might be mostly explained by another shift in his stance: In addition to moving away from the pitcher, Ichiro has also inched toward the plate. Last April, he occupied a roughly centered horizontal position in the batter's box, but this April, his back foot is nearly touching the inside border. Check it out.