Distinctive swings are few and far between. History is littered with interesting batting stances, sure. There was Craig Counsell's skyscraper impression, Phil Plantier's crouch, and whatever the hell it was that Kevin Youkilis did. But distinctive swings? Not as much.
There was Ken Griffey Jr.'s remarkable smoothness, and there's Prince Fielder's uppercut hammer that he breaks out when he feels the urge to punish a ball especially hard. There was Derek Jeter's inside-out stroke that always seemed to push the ball to the opposite field. And there's this, from Ichiro Suzuki.
It's a swing that's fairly common among Japanese players (Nori Aoki also employs it every now and then, as seen here) and was once much more common here in North America. Why exactly does Ichiro swing this way, and why isn't it a more common approach? It's clearly produced some excellent results, after all.
Ichiro's swing, and indeed his entire approach to hitting, is about contact. He's always had the natural speed to beat out throws and make fielders rush to make plays, and his ability to put the ball where he wants it is the stuff of legend. There have been many tweaks over the years, but the central concept of the swing has always remained the same. Let's break it down step by step.
A good swing always starts with the hips. It's part of why swings like Robinson Cano's look so smooth. With the rotation of the hips, a hitter starts the momentum needed for the swing to put the proper amount of jolt into a ball. At times, Ichiro has used a leg kick of varying size. By perching up like a crane and then nearly falling forward, he supplies additional momentum that goes into smacking the ball. His hips quickly twitch around, and that's when the really impressive stuff starts happening.
As mentioned above, Ichiro's swing is entirely about contact. When he whips his arms around, it's with the intent of putting as much barrel on the ball as possible. His bat covers an impressive amount of the plate. However, he also displays a nearly supernatural ability to change the plane of his swing to not only cover a vast vertical plane and get to many low pitches, but also to spray the ball whichever way amuses him at the time. Observe:
Ichiro is a master of using the head of his bat to direct hits. Another:
With the way he flicks his wrists, he wields the bat like a magic wand. It's no wonder that the man has amassed more than 4,000 hits between Japan and MLB, and holds the record for most hits in a single season. His combination of contact skills and speed is a perfect storm of raking.
Here's what makes Ichiro's swing so iconic. He looks like he's nearly falling over every single time, or like he's already starting to run to first base before the ball hits his bat. According to an interview he gave to the Daily News, that's not his intention. Ichiro claims that's it's more of a result of how dramatic the shift of weight from his back leg to his front is. Regardless, it does give him an advantage and a faster first step out of the box.
So, why don't more people swing like this? There are a few reasons. The first is that consistent success with this kind of swing is heavily reliant on stellar hand-eye coordination. Ichiro has that in spades. Any successful hitter is going to have a lot of it, but Ichiro especially is a master of tracking pitches and forecasting in a split second where they'll end up.
The second is that a lot of today's game is built on power. With fewer and fewer runners getting on base, there's more of an onus on batters to drive in runs whenever possible. The Ichiro school of hitting focuses on slap hitting and putting the ball in play as much as possible, regardless of how far it goes. When you have an 80 contact grade and speed to spare, that's a good way to go about your business. But that's also what makes Ichiro so damn unique. It's not as if he doesn't have power, of course.
The man has 113 home runs to his name in MLB, and another 118 on the books in Japan. His batting practice sessions are absolute wonders to behold. Even with powerful teammates like Giancarlo Stanton, Justin Bour, and Marcell Ozuna, Ichiro keeps up with them and matches them dinger for dinger. There isn't much doubt that if he had chosen to, Ichiro could have been a 15-20 homer threat in his heyday.
But he wasn't. He instead acted as the perfect leadoff hitter and did nothing but get hits. That's what makes Ichiro special, and it's why we won't see another player like him for a long time.