Who expected Raul Ibanez to be leading the Mariners in home runs on June 24? Anyone? If I had told you that Ibanez would be leading the team in dingers at this point, would you expect Jack Zduriencik and Eric Wedge to still have their jobs? Wouldn't that be a sign of disaster with the likes of veteran addition Mike Morse, and youngsters like Jesus Montero?
To a degree, it is true that the offense has experienced a mild implosion (at least mild by recent Mariners history). Zduriencik and Wedge are on hot seats too, though people disagree how hot they are. There are problems with this season that have let Ibanez rise to the top of the home run leadersboard.
However, just citing the shortcomings of others sells Ibanez short. He is in the middle of an unexpected season that could be borderline historic.
Ibanez hit three (?!) home runs over the weekend, all crucial blasts that tied the games or gave the Mariners the lead. His 17 home runs this season are already the 9th most ever for a slugger 41 years or older. The most a hitter as old as Ibanez has ever hit in a season is 29 (Ted Williams, arguably the greatest hitter of all-time), which is within reach for Ibanez if he continues to play as much as he has and hit dingers at his current rate.
Now, the catch is that Ibanez is likely to slow down. A lot. Common sense dictates that he has been on a run nobody saw coming, and batted ball stats agree. A whopping 22.7% of Ibanez's fly balls have gone for home runs in 2013, well above his career average of 13.2% - and mind you that Ibanez's career average largely includes years where he wasn't 41 years old.
Then again, Ibanez has never tried to hit home runs like he has this year. He has completely changed his approach at the plate. Right now, Raul is walking in 5.6% of his plate appearances, which would be his lowest rate since 1998 if that holds. He is also striking out in 25% of his plate appareances, which would surpass his previous career high of 23.1% (set in 1997 with only 26 plate appearances that whole season).
Ibanez's batted ball profile is different too, even beyond his percentage of fly balls going for home runs. His ground ball rate is 35.3% (his season low coming into this season was 40.6% in 2008) and fly ball rate is at 44% (his season high coming into this season was 41.7%, set in 2009). In fact, Raul Ibanez has hit more ground balls than fly balls every season in his career until this one.
Zduriencik talked in the offseason about how he wanted to add some punch to the Mariners lineup, and apparently Raul Ibanez listened. Ibanez is more aggressive than he has ever been in his career, swinging and missing more than ever before, and hitting more fly balls with fewer ground balls than ever before too. Raul, quite simply, is swinging for the seats every time he comes to the plate, at least in a way he has never done before.
For three months, the approach has worked for Ibanez. Father time and/or regression are bound to catch him at some point, but they haven't yet. Maybe there is less regression to come than any of us would expect. Ibanez has made some significant tradeoffs to hit more home runs. He is a one-dimensional player at this point with all of his limited value tied up in dingers, and the numbers suggest this has been a surprisingly conscious choice by Ibanez.
According to Fangraphs, Ibanez has been worth 0.0 WAR so far, even with the dingers. He is a replacement level player. The Mariners, in theory, could purchase the contract of just about any AAA outfielder and get similar production.
But there aren't any AAA outfielders that are 41 years old, hitting dingers in their third tour of duty with the Mariners. Raul Ibanez is on pace to produce one of the more historic and memorable 0.0 WAR seasons of all-time.
Pointless? Arguably, but I'd argue not.
In another season where the playoffs already look like a distant dream, it's hard to find things that matter during this season. Raul Ibanez and his geriatric drives are unexpected, and it matters that he hits them this year so that they count toward his home run total right now.
Ironically, as the stress of wins and losses matter less to the 2013 Mariners, Ibanez's quirky quest can be appreciated even more. Raul's overall package doesn't provide much value towards wins and losses, but 2013 is looking more and more like yet another season where we Mariners fans will have to find meaning beyond the standings. Right now, the Mariners have a 41-year-old Raul Ibanez chasing the ghost of a 41-year-old Ted Williams. That's cool - not worth sacrificing a pennant chase for, but in the absence of a playoff hunt? Ibanez's chase is something.
A contender could easily acquire Ibanez to bolster their bench down the stretch and in the playoffs. However, I hope Raul stays and stays in the Mariners lineup, so that I can keep rooting for his dingers. They even help the Mariners win from time to time.