Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Ichiro: Is there a team that can spare a couple more years?

I admit that I’ve lost much of my enthusiasm for baseball since the retirement of RobinYount and the end of the “golden age” of the Milwaukee Brewer franchise. If the Seattle Mariners were my “home” team, I probably wouldn’t have been a baseball fan ever. This season the Mariners provided some vague interest outside diehard fans by making a run for the playoffs, right down to the wire. For the first time since 2009, they actually won more games than the lost, but it has now been 13 years since their last playoff appearance, and the manner in which they played above simple mediocrity carried the seeds of the same doubts of the past (poor hitting bailed out by the “odd” year of outstanding pitching).

It seems, then, that if there was any reason why anyone paid any attention to the Mariners outside the state, it was due to a few players of some consequence, such as  Ken Griffey, Jr., Alex Rodriguez—and Ichiro. Oh, yes: There are a few people around here who remember the name, even fond ones.  Not so much that he made a difference in the team’s fortunes on the field, but for those fascinated with statistics, there was always the expectation that Ichiro would pile-up the singles to the 200-hit plateau.

For ten consecutive seasons, Ichiro’s 200 hits was the only reason baseball even recognized the fact that there was a baseball team in the Pacific Northwest.  After a "rookie" campaign which was a large part of the reason that the Mariners stunned observers by tying the MLB record for wins in a season (116)—after which the team crashed and burned in the ALC—Ichiro soldiered onward, eventually tying the MLB record for consecutive 200-hit seasons (10), and more significantly, breaking the single season record (262) in 2004. 

But there were always question marks about his real value to the team, other than a publicity gimmick and the first position player from Japan to make a significant impact in the Majors, playing a mean right field (other than first base, the position that tended to be less stressful). Ichiro usually managed to put the bat on the ball, and sometimes where he wanted it to go. Although he didn't often strike out, it was also true that he rarely took a walk. This meant that his on-base percentage was never much higher than his batting average. 

Although he was known for running out grounders for infield hits, Ichiro only had one season where he stole at least 50 bases (his first) and four others with at least 40. In fact, it seemed that Ichiro was more tentative about base-stealing after his second season, when he was thrown-out a surprising 32 percent of the time, leading the majors in the number of times being "caught" stealing a base.

But more disconcerting was his lack of power, not necessarily his homerun production, but the fact that he was almost purely a singles hitter, with even doubles more a matter of outfielder mistakes. Even the most notorious singles hitters in recent baseball history, like Pete Rose, Rod Carew and Tony Gwinn, were not "content"  to be merely slap hitters; Rose had 746 career doubles, and Carew and Gwinn both had a season driving in at least 100 RBIs. While they certainly were not “sluggers,” they were typical of their times, when a player who hit 30 homeruns in a season was not common at all, and pitchers seemed to be stronger and more durable than they are now. Ichiro’s 336 doubles off of 2844 career hits seems “unusual” for someone who allegedly is a “speedy” runner. His 715 RBIs off those hits and 564 walks for a player who was a lead-off hitter with a .317 career batting average may not seem too low, but his 1303 runs scored does seem a bit insubstantial. Of course, some of the blame during his Mariner years may be due to the lack of support behind him, but that wasn’t the case in his time with the Yankees (in which his run production was even worse); the reality is that he seldom helped his own cause by making an effort to get himself in scoring position.

There are a lot of “metrics” out there that are supposed to “measure” a baseball players’ “value.” The ones that supposedly are more “accurate” because they take into consideration league averages and the dimensions of ballparks are the OPS+ and wRC+ (Weighted Runs Created plus), both measurements just competing variations of the same theme with little difference in numbers generated. The “average” score is 100, so Babe Ruth’s career OPS+ of 206 and Barry Bond’s record 268 in a season can be used as a guide to the top side of the scale. This season the top scores have been residing in the 160s. Ichiro never had a score higher than 130, and his career value of 110 means that he is just barely above “average.” His numbers have fallen well below more recently, with a score of 54 since June, calling into question of why the New York Yankees—who acquired Ichiro in a trade with the Mariners—would even consider resigning him. Although his $6.5 million salary this past season hardly busted the Yankees’ payroll budget, the team certainly didn’t get much in return—each run he “produced” cost $100,000. 

I’m sure than many people—including Yankee fans—had an expectation that in a new environment and a more “hitter-friendly” ballpark,  Ichiro would return to some semblance of his peak years in Seattle. But even if this was the case, Ichiro may have been more of a liability hitting at the top of the order because of the previously mentioned issues. Ichiro has only 238 hits in the past two mostly free from injury seasons; considering the fact that the Yankees have a generally good line-up, one would have thought that Ichiro would have more “protection” and thus more opportunities to get hits. But as one observer pointed out, in another metric, Ichiro has shown an increasingly diminished ability to put “wood” on the ball—a very bad thing for a player whose “strength” is slapping a ball through holes in the infield.

There are those who nevertheless see “value” in Ichiro moving forward (especially himself), probably a team occupying the lower depths who need someone to put some fans in the park. The Yankees were obviously expecting more from Ichiro, but eventually had to peg his true value as a shocking eighth in the batting order—a  slot where generally the more unproductive hitters reside (Yankee management probably didn’t want to shame him further by putting him ninth in the batting order). Ichiro is just 156 hits shy of 3000 in the majors (he has 1278 hits in Japan), so a needy team may take a flyer on him just in that quest for additional “interest.” The reality, however, is that very few position players who are beyond Ichiro’s age (41 in October) have been anything but serious liabilities in their clubs line-ups—including Rickey Henderson and Barry Bonds (after he got off the “cream”). 

Of course, it may be unfair to single out Ichiro, since the fact is that he is best player to come out of Japan means something, although that depends on what the definition of “best” signifies. And there are plenty of players in baseball history who have come and gone, and have achieved not just far less, but haven’t come close to achieving anything worthy of note, which Ichiro has. After all, George Sisler’s 1920 record of 257 hits was considered “unbreakable,” and Ichiro did it. Had he entered the Majors at an earlier time in his career, 4,000 career hits would certainly have been a possibility (hits that actually “count,” outside those accumulated in the Japanese leagues). 

But the question remains if he is just a gimmick player who was good at one thing really, hitting singles. Even in his record season he just barely edged above 100 runs scored, and  in the Mariners’ historically inept 2010 season, Ichiro scored just 74 runs on 214 hits; the record for fewest runs scored on 200+ hits surprisingly enough is also George Sisler, when he scored just 67 runs on 205 hits. However, Sisler batted third or fourth in the lineup for the Boston Braves, and led the team with 79 RBIs despite hitting only 2 homeruns; Ichiro managed a shockingly low 43 RBIs in his record-breaking season. 

Ichiro is hardly an “insecure” player, of course; he knows he is “good,” perhaps even “great” in his own mind. Certainly there are those who assume he will be inducted into Canton sometime after he retires. Does he deserve to be? If the past, 3,000 automatically insured Hall of Fame entry, and even if he doesn’t reach that mark, there are other “considerations,” such as his cultural “relevancy.” And after all, there are players in the Hall with less “impressive” statistics but had “cool” nicknames the sportswriters who voted them in gave them—like pitcher “Dizzy” Dean who had only three good seasons and won 150 games in 12 seasons, or “Pee-Wee” Reese (who was actually 5-10), who had only 2170 career hits, a .269 batting average and metrics that suggested he was less than an “average” ballplayer. 

It seems that Ichiro does also have a particular sense of self. It has been reported that although he is not “fluent” in any language other than Japanese, he has a sponge-like ability to pick-up Spanish phrases—especially those of a “colorful” nature. Many Latin players have related how Ichiro would make “amusingly” ribald comments to them on the field, all in good “fun,” being rather surprising coming from him. Ichiro claims that he does this because "I feel a bond with them. We're all foreigners in a strange land. We've come over here and had to cope with some of the same trials and tribulations. When I throw a little Spanish out at them, they really seem to appreciate it and it seems to strengthen that bond. And besides, we don't really have curse words in Japanese, so I like the fact that the Western languages allow me to say things that I otherwise can't."

Maybe we can cut him some slack, after all.

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