Ichiro Suzuki: Bad Luck, Or Bad Age?

Ichiro Suzuki is getting old. In life, that’s not a bad thing. In baseball, it is.

He is now in season 11 of the MLB portion of his career and season 20 of his professional career. Despite his age, he has played in 102 of the Seattle Mariners’ 103 games this year (not counting today). Moreover, he has more plate appearances (457) than anyone over age 35 in 2011. The next closest, Paul Konerko, is over 30 PAs behind him.

Ichiro may look as healthy and athletic as ever, but his numbers this year have been very un-Ichiro-like:

wOBA: .285
wRC+: 80
UZR: -8.4
Bsr: 2.3

All, except for the base-running (UBR) numbers, are career lows for Ich-dawg. We have long-anticipated Ichiro would slow down his ageless mastery of baseball at some point, but the depreciation in his 2011 statistics seem rather sudden. Worth noting:

BABIP: .289

For most players, .289 is normal. For most 37-year-old players, .289 is great. However, Ichiro has a career BABIP of .353 and as recently as last year sported that exact BABIP.

His problems seem to stem from this uncommonly low BABIP. He’s walking at his career rates (0.1% above, actually) and striking out less (8.5%) than this career rate (9.3%). The only plate discipline number out of whack is his O-Contact rate, which says he’s touching 86% of balls outside the strike zone — compared to a 76.7% career number. This may be a bit misleading, though, as he sported a O-Contact rate above 80% through his last three seasons — and still managed wRC+’s of 109, 126, and 112 in those seasons.

So, it comes back to BABIP. I have heard many a mournful Mariners fan say ol’ Ichi cannot catch the fastball anymore. Indeed, the pitch type values indicate he is enduring an unprecedented struggle with fastballs (-0.88 runs per 100 pitches; his previous career low was -0.12) and sliders (-3.42 per 100; previous career low: -2.26).

I recall Marinerites lodging similar laments in the waning Ken Griffey Jr. Era. It should come to us as no surprise, then, that Ken Griffey Jr.’s BABIP also declined in his final year. In fact, it made a steady decline through his career as a whole:

But here’s the deal: Age has never really had a solid correlation to BABIP. At least, none that I have ever discovered. Look at Ichiro’s heart rate monitor yearly BABIP:

Digging deeper, we find the possibilities of bad luck and Balrogs. A player’s BABIP is merely the surface of their batted ball data; what boils underneath is a stew of liners, grounders, flies, and bunts — the four basic batted ball results. These four elements combine with a player’s speed, luck, the defense’s ability, and [joke] the player’s aim [/joke] to make the final or surface BABIP.

For Ichiro, his speed seems intact. His speed score (6.0) is actually up from his last two seasons (5.3ish). Meanwhile, he has 26 steals to 5 captures and an aforementioned, rather decent base-running score.

So let’s look at Ichiro’s stew, his mix of liners and whatnot. For the most part, we see he at or near his career norms: A solid line drive rate, a high groundball rate, and a low fly ball rate. Notably, though, he has hit a lot of infield flies (16.0%), much like the ill-fated final showing of Griffey Jr. (16.7%).

But, unless there’s a serious pitch classification error (and there may be, I’m not sure), then Ichiro’s line drives are “softer” and his ground balls are “easier to field” — both are pretty crazy concepts, but they are the only possible explanations for this:

Despite the career-low BABIP on flies, Ichiro is actually not having the worst BABIPs of his MLB career. He’s hit a lower BABIP on liners twice, grounders twice, and bunts thrice. This could either mean: (1) he’s finally having age-related issues and these numbers are within reason, or (2) these flukes are within plausibility and merely represent a perfect storm of flukes.

So let’s slide these numbers into some xBABIP calculators. Using two competing xBABIP calculators (Chris Dutton’s xBABIP quick calculator and this batted ball one from where I do not know), we find a similar suggestion:

NOTE: Dutton’s xBABIP typically does not work well with career numbers. As evidence: It suggested Ichiro should have a .500+ career BABIP.

Both methods suggest Ichiro has all the means necessary to rebound, but maybe not to his career levels. This makes sense. We anticipate he is going to age a little bit eventually, but 2011 has not been “a little bit.”

One of the difficulties with aging players is that GMs, managers, and fans all alike expect It to come. The decline. We could see it in Pat Burrell (oops) and Vladimir Guerrero (oops?) in 2009. Sometimes, even if a player is plagued with bad luck, the mental framing of the situation predisposes the decision-makers to pull the ripcord.

In other words, maybe Ken Griffey Jr. was indeed having a BABIP-induced rough spell? (He probably wasn’t.) We’ll never know, though, because he got relegated to pinch-hitting and spot starts after a month into the 2010 season and then retired shortly thereafter.

The same may happen with Ichiro. If his slump continues, he may find himself a defensive replacement sooner rather than later. And if that happens, do not expect his numbers to improve because, sadly for baseball, Ichiro can do anything but get younger.



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Bradley writes for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times. Follow him on Twitter @BradleyWoodrum.


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