Ichiro’s Silent Season

At 32-31, the Seattle Mariners are surprisingly in the thick of the AL West race. Whether the club is capable of keeping pace with the Rangers is another matter: Baseball Prospectus’ Playoff Odds Report gives Seattle a 3.5 percent chance of claiming the division. Still, by most measures, the Mariners have played markedly better baseball in 2011. That is, except for one glaring example. And his name is Ichiro.

Known for his Jedi-like bat control, scorching speed and deadly arm, the 37-year-old has racked up the fifth-most Wins Above Replacement among position players since he left Japan and arrived in Seattle in 2001. He averaged 4.8 WAR from 2008 to 2010. Yet, this season, Ichiro has been a sub-replacement-level player (-0.6 WAR).

After three straight 0-for-4 games, Ichiro is batting .252/.306/.294 in 285 plate appearances this season. He has created 29 percent fewer runs than the league average (71 wRC+ ). Ichiro’s power is down, even relative to his own standards (.042 Isolated Power, .097 career average). And by far the biggest change in his offensive profile is his batting average on balls in play.

From 2008 to 2010, Ichiro’s .356 BABIP was third-highest among MLB hitters. His career mark is nearly identical, at .354. But this year, his BABIP is .273. Ichiro is hitting more ground balls than usual this season (62.3 percent, 56.9 percent from 2008 to 2010), and his BABIP on those grounders has dipped 70 points compared to his average over the previous three seasons. His BABIP on line drives is also considerably lower. Consider:

Considering that he’s older and that he’s also rated poorly by Ultimate Zone Rating this season (-5 UZR), it would be easy to jump to the conclusion that Father Time has finally caught up with Ichiro. It’s a compelling narrative, but it’s also a rush to judgment.

Fangraphs’ Saber Library lists the sample size at which certain offensive stats become reliable. You won’t find BABIP among them, and there’s a reason: a player’s batting average on balls in play fluctuates much more than other stats do.

We have years of data showing Ichiro gets hits on balls in play more than just about any other player; then we have a little more than two months’ worth of numbers where his BABIP has cratered. Given what we know about BABIP, declaring that Ichiro lost a step is, at this point, a knee-jerk reaction. ZiPS projects a .318 BABIP over the rest of 2011. Ichiro would be about a league-average hitter if he reaches that conservative mark and shows a bit more power, considering Safeco’s pitcher-friendly tendencies. His rest-of-season ZiPS calls for a .312 wOBA.

Similarly, Ichiro’s lousy UZR rating shouldn’t be taken as a sign that he no longer can cover ground. No other right fielder saved more runs compared to an average player at the position than Ichiro over the 2008 to 2010 seasons (nearly 27 runs, and that’s when he split the 2008 season between RF and center field). Given that it can take up to three years’ worth of UZR data to draw conclusions about a player’s talent level, the odds are pretty good that Ichiro hasn’t suddenly become Brad Hawpe.

Perhaps Ichiro isn’t Ichiro! anymore, but he’s probably not washed up. If he’s merely an average hitter who plays quality defense and adds some value on the bases, Ichiro is still a solid starter, if not the perennial All-Star we have come to know and love.




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A recent graduate of Duquesne University, David Golebiewski is a contributing writer for Fangraphs, The Pittsburgh Sports Report and Baseball Analytics. His work for Inside Edge Scouting Services has appeared on ESPN.com and Yahoo.com, and he was a fantasy baseball columnist for Rotoworld from 2009-2010. He recently contributed an article on Mike Stanton's slugging to The Hardball Times Annual 2012. Contact David at david.golebiewski@gmail.com and check out his work at Journalist For Hire.

41 Responses to “Ichiro’s Silent Season”

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  1. Joe says:

    They have more than one glaring weakness though…

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  2. Jose says:

    Even the Greats have to face Father Time. But he still makes the HOF.

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  3. CheeseWhiz says:

    It’s been really hard watching him play this year. Instead of supreme confidence when he steps to the plate I almost flinch at this point. :(

    Having said that, I wonder how much the disaster back in his home country is weighing on his mind and affecting his performance. While it would be impossible to calculate a factor like this, it certainly seems possible. He just doesn’t look like the same ballplayer right now. Hopefully he will turn it around soon.

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  4. Hunter says:

    Isn’t this how players age, though? I didn’t think most players just fell off a cliff. I thought that their slumps started to get a little worse, their hot streaks a little less hot, etc. So Ichiro is getting old and probably just isn’t as good as he was 1 or 2 years ago.

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  5. corey says:

    What’s the sample size for Ichiro’s ground balls, fly balls, and line drives? Strikes me that the drop in hits on ground balls is a lot more meaningful than the others, if he got a line drive single next time up for example, I suspect that would swing his line drive babip substantially, whereas his ground balls are quite a bit more statistically solidified. Including a measure of standard error in that stat would be equally (or more) helpful. I suspect the real substantive drop is coming from the ground balls even though you’re showing a huge drop in line drives.

    He’s of course always had that highly unorthodox (to put it nicely) swing mechanic, but watching him this year, it seems to me like more than years past, he really isn’t even doing anything that can acceptably be described as a “swing” anymore, there’s no follow through, he’s just dropping the bat into the plane and flinging his wrists at it. Seems like a huge percentage of the time this year he never actually gets his bat around his shoulders in a follow through, he just stops after contact indicative of 0 bat speed. He’s of course always done this sometimes, but it seems like it happens a lot more this year, in fact, it seems like virtually every at bat.

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  6. Phantom Stranger says:

    I have no idea if his off-season training was affected by the problems in Japan, but he looks the thinnest he ever has in his career.

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  7. Llewdor says:

    I love Ichiro. Ichiro is the reason I’m a baseball fan today.

    And every day now, the box scores make me sad.

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  8. Garrett says:

    So apparently ZIPS is shit at projecting BABIP?

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  9. AJS says:

    If Ichiro is in decline, shouldn’t we expect to see consistent evidence of that across the season?

    I know there’s small sample size variability, but wouldn’t a washed-up player be worse in April, May, June, July, etc. vs. previous years?

    But Ichiro was exactly the same player in April as he’s always been. It seems he’s just had a bad May and first few days of June. Even the best go on extended slumps.

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    • CaR says:

      Been wondering where the Ichiro posts have been. Its common knowledge outside of these confines that much of his value(WAR related) has been at least partially manufactured by several fanboys grasping at ever more esoteric statistical reasoning for his enormous contract. And those fanboys influence the group-think in the SABER world quite a bit.

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      • jim says:

        …are you really trying to say that everyone not on fangraphs *knows* that ichiro is not a good player and his value is completely wound up in stat gibberish?

        like, really?

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      • Everett says:

        Common knowledge? You do know that he’s averaged 5 WAR per year over his career, right? I mean, apart from his 7.2 in 2005, he’s never been up near the very top, but still. 5 WAR puts you pretty solidly top 25 in any year.

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      • theDAWG says:

        Are you being serious?

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      • DavidCEisen says:

        That’s funny because Baseball Reference has Ichiro pegged at 54.2 career WAR, but Fangraphs has him at 52.1.

        Strange that a player with great defensive value that accumulated 2200 hits in ten seasons while stealing nearly 400 bases would be considered a valuable player.

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      • André says:

        Totally agree that CaR is trolling or clueless, but don’t you guys see how responding with WAR is bizarre in this discussion?

        “Ichiro was manufactured by the SABERmetric community.”

        “Oh yeah??? TAKE A LOOK AT THIS HIGHLY ESOTERIC STAT!!!”

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  10. CaR says:

    Ichiro is a good player, and has been for a long time. He is also an over-rated player. He has some fanboys who write on baseball blogs dealing with statistics. Those fanboys go to great lengths to justify the salary he makes, and crow about his ‘unique’ skill-set. That’s pretty clearly stated above Jimmy.

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    • CheeseWhiz says:

      No, sorry he is not an over rated player. At least not in the sense that you probably mean. He didn’t deserve the MVP in 2001, but otherwise if anything he is under appreciated. A player who has averaged 5+ wins a season over a decade is incredibly valuable, and pretty much impossible to be over rated. People don’t give him enough credit for his durability and consistency. It’s only that last 2 months of his career that have shown him to be human.

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      • Blue says:

        He’s certainly overrated in that he is not–and has never been–one of the most valuable players in the league.

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      • CheeseWhiz says:

        Again, no he is not over rated. There really is a cult of people out there who would like to tear the guy down at any opportunity, and I just do not understand it. If he played in New York or Boston they would have his bust for the hall of fame already cast.

        Look at this WAR graph for ALL RFs over the last decade:
        http://www.fangraphs.com/graphswd.aspx?teamid=0&pos=RF&season=2011&season1=2001&grid=25

        He leads everybody on the list by at least 10 wins. There is absolutely no way that you can say the man is over rated. He is one of the greatest RF in the history of the game. Deal with it.

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      • waynetolleson says:

        The rigid adherence to WAR on this site is both frustrating and laughable. It’s honestly amusing how so many people seem to believe that this one statistic that hasn’t been around for five years is now the sole manner by which we judge a player’s value. No offense to WAR and Tom Tango, but one doesn’t need WAR to tell that Ichiro is, or at least was, a great player. The 158 games started and average of 225 hits per season tells you that. One doesn’t need fancy base-running metrics to tell that Ichiro was adding value on the bases. One doesn’t need UZR or DRS to tell that Ichiro covered a ton of ground in the outfield. One doesn’t need the ARM statistic to tell that Ichiro possessed perhaps the strongest and most deadly-accurate throwing arms in the game.

        Ichiro has had a great career. One need not throw a million metrics at him to prove so. It’s pretty freakin’ obvious.

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      • CheeseWhiz says:

        Wayne

        I was just using WAR in this instance because it is so easy to make a chart here on Fangraphs to make my point, not due to some slavish devotion to that particular statistic. Really all you need to know is that he has a career .373 OBP and provides value with his legs and his glove to know that he is an elite player.

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      • Chazbo says:

        Can we stop this “if he were in New York or Boston he’d be so much more appreciated” business? If we shouldn’t stop, can somebody show me why make a case with numbers…you know, player X from the BoSox made the HOF, while player Y from the KC Royals with the same numbers didn’t…and this happens a lot.

        Because I really do not find that argument compelling at all. CC Sabathia was hot shit in Cleveland, he was hot shit in Milwaukee, and now he’s hot shit in New York. And he’s been appreciated all along.

        It’s even taken on some weird life of its own. People decided that A-Gon would be more appreciated in Boston just because he’d gone to Boston. In reality, all baseball fans thought he was awesome in San Diego and now Boston.

        Maybe this is just me the stathead, uber-baseball fan talking, unawares of the media habits of the rest of the nation. Or maybe we underestimate what a large percentage of baseball fans are now like us, and have been wise to the talents of Sabathia and A-Gon for a long, long time.

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      • He’s overrated in that Tony Gwynn is overrated because… oh wait, Tony Gwynn is not overrated.

        Nevermind.

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      • waynetolleson says:

        “Really all you need to know is that he has a career .373 OBP and provides value with his legs and his glove to know that he is an elite player.”

        Hits might be a very basic, very old school statistic; but if you get enough hits, you’re doing a good job. Anything more than 190 hits in a season is great. If you’re getting 190 hits a year, you’re doing a good job.

        If you’re getting 200 hits per season, you’re doing a great job.

        Ichiro has gotten 206+ hits for TEN STRAIGHT YEARS during which he has averaged 225 hits per season. 225 HITS PER SEASON… FOR TEN STRAIGHT YEARS.

        I believe ONE OTHER PLAYER IN THE HISTORY OF THE GAME has done anything like this. That’s a pretty good indication of just how good Ichiro has been.

        I’m not saying Ichiro is Babe Ruth or Ted Williams or Joe DiMaggio or Willie Mays. But it doesn’t take a genius to see that Ichiro is one damned good ballplayer

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  11. RC says:

    “Given what we know about BABIP, declaring that Ichiro lost a step is, at this point, a knee-jerk reaction. ”

    Again, the assumption that BABIP is way more meaningful than it actually is. Its significantly less likely that Ichiro is getting unlucky than that hes just not hitting the ball hard (which would decrease his Babip)

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  12. Blue says:

    If this is the end, it will be interesting to see how much resistance there is to Ichiro’s Hall of Fame case.

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    • waynetolleson says:

      Ichiro is a HOF’er if he never plays another game. Ten straight years averaging 225 hits per season is pretty special. You also have to take into account that there would have been at least another two or three years of that level of performance had Ichiro started his career in MLB rather than Japan. He has added some value on the bases, and is, or was, one of the game’s all-time great defensive RF, combining great range with a deadly-accurate cannon for a throwing arm.

      There’s no question Ichiro Suzuki belongs in the HOF.

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      • Blue says:

        http://www.fangraphs.com/graphswd.aspx?teamid=0&pos=All&season=2011&season1=2001&grid=25

        Same WAR as Scott Rolen from 2001 to 2011…and Rolen has another 20 WAR from his years before that.

        So, tell me again how Ichiro–2/3rds the player of Scott Rolen–belongs in the HOF?

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      • waynetolleson says:

        “Same WAR as Scott Rolen from 2001 to 2011…and Rolen has another 20 WAR from his years before that. So, tell me again how Ichiro–2/3rds the player of Scott Rolen–belongs in the HOF?”

        The answer to this is easy: WAR is ONE STATISTIC and anyone who uses ONE STATISTIC that has been en vogue for only two or three years on which to judge a player is a fool.

        Ichiro is baseball’s all-time single-season hits leader. He has produced ten straight 206+ hit seasons. He has averaged 225 hits per year over ten seasons. NO PLAYER IN THE HISTORY OF THE GAME has done this.

        Then, you factor-in that Scott Rolen is American-born and has played his entire career in MLB. Ichiro hails from Japan and didn’t get to the U.S. until he was twenty-seven-and-a-half-years-old. Ichiro compiled his numbers in five fewer years than it took Rolen to compile his numbers.

        Rolen is a good player, and an oft-under-appreciated one. He’s not, however, in the same league as Ichiro, who is going to be HOF’er on two continents.

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      • DavidCEisen says:

        Scott Rolen and Ichiro will both make the Hall of Fame.

        Why is Scott Rolen even relevant to this? Scott Rolen isn’t as good as Pujols, so does Rolen not belong in the HOF? Is only one player every decade allowed in the HOF?

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      • waynetolleson says:

        “Scott Rolen and Ichiro will both make the Hall of Fame.”

        Do you really think Rolen will make the HOF? I live in Seattle, so I’ve gotten to watch Ichiro play a lot. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen Rolen play, live and in person.

        I get that Rolen was a great defender who, up until 2004, was also a big-time batter, as well. Rolen, however, doesn’t have nearly Ichiro’s durability. He also didn’t start his career in Japan, and then suddenly take MLB by storm the way Ichiro did.

        I believe that what puts Ichiro over the top is that he accomplished things that have never been done before, or at least, not done in almost 100 years. Averaging 225 hits for ten straight years is an unbelievable achievement. Had he begun his career in MLB, Ichiro would probably be somewhere between 3300-3500 hits right now.

        For these reasons, I’m convinced that Ichiro is a no-doubt-about-it HOF’er. It would still take some convincing for me to believe that Rolen belongs in Cooperstown.

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    • jim says:

      because as well all know, a player declining in skill at AGE 37 after a fantastic career in two different countries loses his HOF slot as a result.

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  13. SF 55 for life says:

    yeah he’s done. its a shame, but he’s finished

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  14. Riles says:

    Something is definitely wrong with Ichiro. It could be possible he is hiding an injury, or just too distracted by the status of his homeland. However, there is the extremely small chance that he could go on a hitting streak to break Dimaggio’s record. Dimaggio did have a really bad slump before his historic run at 56 games. I just hope that he can fix his swing and mechanics so he gets back to normal.

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  15. Tigerfan says:

    Way over ratedplayer who averaged 60 infeild hits a year until this year. He’s obviously lost a step, but he still tries that stupid running swing that no longer works. He’s either going to have to stop trying to gdt an infeild hit every at bat or go back to Japan where the competition isn’t nearly as good. He’s also an asshole with very few if any friends in the league. After all these years he still can’t speak a lick of english because he’s either lazy or hates america or he’s just stupid. Next year will be his last if he doesn’t straighten up

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