Ichiro’s Sudden Selectivity In Pinstripes

When Seattle traded Ichiro Suzuki to New York in mid-July, the 38-year-old outfielder owned a mere .281 wOBA and was largely assumed to be on his last legs as a major-league baseball player. He still provided value with his glove, but his 77 wRC+ was simply too unproductive to pencil in as a right fielder every night.

As a New York Yankee, however, Ichiro has enjoyed far greater success and has people dreaming of his six-win years in Seattle.

After last night’s two-home-run outburst against Josh Beckett and the Boston Red Sox, the former MVP has hit .322/.344/.506 with the Bronx Bombers, and his .364 wOBA as a Yankee is well above average in relation to the remainder of American League right fielders.

The overall statistics should obviously be taken with a massive grain of salt due to the standard small sample size concerns. Not to mention he still has only drawn one walk since joining New York, and he also has seen his BABIP increase almost 40-points in that time frame. Plenty of reasons exist as to why we should not trot onto the field at Yankee Stadium and celebrate his re-coronation.

At the same time, Ichiro’s selectivity at the plate has drastically changed since donning pinstripes.

He has never posted gargantuan walk rates at any point of his career, but Ichiro began his career with the Mariners as a relatively selective hitter at the plate. His O-Swing% hovered between 16.6-25.2% from 2002 to 2006, right just a bit above league average, despite having a reputation as a swing-at-anything hack. His unique approach paid off, as he never had less than a .336 wOBA over that time frame and  hit over .300 in his first ten seasons in the big leagues.

Even as he continued to churn out a .300 batting average season after season, though, his selectivity waned.

Year O-Swing Above Average Team wOBA Ranking
2006 1.30% 23rd
2007 2.10% 13th
2008 3.30% 27th
2009 2.80% 26th
2010 5.00% 30th
2011 5.60% 30th

From 2006 to 2011, Ichiro began swinging at more and more pitches outside the strike zone. The Mariners’ offense also became progressively worse until it hit rock bottom in recent seasons.

Now, this is not to suggest that Seattle’s production at the plate declined due to Ichiro’s declining selectivity over the past half-decade. Their offensive woes go much deeper than that. Instead, perhaps it’s reasonable to postulate that Ichiro began swinging at more pitches outside the strike zone because he was trying to do too much to compensate for the remainder of the batting order declining in talent. Perhaps he began trying to shoulder the load for the Mariners, becoming more aggressive because he was not confident that the bats behind him could drive in runs.

That’s certainly subjective analysis — and one could also argue that Ichiro’s O-Swing% increased because he began to see fewer fastballs as his career progressed — but the analysis does coincide with his sudden selectivity at the plate with the Yankees.

Prior to being traded, Ichiro swung at 35.6% of the pitches outside the zone. Since the trade, however, that number has plummeted to 24.9%. His swing percentage is down across the board and even the percentage of pitches he fouls off has dropped dramatically. Thus, his effectiveness with the bat has unsurprisingly increased, as one would imagine that his ability to better drive pitches would coincide with his choosing better pitches at which to swing.

The real interesting question then becomes whether his increased selectivity is a product of mere small sample size variation or a product of his new environment, where he happens to be surrounded by better hitters and an organization that has traditionally swung at few pitches outside the zone for the past decade.

Unfortunately, not enough time has elapsed to draw any solid conclusions as to the reason for the sudden jump in selectivity at the plate. The only conclusion we can draw at this point is that New York must feel as if they fleeced Seattle in the mid-season trade, sending two fringe prospects (at best) for a guy posting a .364 wOBA through his first 26 games with the organization — even if that level of production may be fleeting.




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J.P. Breen is a graduate student at the University of Chicago. For analysis on the Brewers and fantasy baseball, you can follow him on Twitter (@JP_Breen).

42 Responses to “Ichiro’s Sudden Selectivity In Pinstripes”

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  1. MX says:

    I wish him successful and gets the ring he deserves.

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  2. Freshee says:

    Adding more subjective analysis: is it possible Ichiro felt added pressure to impress all the fan that came to Mariners games wanting to see Ichiro do what Ichiro does? I’m on mobile now, but it would be interesting to see the O-Swing % home vs away. In other words, was Ichiro less selective when he was in front of Japanese tourists who paid a lot of money to see their hero?

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    • Shaun Catron says:

      Fans went to Mariner games? News to me.

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    • Balthazar says:

      Regarding ‘increased selectivity,’ I have no opinion other than, as said, 100 ABs is small to draw any conclusion. Regarding improved results, though, absolutely every factor which could figure leans that way. Ichi went from a run-poor enviornment where his job was to get on base to a run-rich environment where his job is to get hits. Ichi has _never_ been one to take a walk if he could reach a pitch and felt he could hit it (I say that having watched his whole career in Seattle), so it’s no surprise his putative selectivity doesn’t translate into more walks. Ichi is being platooned, and while he’s hit lefties OK at times in his career, it’s not so much this year, and furthermore all his power is against righties. Perhaps more importantly, Ichi is getting days off as a part-time player, and he’s _needed_ days off for several years but the Mariners org was never comfortable imposing this, and Ichi wouldn’t voluntarily sit. One could add in that, as mentioned below, Ichiro went from a miserable stadium for hitters to one that rewards hitters, especially for power.

      It’s difficult to asses from the numbers alone given that Ichio’s overall style has been so consistent, but he is a very shrewd player at reading parks, game situations, pitcher match-ups, and team needs. He is quite capable of adjusting his approach (within reasonable physical limits) depending on what is needed for _a limited timeframe_. ‘Drive the ball against righthanders for six weeks’ is something Ichiro can decide to do, within the limits of his limited power. Believe me, he is aware produce, right now, today.

      The Yankees were mentioned, in acquiring Ichiro, as hoping for an improved performance ‘because he was bored in Seattle.’ Now, Ichiro is as professional as any athlete I have ever watched, and an intensely proud man. I don’t think he ever reached the point of mailing in performance here. But one would have to be CRAZY not to be bored here, playing these last 2-3 seasons with crews of hopeless mooks unable to generate major league performances on a nightly basis. The man’s too proud to wish to be associated with the dreck here, and I suspect that matters more even than getting into a pennant race. So yeah, I would see him raising his performance, for a time, in the circumstances he found himself after the trade. I wouldn’t expect it to carry over too much into 2013. But if it did, I’d be happy for him. Seattle has never deserved him, and hasn’t surrounded him with talent for a decade. Free Ichi! and it was done. The Ms got what they should have got for the numbers he had when he left, I don’t think there was or is any fleecing involved.

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  3. Corey says:

    Alternative hypothesis. Ichiro’s selectivity disappeared the past few seasons along with the rest of the Mariners lineup as a result of Wedge’s constant preaching that hitters should “attack the ball.” I haven’t looked at an aggregate effect, but it seems like a number of Mariners who were relatively selective with other teams or in the minors are free swingers with the Mariners.

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    • Paul Clarke says:

      Corey,

      See my comment below – his selectivity declined in 2009, and Wedge didn’t take over as manager till 2011.

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      • Corey says:

        Fair enough, I was just saying as a Mariners fan that it seems like a teamwide issue, but I’m glad someone has actually looked rather than just saying what it “seems like” like I did.

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  4. Average_Casey says:

    I don’t think the Yankees fleeced the Mariners, they did them and their fans a favor. Ichiro declined so much that it was in the Mariners’ interest for him to go elsewhere. Us fans didn’t want another Griffey situation which was very likely coming with Ichiro if he wasn’t traded. I’m glad for him but equally glad we won’t be stuck with an aging superstar who would take playing time and money from potential contributors in the future. Good luck Ichiro, thanks for all your time with the Mariners.

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    • Sleight of Hand Pro says:

      he was only signed for this season, so he wasnt keeping potential contributors off the field. also, he was being paid regardless, so the moneys a non issue as well.

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    • JimNYC says:

      In fairness, the Mariners kind of fleeced the Yankees when they took our number one prospect for two guys who’ll never throw a major league pitch in pinstripes earlier this year.

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      • Jon L. says:

        Does anyone who knows about such things feel like this may have contributed to the Ichiro trade? Could the Mariners have given the Yankees first shot or a small edge in negotiations in order to maintain goodwill, considering that the last trade worked out so poorly for the Yankees (at least in 2012)?

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      • Dongcopter says:

        Anyone who knows such things refrains from saying a guy who just had TJ surgery at age 22 will never pitch again. If he meant “just not in pinstripes, not never again,” well, then I guess that just means Cashman really is as stupid as he looks on TV, because the big Pineapple will be back, and you only got nothing in return for that fatass DH you sent us if you then give Pineda away assuming he’s “broken.” But if that’s the Yanks’ philosophy on injured pitchers, then please explain Phil Hughes to me.

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      • Preston says:

        He didn’t have TJ, it was a tear in his labrum, shoulders are usually more troublesome then elbows.

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      • Shaun Catron says:

        JimNYC, you’re an idiot.

        Please stop trying to be the universal voice of Yankee fans everywhere, you aren’t.

        If you did your research you would know that one of the prospects the Yankees got back in the Montero deal (Jose Campos) actually projects as a #1/#2 starter down the road.

        If you call trading Montero (a guy who probably can’t catch at the major league level, current 88 wRC+/.296 wOBA) for Pineda (shoulder injury, should return next season) and Campos (could be pitching in NY in 2015) as being hosed, please stop posting here.

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  5. Evan says:

    Come on, it’s less than 100 PAs and he’s being platooned.

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  6. Joof says:

    I’d wager that some of the improvement was getting out of the hitting hellhole that has been Safeco Field this year. The Mariners as a whole have a BABIP 50 points lower in Safeco compared to on the road, and their home OPS is over 100 points lower than their OPS on the road. Likewise, Mariner’s pitchers have a BABIP 30 points lower at Safeco, and have an OPS against .170 points lower.

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  7. Jerry says:

    Yankee fans really ought to give some credit to the much-maligned Brian Cashman here. For a couple of fringe prospects and a little over 15 mil in commitments, none lasting beyond the 2012 season, he picked up Ichiro Suzuki, Eric Chavez, Hiroki Kuroda, Derek Lowe, and Andy Pettitte. Meanwhile, he resisted impatient fan and media demands to give up the farm for Zack Grienke and Ryan Dempster at the trade deadline. Love him or hate him (and I know for Yankee fans, it’s mostly the latter), you’ve got to give the man credit for what he’s done this year.

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    • JimNYC says:

      Except the Pineda trade.

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    • Krog says:

      The Yankees could have fallen apart a number of times over the past few seasons due to age and/or injuries, but Cashman keeps plugging in good players or getting age-defying performances from the stars to keep the Yankees afloat. It also helps to have unlimited funds to fill holes, but Cashman has done a very good job at maintaining the Yankees as the premier team in baseball, unlike his rivals in Boston.

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  8. Phantom Stranger says:

    I know people hate hearing this, but Yankee hitters get a much tighter strike zone called against them in close games. Anyone that watches the horrible marathon games they play on a regular basis know the umpires for the most part treat their games differently than the rest of MLB games. Umpires do have a bias toward veteran players and the Yankees are loaded with veteran hitters that were once superstars.

    Ichiro’s approach may not have changed as much as his uniform.

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    • Jon L. says:

      So do umpires have a bias in favor of veteran hitters that were once superstars or don’t they? And on what date did Ichiro become one?

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    • andy says:

      well i’d really like to see the evidence on this claim

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      • KDL says:

        I suspect a lot of the home field advantage stuff that got covered in Scorecasting (Moskkowitz/Wertheim) would apply to Yankee hitters, especially at home, but also on the road due to Yankee’s national following and fans coming to see the collection of stars. So, there actually is some science.
        The stuff in Scorecasting talks about unconscious bias…There is a statistically significant home field advantage…and it has more to do with umpires unconsciously feeling (for lack of a better term) peer pressure to make certain calls-close pitches, for example- than it does with fans cheering.
        PhantomStranger may not have articulated it well, but there is a kernel of validity to this idea. Contrariwise, neither of the follow comments offered any scientific reasoning to refute this…just smugness.

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    • Panned Handle says:

      Uh, prove it.

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  9. Paul Clarke says:

    There seems to be an error in the O-Swing above average figures. In 2009 Ichiro’s O-Swing is 32.1% and average is 25.1%, giving 7% rather than 2.80%. There was a big drop in the Mariners’ offence ins 2008 and another one in 2010, whereas Ichiro’s O-Swing jumped in 2009 and then declined a bit. That doesn’t fit the theory all that well.

    There’s also the problem of the changes in the BIS strike zone over the years. The zone has generally shrunk; if it happens to have shrunk in the areas where Ichiro is particularly likely to swing then his O-Swing above average will have increased even if he’s made no changes to his approach. Pitch F/X figures back up the BIS data for 2007-2011 reasonably well, but we don’t have an independent check on the figures for early years that show him being selective. His overall swing% and swinging strike% figures for 2001-2005, though, are quite similar to 2009-2011, which makes me suspicious. The 2006-2008 period looks like the anomaly, as the overall swing% figure dropped from 48-50% to around 45%.

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  10. designated quitter says:

    I believe the Ichiro renaissance is due to two factors- he’s out of the ‘get the season over with as soon as possible’ atmosphere of the lowly Mariners, and he is in a situation where he can play his old game with no expectation that he needs to do anything more. He’s not the whole show in New York, and he appears to be relieved not to be so. He is also undenialbly being motivated by the overt love he’s getting from the 40,000+ fans in Yankee Stadium every time he gets a hit, steals a base, or saves a hit defensively.

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    • Rick says:

      From my perspective, it seems as if Ichiro is certainly more motivated now as a Yankee compared to when he was a Mariner (where he asked to be traded from). A lot of his swings seemed halfhearted compared to his current swings as a Yankee, which lead to him uncaringly chasing pitches that were unhittable (due to location).

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  11. Dan Gayle says:

    Good for Ichiro. He’s one of the world’s biggest sports stars, one of the all-time greatest Mariner’s, and I’ve always hoped he would go out on a high note.

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  12. ThirteenOfTwo says:

    It’s Safeco. Ichiro’s numbers at Yankee are fairly consistent with his road numbers from the first half of his season with the Mariners. It’s not that he felt compelled to impress home fans, or to pick up his team, it’s that his home park was the biggest one-year offensive vortex in modern major league history. Last I checked, 2012 Safeco has a park factor for runs of 61. 61!

    In this sense, Jack Z was kind of using Ichiro as a guinea pig… if he goes to Yankee Stadium, and hits, that’s more proof that it’s the park and the young hitters are better than popular belief has it. If he doesn’t hit, then start worrying about Ackley, Seager, and the like. As it is, Ichiro’s resurgence (and their 22-13 post-ASB record since the new rotation started owning) indicates that it’s the Mariners’ rotation that was causing the problems, which is good, because their farm is loaded with great rotation prospects and has no more hitters.

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  13. Bah says:

    Ichiro is just as selfish as ever. Witness his 2 homers the other day. He’s choosing to walk more now because he knows the Yankees won’t kowtow to him like the Nintendo Mariners did. The Yankees actually expect him to play up to the level of his teammates.

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  14. Westside guy says:

    I fail to see how the Yankees fleeced the Mariners in the Ichiro – I mean, how much is an offensively-underperforming 38-year-old rental really worth?

    Subjectively, I see this trade in a similar light to when the Sonics let Jack Sikma go – a goodwill move made by the team, giving a longtime loyal star one last chance at winning a ring before retirement.

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    • Westside guy says:

      argh – that should be “in the Ichiro deal“.

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      • Jerry says:

        They will have fleeced them if Ichiro continues to hit like he has so far in New York. Yankees gave up two fringe prospects who are nothing more than minor league depth to acquire him. Even if he’s all he gives them is good outfield defense, and speed, it’s a good deal for them. If he continues to hit like he has, it’s a fleecing, hands down.

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  15. KDL says:

    I’m new to searching/sorting the stats. Is there a way to look at O-swing% with the platoon split that my “extensive” 5 minute trial-and-error didn’t uncover?

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  16. ray says:

    A grain of salt is never massive.

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