Is Ichiro Declining?

Year in and year out, Ichiro is a model of consistency. He has had over 200 hits and a batting average over .300 every single season he’s been in the majors. He’s also scored at least 100 runs every year, and stolen at least 30 bases. That being said, what can we expect from 2009?

The short answer, of course, is more of the same. When a player is this consistent for this long, the best predictor of his performance is his past performance. With that in mind, Ichiro is also getting older – he’ll be 35 next year, and even though he is a unique player, he’s not totally immune to the effects of aging. In fact, this is already beginning to show up in his batting average.

In 2008, Ichiro hit “only” .310 – the second lowest batting average of his career (in the North American Major Leagues, that is). However, he managed this batting average despite a higher-than-expected BABIP – his actual BABIP was .330, but his expected BABIP (according to a new model I introduced) was .307.

Before you tell me that Ichiro is unique, hear me out: yes, I agree that Ichiro is unique, but this new model attempted to incorporate many of the elements that make Ichiro unique – such things as hitting to all fields and speed, two elements of which Ichiro makes particular use.

I wouldn’t disagree that, even though the model has attempted to incorporate the unique aspects of Ichiro’s game, it hasn’t fully succeeded. Here are Ichiro’s expected and actual BABIPs since 2005:

ichiro-babip-ii

Note the average: since 2005, the model has underrated Ichiro’s BABIP by approximately 23 points. Now, I think this is somewhat unfair, as the average is severely skewed by Ichiro’s incredibly-high BABIP in 2006, which was well out of line with even his own already-high numbers. But if we assume that the ~23 point difference is correct, well…that means Ichiro’s BABIP in 2008 was completely luck free.

What’s perhaps more interesting to note is the downward trend of Ichiro’s expected BABIP – it has declined each year since 2005. This goes along with conventional aging patterns – Ichiro was 31 in 2005, and as he exited his prime, his expected BABIP slowly dropped.

This suggests to me that Ichiro’s batting average is a lot more likely to go down than it is to rise. Of course, it’s certainly possible that he has another flukey BABIP year that allows his BA to rise once again, but this is increasingly unlikely as he gets older. Even though Ichiro’s .310 batting average was the second lowest of his career in 2008, it doesn’t appear that this was a fluke, but rather was indicative of him slowly getting older. That doesn’t mean Ichiro won’t have significant value in fantasy leagues next year – after all, he’s still shown that he can steal 40+ bases and hit over .300 – but don’t draft him expecting a resurgence to the AL batting title.




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13 Responses to “Is Ichiro Declining?”

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  1. Adam says:

    Great job on your new BABIP model – it is a very interesting and intriguing one. I am a bit statistically-challenged however, and need help using your x-BABIP figures to predict actual batting averages for 2009. I realize that I will need estimated K%, BB%, and HR% to do these calculations, but can you help me figure out how to do the actual calculation using those estimates?

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    • Peter Bendix says:

      Thanks, Adam. Unfortunately, our current model is such that it cannot be estimated without doing a lot of work. We hope to get some kind of short-hand to estimate expected BABIP in the future…

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      • Adam says:

        Well, the 30 minutes or so that I spent trying to figure out a viable formula for estimating actual avg. based on BABIP may have been in vain, but at least it’s not indicative of gross statistical oversight on my part. : ) Thanks for your reply, Peter.

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  2. Conballs says:

    I just don’t think you can quantify the uniqueness of Ichiro. I think there are too many variables with such a player. To me, where he is supposedly declining physically, he may be filling in the holes mentally. He’s a smart ball player who assumes he is going to be pitched to and takes advantage with great plate coverage. The guy has a solid mental book on every AL pitcher, a stroke that is constantly in use, and the ability to wait longer on pitches (which can handicap slower bat speed). For such a strategic hitter, the mental becomes much more important and useful than other typical players. Throw in some magical Eastern medicine, and the fact that he still looks like he’s 27, and maybe the aging process for a player of his skillset is not congruent to an above-average MLB player.

    I love the article, but whoever has the cajones to predict when Ichiro will have his first down-year is a wise sage in my book.

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  3. Jack Burton says:

    Ichiro will fall off the cliff in the Year of the Cock. Mark my words.

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  4. Matt says:

    Well, his bat speed and foot speed look nearly the same to me as when he started. I think the shift back to RF (his stated preference apparantly) will help him easily attain last seasons numbers. I’d highly doubt ANY regression on any stat, outside of BB%-K% possibly.

    Kenny Lofton is a guy I compare him too, and Kenny was fairly effective later in his career as his wheels didn’t seem to fail him and I think Ichiro is probably the better overall player at the same age.

    Lofton at 36, .296/.352/.450, 30 SB
    Lofton at 37, .275/.346/.395, 7 SBs (83 games)
    Lofton at 38, .335/.392/.420, 22 SBs
    Lofton at 39, .301/.360/.403, 32 SBs
    Lofton at 40, .296/.367/.414, 23 SBs.

    Assuming Ichiro doesn’t return to Japan, I don’t see these lines as being out of Ichiro’s realm going forward.

    P.S. Lofton was a stud!

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  5. Conballs says:

    Nice comparison Matt. I wasn’t actually saying he’s lost bat or foot speed, but if the argument is that he ages like anyone else, I’m saying he is a good enough ball player to maintain his current level of play even with the decline of physical attributes. Maybe this is something to be looked into? I’m not the most stat savvy person, but does anyone compile bat speed and foot speed? I would think the average mph swing for each type of pitch would tell us that exactly. Same goes for average times from home to 1st, 1st to 2nd (steals) and 1st to 3rd/2nd to home. If bat speed averages are declining, and there is no effect in one’s BA or BABIP, then we can theorize this has something to do with veteran skill. Same goes with steals. I know home to 1st is not a steal attempt, but it can be use to measure pure speed. If his speed is declining, yet his SBs and SB% remain consistent, we can also theorize about veteran skill. In that, he is getting better jumps, bigger leads, etc.

    I’d love to know if these data are available. Btw, how did Lofton not sign with someone last year? Was his asking price too high or are GMs just dropping the ball? Is he still looking for a job this year?

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  6. Huh? says:

    Ichiro’s BABIP (per his player page on fangraphs.com) since 2004:
    2004: .401 BABIP
    2005: .319 BABIP
    2006: .350 BABIP
    2007: .390 BABIP
    2008: .337 BABIP

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  7. Bball says:

    Infield hits? Infield pop ups? Pop outs or weakly hit balls beyond the infield? Foul outs? Your model treats every line drive the same. Every grounder the same. Every flyball the same. Do you really think they’re all created equal? Batted ball velocity and trajectory?

    Sorry, but your model just isn’t good enough. Try not to leave out some important data.

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    • Khalid says:

      Yes, he thinks all batted balls are created equally. That’s why he completely ignored all the freely available velocity and trajectory data found all over the internet.

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  8. Duquette says:

    Right on. The holy grail will be when we stop using these silly bins (“line drive”, “fly ball”, etc.) and can calculate struck ball mph and trajectory. Then, we could have a frequency plot of velocity and trajectory outcomes. I wonder how far away that is?

    We don’t know the difference between hard hit ground balls and dribblers right now. Normalization shouldn’t be required for ground balls and fly balls (not including IFFB, IFH and HR).

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  9. Mike Ketchen says:

    Great piece

    Iciro is being drafted two to three rounds ahead of what he will provide for value in 5×5 league.

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  10. Bunnell says:

    Seems to me that the key argument is that Ichiro’s average will go down as he gets older. A law of nature that he has resisted thus far. Not sure that the analysis states anything more than based on his age, his BABIP is expected go down which is built into the model, even if its not explicit. But there is little evidence that it has since 2008 is the only down year after 2005.

    So, it seems that the only argument is that Ichiro is unique, and the model does not capture him very well.

    Also, given the large number of batted balls, an average BABIP should give you a solid number to work with. Certainly speed and trajectory would be nice, but as you start to slice and dice the data, your statistical significance will fade.

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