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RotoGraphs Panel: Valuing Ichiro

Friend of RotoGraphs Jimbo posed this question in the comments of an earlier article:

How do you weigh a pick like Ichiro that early when there’s still power left to draft…and it’s a scarce resource?

I thought that would make an excellent question for the debut of our newest feature, the RotoGraphs Panel. Here’s how our writers responded:

Marc Hulet: I personally have Ichiro ranked as the 10th overall outfielder (based on 5X5) in mixed leagues and 4th overall in AL-only format. At 36, you have to start worrying about his age and the slip in steals in ’09 (from 43 to 26). With that said, he has nine straight 200 hit seasons, hit .352 last year and has scored 100+ runs in eight of the past nine seasons. I have him nestled at No. 10 between Jayson Werth at nine and Adam Lind at 11.

Power is a scarce resource, but so is reliability; the only pieces missing from his game are power and RBIs and I would rather go hunting on the waiver wire for home runs than steals and/or batting average. I will admit that Ichiro is getting credit in 2010 based on his reputation but I’ll personally keep believing in him until A) He slips for two straight seasons or B) He hits 40 years of age, whichever comes first. I expect his average to drop to between .310-.320 but I am hoping for a return to 100 runs scored and 30+ steals. Call me optimistic.

Zach Sanders: Ichiro has been a top-50 fantasy player since his move to the Major Leagues. I remember him going in the second round in years past, due to his awesome steal and hit totals. Now that he is older and the steals aren’t as bountiful, he still has great value. Drafting Ichiro (around his ADP) over a power hitter is perfectly acceptable for two reasons.

First, he does contribute to the steals category, even if it is only 20 a year. Second, his AVG is so high that it can change the way you draft. Since he comes to the plate so often, his average is even more influential, and can make up for other guys on your team. Since he makes up for guys with low averages, you can draft power players that slip through the cracks for this very reason, and still be fine.

Dan Budreika: Ichiro’s been wowing us for years. He put together a nice year offensively last year after a lackluster 2008. But he is not getting younger and he will be 36-years-old this season. He did battle some injuries last season but what disturbs me is his un-Ichiro like 26 steals. He was also caught 9 times. I just don’t see Ichiro approaching the 40 marker in the stolen base department again and those have generally been one of his biggest fantasy strengths. He doesn’t offer much power and you can really only expect 10 homers. Power ages better than speed and Ichiro is no young buck anymore. Take the safer route with a big bopper over the aging Ichiro early in your draft.

Eno Sarris: Ichiro Suzuki is a tough nut to crack. He hit .311 on 0-2 counts last year! Nutty. On the other hand, minus the batting average, he looks like Denard Span (ADP 125.46) – a guy with barely-double-digit power that is likely to steal about 30 bases. That’s a guy that should be picked in the late rounds to boost a team flagging on speed, not in the mid-rounds as a foundational player. Managers shouldn’t normally build their rosters around him… except in certain instances. Let’s say you are hoping to get Adam Dunn (ADP 55.95) after Ichiro (ADP 40.46) – then he fits like a glove. Consider that taking those players in the fourth and fifth rounds would give you two players that, using last year’s numbers, averaged out to a .313 batting average with 25 home runs and 13 stolen bases. That fits. Ichiro gives you domination in one category that allows you to pick people like Russell Branyan (ADP 293.50) and Chris Davis (159.89) later in the draft, too. That’s added value, in flexibility, that shouldn’t be poo-pooed. It’s not easy to answer this question, and that’s why Ichiro gets drafted as high as 29 and as low as 57. But there are plenty of high-power low-batting average sluggers that become much more attractive as soon as you bring Ichiro! into the fold.

David Golebiewski: Ichiro is one of the more difficult players to project in all of fantasy baseball. We know that he’s not going to draw many walks or hit for much power (his .113 ISO last season was his highest mark since 2005). But he has consistently posted well above-average BABIP figures (.357 career) by virtue of his Olympic-level speed and ability to beat out infield hits. Over the last three years, Ichiro has the second-highest infield hit rate in the majors. His career batting average on ground balls is .306. For reference, the AL average hovers around the .240-.245 range.

In 2009, Ichiro managed a .384 BABIP, and hit an obscene .353 on grounders. Even for a guy who has time and again posted lofty BABIP figures, it’s likely that those numbers will regress in 2010. A simple Marcel projection forecasts a .319/.365/.418 line and a .352 BABIP. If Ichiro’s BABIP trends back toward his career average, then he’s a .320 batter, as opposed to last year’s .350+ machine.

The big question regarding his fantasy value is, will a 36 year-old Ichiro be great base stealer, or merely a good one? He missed the beginning of the 2009 season with a bleeding ulcer, but his 26 steals were a career-low, and his SB percentage (74.3) was his lowest since 2002. Ichiro’s Speed Score (5.2) was a career low, and well below his 6.6 overall mark in the majors. If I had to conjure a guess, I would lean toward the conservative side and project somewhere in the range of 25-35 steals next year.

MockDraftCentral currently has Ichiro at number 39 overall, which strikes me as reasonable. Just how one values Ichiro’s steals compared to another player’s power depends largely on the league format, but I’m a big advocate of going for the best available talent in the early rounds. Owners can get themselves in trouble by feeling that they must take a player who does X in round Y. I still think Ichiro is worthy of a relatively early-round pick.

Brian Joura: I have not owned Ichiro since 2005. I like taking him in mock drafts but not in real leagues. And the reason is that he is very unpredictable. Everyone says you take him and you have a stud in AVG. Some years that is very true and other years he is simply not that dominating. Yes, he has four years where he’s posted marks over .350, including last year. But he also has five years where he was at .322 or lower.

If he reaches that .350 mark, than the early pick on him works out great. But if he finishes at .310 like he did in 2008 then you are sort of left holding the bag. It would be like drafting Adam Dunn and only getting 30 HR. It’s a good total but not what you were expecting. Eno mentioned that he has gone as low as 57 and I would certainly take him there but I will not pull the trigger on him at pick 29.