For the better part of a decade, Ichiro Suzuki was one of the top outfielders in fantasy baseball despite his lack of power thanks to elite batting average and stolen base numbers. His days as an elite player seemed to come to an end two seasons ago, when he hit a meager .272 while also managing 40 steals. Last season he hit just .261 with 15 steals in 95 games with the Mariners before what was previously thought to be unthinkable happened — Ichiro was traded.
After the move to the Yankees, the now 39-year-old Ichiro hit a robust .322 with 14 steals in just 67 games. His five homers with New York — all at hitter-friendly Yankee Stadium — matched his total in 2011 and were one more than his half-season in Seattle in 2012. Whether it be small sample size or the rejuvenating atmosphere of a pennant race, Ichiro started hitting like guy he was 2001-2010 as soon as he put on the pinstripes. Unfortunately that only created more uncertainty about him as a fantasy option for 2013.
Had Ichiro continued to stink with the Yankees, it would have been easy to discard him for the coming season. Since he showed glimpses of his former self, we have to at least consider the possibility that the change of scenery injected some new life into his veteran body. The allure of that high-end batting average and stolen base combination is too good to not investigate further. First things first, let’s look at the batted ball profile…
Ichiro obviously enjoyed a much higher BABIP with the Yankees (.337) then he had at any point with the Mariners from 2011 through the 2012 trade deadline. The batted ball profile didn’t change a ton other than an increase in ground ball rate, which only reverted back to his career average (55.6%). That’s a good thing though, career average Ichiro is a pretty great player. The fact that there is no insane line drive rate spike is actually a good thing as far as performance sustainability is concerned. That batted ball profile with New York is (likely) repeatable because he’s done it for the majority of his career, including 2010-2011.
Always an elite contact hitter, Ichiro never stopped making contact and putting the ball in play with the Mariners. His walk rate dropped a touch in recent years and even moreso with New York (just 2.1 BB%), but it’s not like he started swinging and missing more in his late-30s. That would have been an enormous red flag for a BABIP-reliant guy. Ichiro is going to make contact and he’s going to beat the ball into the ground, and it’s worth noting his infield hit rate with the Yankees (14.2%) was nearly double his rate with the Mariners (7.4%) and his highest in three years. That might not happen again, which would cut into the batting average numbers.
The power spike Ichiro displayed after the trade was very clearly a product of Yankee Stadium, but he’s not going to become a 20-homer guy all of a sudden. He’s a ground ball hitter and those guys tend to have trouble hitting the ball out of any park, even ones with cozy right field porches. It’s certainly a better power environment than Safeco Field, but I have a hard time expected even 8-10 homers. That was his homer output during his best seasons. Expecting Ichiro to start hitting for a high average and stealing tons of bases again is one thing, but expecting him to chip in some dingers is another. Treat any homers (and RBIs) as a bonus.
The Ichiro we see next season is likely to be someone between the two Ichiros we saw in 2012 — he won’t be as good as he was with the Yankees nor as bad as he was with the Mariners. The cozier ballpark will help some and so will hitting in a more potent lineup, just because pitchers will have to approach him differently given all the extra runners who will be on-base in front of him. The Yankees did a fine job of platooning him after the trade (80 wRC+ vs. LHP) and I expect them to continue that next year, so he’s not someone you can just stick in your lineup and leave him there day after day. The pinstripes aren’t magic though, we can’t really expect Ichiro to revert to his 2001-2010 form just because he’s a Yankee. Fantasy owners will get their 30+ steals, but another year of age (and lost bat speed) has me expecting an average closer to .280 than .320 and hoping for something in the middle.