Saturday, December 18, 2010

Why Ichiro Can't Win

I saw my first major league baseball game in 1963.  We were visiting my grandparents in San Francisco and my Dad took me over to Candlestick to catch a game.  It was a day game and the weather was nice, not always a given at the 'Stick.  The Pirates were in town.  I don't remember tons about the game-the Giants won 3-1.  I remember a lot of the players that day.  Mays and McCovey were in the outfield.  Don't remember if Cepeda played, but Gaylord Perry pitched.  For the Bucs it was Clemente and Stargell in the outfield with Mazeroski at 2nd base.  Six hall of famers were on the field.  I wish I remembered more about the game.

Which brings us to Ichiro Suzuki.  Yesterday he was named The Most Dependable Player of the Year by the MLB network.  Why?  He played in all 162 games in 2010.  And those hits, all 214 of them, led the American league, as Ichiro has seven of the last ten years.   Despite his 37 years, Ichiro, who stays in remarkable shape, shows no signs of slowing down in his game, built largely on speed. He is one of the most fun players I've ever watched.  I've seen him hit a grand slam at Safeco to beat the hated Red Sox.  I've watched him make catches at the wall, over the wall, deep in the corner, and seen him gun down base runners going to third.  He's beaten teams with his glove, with his bat, with his arm, and with his legs.  He is one of the best in ways that don't show up in gaudy slugging percentages.
The magic year of 2009.  Ichiro with his friend and hero, Ken Griffey, Jr.
So why are Seattle fans, at least those who comment on blogs, those who seem to be most engaged in the Mariners' shrinking community of followers, so divided on the the question of Ichiro's value to the team.  Some simply call him a "slappy" hitter who contributes little to the success of the M's.  J.J. Putz implied after the disastrous 2008 season that his teammates viewed Ichiro as selfish, and suggested there were elements who wanted to do him physical harm.  Not all are haters, however.  One of my favorite writers, Joe Posnanski, penned a column for last May enumerating Ichiro's virtues and simply stated he was a one of a kind player.

Ichiro is a one of a kind player.  Unfortunately, he's the one of a kind player whose true value is lost on a team as terrible offensively as the current edition of the Seattle Mariners.  Look at Ichiro by the numbers.  From 2001-2003 the Mariners won 116, 93, and 93 games. Their offense included good hitters:  Brett Boone, John Olerud, Edgar Martinez, Mike Cameron, and even the long forgotten Randy Winn.  They all were above average in OPS +  and a few of them had monster OPS+ seasons of 140 or more. For those who don't know OPS+ is an offensive measure that takes ballpark and other factors into consideration.  An OPS+ of 100 is considered major league average.

Ichiro's lines in those years were:

2001     .350/.381/.457  56sb  127 runs   OPS +  126  6 teammates with OPS+ 100 or greater
2002     .321/.388/.425  31sb  111 runs   OPS +  120  5 teammates with OPS+ 100 or greater
2003     .312/.352/.436  36sb  111 runs   OPS +  112  6 teammates with OPS+ 100 or greater

In those years it was not "The Seattle Mariners Offense, featuring Ichiro Suzuki."  Ichiro's job was to get on base, chreate chaos on the basepaths and score runs.  He was a very good leadoff hitter on a pretty decent team and he had a clear role. 
Nobody else can do this.  Out of the box before his swing is finished, Ichiro is the fastest player to 2,000 hits.
2004 is the year of the cataclysm.  Everything went wrong in the first year of Bill Bavasi's magic touch.  The pitching was terrible.   At bat, the Mariners were no better.  Nearly all the moves Bavasi made, Scott Spezio, Rich Aurilia, Hiram Bocachica, the Carlos Guillen trade, were failures.  Only the acquisition of Raul Ibanez worked out. It was the year of Bucky Jacobson, and the year the fine careers of Olerud, Martinez, and Boone quietly ended.

Ichiro, arguably had his best year.  It was the year of the hits record and his line looked like this:

 2004      .372/.414/.455  101 runs  OPS+ 130  2 teammates with OPS+ 100 or greater*
* Bucky Jacobsen would count as a third in limited duty.

 That Ichiro scored 101 runs despite his very high OBP demonstrates how weak this team was. As Ichiro raced to catch George Sisler in the record books, it seemed the quest to fulfill that dream superseded his commitment to help the team win.  Bunts for base hits seemed more important than trying to drive in runs by hitting away.  The 99 losses sealed Bob Melvin's fate, and Ichiro 's accomplishment became The Season.

The years 2005-07 presented more failure.  The pitching was at best mediocre and the hitting was often not much better.  2007 seemed to be a year of improvement which proved chimerical, but the team improvement seemed to boost Ichiro's performance.

Ichiro's lines were:

2005      .303/.350/.436  33sb  111 runs 113 OPS+  4 teammates with OPS+ 100 or greater
2006      .322/.370/.416  44sb  110 runs 106 OPS+  4 teammates with OPS+ 100 or greater
2007      .351/.396/.431  37sb  111 runs 122 OPS+  5 teammates with OPS+ 100 or greater

The better the supporting cast, the better Ichiro seems to do.  In this respect, 2004 seems to be an outlier.  His goal of getting 200 hits seems to focus Ichiro, but beyond that, when he has better hitters around him, he's able to accomplish more.  When the team wins more, Ichiro performs better.
Ichiro ranks 6th in outfield assists among active right fielders.

Based on 2007's promise, Bavasi pulled out the stops to win in 2008 and traded for Erik Bedard.  You know the story.  It's not bad enough that Bedard was injured, everyone else underperformed too.  The team lost 101 games, clubhouse chemistry was poisonous, and Ichiro performed well-below his career stats.

2008       .310/.361/.386  43sb  103 runs 102 OPS+  3 teammates with OPS+  100 or greater

2008 is Ichiro's worst statistical year.

2009 was Jack Zdurencik's first as general manager and he put together a team that struggled to score runs, but remained competitive until August.  Again, despite the lack of good hitting, Ichiro seemed to respond to the glorious clubhouse environment, playing with Ken Griffey, Jr., and winning.

 2009     .352/.386/.465  26sb  88 runs 129 OPS+ 4 teammates with OPS+ 100 or better.

 Though 2009 is Ichiro's best year since 2004, it doesn't hide the fact that most of his teammates hit well below league average.  His 88 runs was the first season he didn't score at least 100.  Pitching and defense can only count for so much and at some point you have to cross the pay station

 Which brings us to 2010.  Built on might have beens and wishful thinking, the team crashed on take-off, losing 101 games again.  This might be the most frustrating season in the team's history.  Hitting was bad and the Mariners scored the fewest runs in the major leagues since 1972.  Ichiro's year, complicated by the signing of Chone Figgin,s was a disappointment.  Batting second, Figgins's style was so like Ichiro's and got off to such a slow start that the grounders he once legged out for base hits became double plays, 20 of 'em.  By far the most of Figgins' career.  It was like matter and anti-matter batting one behind the other.

 2010      .315/.359/.394  42sb  74 runs  113 OPS+ 1 teammate with OPS+ 100 or better.
 The teammate was Russell Branyan and his 205 at bats.

 What is a leadoff hitter to do?  What did the other hitters look like?  Chone Figgins 84, Jose Lopez 73, Milton Bradley 80, Franklin Guttierez 87.  And those are the good ones.

 Ichiro Suzuki, together with Felix Hernandez, are the most recognizable names on the Mariners.  Just as Hernandez showed with his Cy Young Award it's possible to be a great pitcher without great run support, Ichiro is a great leadoff hitter, even without the hitters behind him.  Though some years he is greater than others, mostly that's a result of the number of league average hitters that can drive him home. It's unfair to hold him accountable for the failure of his teammates.  His $18 million contract makes him an easy target for the whiners who expect him to morph into Albert Pujols or Josh Hamilton.  The M's didn't sign him to be either one of those. Unfortunately Ichiro was not made to be the straw that stirs the drink as Reggie Jackson once was.  Rather, he was intended to be the olive in the martini.  The more the burden of offense falls on Ichiro the less likely he can meet fan expectations. 

 Statistics from

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