June of 24: Another Paean to the Great Ichiro

Jeff · April 25, 2005 at 9:56 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

Watching baseball trends emerge is like seeing ripples in the desert. You want the ripples to herald an oasis, but you don’t want to emerge sandy-mouthed if it’s just another mirage.

I had this in mind when I saw that the New York Times has Bob Sherwin’s latest piece on Ichiro up now. [Use Bugmenot if you aren’t registered]

Well worth reading in its entirety, the section of most interest to me involves a batting stance adjustment Ichiro says he made last June.

But June 24 was the night of his breakthrough, he said. During batting practice, he experimented by moving his right foot – the front foot in his batting stance – a couple of inches away from the plate, opening his stance and spreading his legs four more inches apart. He said those minor changes allowed him to lower his bat angle slightly.

One must be careful when taking claims like this at face value, not because of any doubts about an athlete’s veracity, but because no one is truly objective when performing a self-evaluation. After all, Ichiro went one for seven on June 24, 2004, and just seven for his next 33.

But what if he’s right? What if he did figure it out on that night, and it stays figured out? What if, in the middle of a 99-loss Sahara, he hit sweet water, dates and maybe an olive tree that’s fueling a very real performance boost?

Giving immediate credence to the June 24 Hypothesis are the numbers from that day forward. In the 480 at bats he’s recorded since moving his front leg a few inches, Ichiro has 191 hits.

That’s a significant hunk of time — a little over two-thirds of an average season — at a .398 clip, folks.

Occasionally forgotten: Ichiro has historically been a slow starter. Scope out his month-by-month splits. Mariner fans given to wishful thinking — guilty — have pondered how great a season he might turn in with a torrid run to start this campaign.

Going into the 2005 season, Ichiro was a .270 hitter for April. His hot start to this year (.355 so far) has boosted that to a .288 average in the opening month, which is still his lowest rate for any month of the year.

Breaking down statistics by month is arbitrary, to be sure, and players labeled slow starters or late faders don’t always perform consistently in those ways. Ichiro hasn’t been stellar in September, either, for example. Additionally, all players are capable of an unpredictable, prolonged slump, and some of those players are even written off by an august persona such as David Locke.

We’re looking at a 300-plus at-bat April sample size, though, and while I can’t find Japan statistics broken down by month, he had a “heats up as the season goes along” reputation with the Orix Blue Wave as well. That lends credence to the notion that No. 51 usually takes a while to get going. And we have nearly 500 at-bats that say hey, maybe he has reached a new plateau.

What might have been last year had Ichiro improved on his .255 April 2004 average? We may be about to find out.


61 Responses to “June of 24: Another Paean to the Great Ichiro”

  1. change on April 26th, 2005 4:23 pm

    The scary thing is old Teddy hit .400 before the rule modification for sacrifice flies. Of course I don’t have a source for that I can readily link you to so I could be wrong, but I hear by the modern rules he hit more like .416.

  2. Marty Lighthizer on April 26th, 2005 4:24 pm

    Agreed. Tone is important in these forums, otherwise the discussions can degenerate into an uppercase SHOUTING MATCH!!! Any post that advises readers to both “shut up” and “deal with it” should be suspect, and I don’t think you overreacted…

  3. change on April 26th, 2005 4:25 pm

    Roger that, Dave. Sorry to cause trouble.

  4. Mycroft on April 26th, 2005 5:25 pm

    Digging back into a former life, I thought I’d do a quick calculation to estimate how much the number of ABs impacted the likelihood of hitting .400 due to random fluctuations around a players “true average”. For a “true” .390 hitter, the standard deviation (the “plus or minus”)comes to:

    AB Std Dev Prob hitting .400
    500 .022 .18
    700 .018 .14
    900 .016 .11

    The probability estimate is based on all of the standard independent, identical trial assumptions, so take it for what you will.

    So, it seems to me that unless we’re talking about a lot of walks, the impact isn’t that great.

    BTW, thanks to Paul Covert for recommending the articles about pitchers and balls-in-play.

  5. sidereal on April 26th, 2005 5:33 pm

    “I recall in a college stats class years ago that a sample of somewhere around 300 gave a good approximation of an infinite sample size.”

    Yeah, but it doesn’t really map to ABs. The section of my brain that college stats occupied now has only cobwebs, but I think n = X being functionally infinite for small values of X (and it’s actually 30, not 300) relates to something else. . possibly number of samples drawn from the population.

    Anyway, as an empirical test and to prove I’m not misremembering my James, I wrote some code that basically rolls a die with a 30% chance of hitting (a .300 hitter) 500 times to simulate a 500 AB season. I’m not cherrypicking results. . these are the first 10 seasons I got:

    1: 0.292
    2: 0.314
    3: 0.32
    4: 0.318
    5: 0.35
    6: 0.286
    7: 0.316
    8: 0.306
    9: 0.322
    10: 0.326

    Oddly mostly on the high side, but it got anywhere from 0.286 to 0.350 on a .300 hitter. I’m out of time, but I’m sure that if I rolled it with 400 or 300 ABs, the smaller I got the more variation I’d see, and I’d get .400 seasons.

    Obviously hitters aren’t rolling dice, but most of sabermetrics assumes that they can more or less be treated like it over large spans of time.

  6. sidereal on April 26th, 2005 5:58 pm

    Mycroft, are you sure that’s right? I’m using a binomial distribution applet I found online, and I’m getting around 28% for a .390 hitter at 900, up to around 35% for 500. Regardless, you’re right. Knocking a few hundred at bats off with walks only adds a handful of percentage points to the chance of success. Significant, but not enough to change your batting approach over.

  7. JK on April 26th, 2005 6:02 pm

    I will concede the point that a lower sample size increases Ichiro’s chance of hitting .400. If he is a “true” .380 hitter or .360 hitter, then the smaller the sample size the more likely he will hit .400. However, I do not agree that walking more will reduce his sample size without lowering his average. I will still contend that the more agressive a hitter is (within reason) the higher average he will hit for. Yes, the best hitters walk a lot, but that is because A)They are great hitters and are waiting for a pitch to drive and B)Pitchers don’t want to pitch to them. This doesn’t apply to Ichiro because A)He doesn’t try to drive anything and B)Since he is a singles hitter, pitchers have no incentive to walk him (unless runners are in scoring position). I would guess that if Ted Williams had been more aggressive and walked less, he would have had an even higher average. I don’t have any way to prove this, but if anyone has any statistics to support or refute this idea please share.

  8. Mycroft on April 26th, 2005 6:34 pm

    Sidereal, you’re right and I’m wrong. Sorry about that. I calculated a different way and got answers much closer to yours, which make more sense, anyway.

    (I’ll now slink off to the bench)

  9. sidereal on April 26th, 2005 7:53 pm

    Hey, don’t slink on my account. I’m just a schmuck with a calculator. It took me 20 minutes to remember that ‘binomial distribution’ was what I had to google for.

  10. babious on April 26th, 2005 11:13 pm

    d. locke is swell but he needs to stick w/ basketball…leave the diamond to groz and gas.


  11. Bela Txadux on April 27th, 2005 12:54 am

    In his second spring training with the Ms, Ichiro said in an interview that, deliberately, he took it slow for the first month ‘so as to stay fresh for the end of the year. It sounds bad for the team to say that, but it’s best in the long run.’ [That’s a paraphrase, but an accurate one, as I don’t remember the exact words.] In other words, since so much of his game depends upon his legs, and since he does wear down (which we’ve seen regularly in September), he saves his legs in April as much as he can so as to have a little push left in case his team is in the playoffs. He’s never repeated the quote, but it is obvious that this is _exactly_ what he does. He certainly _could_ wail on the ball for .350 or better in April, but he only does this if he has an explicit reason. His first year here, he did: to prove who he was at to carry the load for his country; that’s the only year that Ichiro hit like blazes from Game One.

    —Until this year. Hmmm. He’s _up_ to something. I’ve thought for years that Ichiro’s personal goal each year was, at the barest minimum, to have 200 hits. Everything in his game is geared to getting his _hit_ total up; stance, swing, use of the strike zone, movement out of the box, etc., etc. He could hit 20 HRs a year, and given his quick hands, willingness to wait on a pitch, and strike zone judgment, I personally have no doubt that Ichiro could walk 100 times every year. If he wanted to. . . . But that would impact his ‘hit machine’ approach. So he swings down on the ball, hits it on the ground, and runs, while keeping his hit totals and ABs sky high. What he really is is a GOAL machine, but fascinating to watch in his committment to his objective, whatever that is; an incredibly disciplined professional. That’s what I think about him before ever I think about what his batting average is at any given time.

    I’m quite certain also that Ichiro intended to break Sisler’s hit record at some point. It didn’t look like that was the goal last year, but after the ’04 season was officially in the tank in July it seemed like he decided to show the fans something and to give the organization something back in consequence of the show. It all just snowballed, and when he got up to 230 hits or so it was clear he could get the record if he stayed patient and avoided any slump. So that’s what he did.

    —So now Ichiro needs a new ‘maximum goal.’ What is it?? Only two records worth having could come to him, seems to me (since as someone who doesn’t walk and does not seem to especially value OBP per se the record for OBP isn’t in play): hitting .400, or breaking the _major league_ record for runs scored. Team records are bush for a guy like this: best ever or bust, that’s Ichiro. I believe in Ichiro’s abilities, but I find it hard to see that he can hit .400 over his 650+ AB seasons; if anybody could, it’s him, but that would be so unbelievably hard to sustain it’s difficult to see. But one thing that would be necessary in that regard, yes absolutely, is _not_ taking April off, but raking flat out from Game One. Is he going for it??? Of course, he’d never say so. But let’s see what his numbers are 31 May: May is one of his very best months. If he’s sitting at about .420 then, then I think that’s his objective.

    Personally, I’d rather seem him break the record for runs scored, but either way THIS is a good year for Ichiro to have his best season ever. His game is dependent upon his legs, and those tend to go first above the age of 30, especially for someone who runs so hard so much of the time, as he does. The team is better this year, but isn’t going to do anything in post-season, and is highly unlikely to get there at all, so Ichiro has no obligation to the team to keep a little in the tank for October. If Ichiro has a ‘greatest season in him,’ there is no better time to reach for it than now. I’ll just bet he’s after the north star, so let’s enjoy his race with destiny along with him. Go, man, go, up the walls of the sky!!!!!