Position Roundtables: Right Field
Starting Rightfielder: Ichiro!
Context is a tricky thing. By pretty much every standard, Ichiro had a “down year” in 2005. His average dropped 69 points, and he posted the lowest BA, OBP, and OPS of his U.S. career. His .786 OPS was basically the same as Raul Ibanez’s, and we’re all upset that the M’s are giving Ibanez a contract extension. A cursory look at Ichiro’s numbers reveal a pretty mediocre season.
But, as usual, cursory looks at statistics can be misleading. During his down year of 2005, Ichiro was still one of the five best rightfielders in the game. Seriously.
He posted a .289 EqA, which ranks him 7th out of 25 right fielders who made at least 250 outs (basically, guys who play regularly). On a per at-bat basis, the only RFs who were more productive hitters were Vlad, Giles, Sheffield, Abreu, Jenkins, and Emil Brown (?!?).
EqA underrates Ichiro a bit, however, because he’s more durable than most players and stays in the line-up all the time. When you go to a counting statistic to incorporate playing time, such as runs above replacement, Ichiro moves up to 5th, passing Jenkins and Brown. He wasn’t in the offensive class of the Big Four, but he wasn’t leaps and bounds behind, either. Sheffield and Abreu were both worth about 10 runs more offensively than Ichiro, Sheffield about 20, and Vlad about 25.
Now, defense. Ichiro’s clearly the best defensive player of the group, even if he may not be quite as good as he was a few years ago. Sheffield is a legitimately horrible defender. Guerrero’s a little below average. Giles and Abreu are about average. Ichiro’s glove was worth at least 10-15 runs more than Sheffields. He’s probably 5-10 runs better than the other three.
Guess what? He basically catches Sheffield and Abreu in overall value. He’s still clearly behind Vlad and Giles, but the gap isn’t astronomical. He’s just not the best right fielder in the game. No big deal.
However, here’s the point no one seems to remember; he’s clearly in the top 5, and probably in the top 3. He was something like the 3rd-5th best right fielder in baseball in his worst season since coming over from Japan.
Yes, he only hit .300, he doesn’t walk a lot, and he lacks power. But he’s still every bit the star that Gary Sheffield or Bobby Abreu is. He’s a legitimately great player. Remember that the next time a national columnist tells you his sub-800 OPS makes him a liability.
It always amazes me that the same people who advocate looking for new
ways to solve problems and unconventional thinking like to tee off on
Ichiro because he’s not a prototypical right fielder. So what? It’s also
interesting that people seem to focus on what Ichiro doesn’t quite do:
he steals over 30 bases a year, but he needs to be more aggressive. He
hits for a high average, but he’d be better/worse if he went for more
power/took more pitches/whatever.
You touch on one of the most important things Ichiro offers that doesn’t
get enough credit: he plays and plays and plays. Maybe too much, but
having Ichiro means that every game a part of the problem’s pre-solved:
in right field, you have one of the best players in the game. Now work
out the rest of the lineup.
One of the reasons I’m optimistic is that we’ve seen Ichiro toy with the
power swing when he feels it’s appropriate. It clearly requires him to
take a different approach (he looks much more coiled) and he doesn’t
break it out that often, but I think that Ichiro’s well-equipped to
adapt to the effects of aging. The downside is that if being more
selective really does mess him up, then his aging path is going to be
really strange: where most players gain power and patience while their
average drops, if not swinging isn’t an option for him and he stops
being able to beat out infield hits, that’s a tough decline.
Fortunately, that’s not going to happen next year. Also, he could
switch-hit if he really wanted. I like mentioning that.
I won’t even bring up whether he’ll play a lot better on an improved and
more competitive team. If it happens, great.
While there are some excellent reasons to stay away from the park this
year, there are a couple – Felix, Johjima, Soriano, the development of
Lopez and Betancourt, for starters – but he’ll do something over the
course of the year that makes it all worthwhile.
On another note, why is Ibanez the annoited face of the team? Is it
because he’s more gregarious, has a family that photographs well (and
who he’ll let be photographed), and has a nice litttle storyline? Maybe
it’s me, but I recognize that even as there are different Ichiros:
– the private hermit
– the effortlessly competent and solemn star player
and that makes it hard to market, Ichiro is amazing, I have seen Ichiro
make plays I think back on and still send the tingles down my back. He
holds the single-season hits record. He’s so cool I had to put on a
parka just to write this and my hands are still getting numb. What’s
Ibanez ever done that’s made people stand up and applaud until their
hands hurt? If anyone on this team is an heir to the quiet dedication
and contributions of Edgar, it’s Ichiro.
Anyway, here’s my cool thing of the day: it’s the Ichiro outcome-o-matic.
This is what happens when his at-bat ends on that count. Note that he can only walk on a 3-x count, and sometimes he sacrifices (argh) which explains the OBP thing.